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UAE Must Invest in World-class University Faculty

Editorial, The National
August 17, 2014

High rates of turnover are relatively common for the UAE’s expatriate workforce, and generally the country has benefited from highly-skilled workers who apply their expertise for specific projects here and then move on. But in the UAE’s fledgling higher education field, this practice is proving to be one of the barriers to raising standards.

As The National reported yesterday, new research has identified that one of the biggest hurdles to maintaining a high standard of teaching and research in private and federal universities is “major professional instability”. This goes beyond the usual high turnover rate associated with expatriate professionals and is attributed in part to the succession of short-term contracts of only one or two years provided to most of the foreign academics who make up the vast majority of university faculties.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Higher Education Policy, also found that academic achievement was rarely the main motive for those taking university-level jobs in the UAE. Far more cited personal reasons for moving here rather than aims to fill regional research gaps, inspiring students or building the nation.

While it is important to keep in mind that one study based on 30 academics at five UAE universities does not necessarily show the full picture, it indicates the need for more academic staff dedicated to doing meaningful work – either through teaching or research – over the long term.

In most of the developed world, university faculty tend to stay with one institution for most of their career and are granted tenure, giving them the stability to pursue their work. Although the UAE’s short-term contracts are usually renewed, that uncertainty acts against attracting the best and brightest academics.

If the UAE is to make its universities centres of excellence, it must attract the best people. This not only improves the quality of the research but can also inspire students – top academics usually have a coterie of talented graduate students who will follow them. And behind them will come bright, ambitious undergraduates.

To get the best people, the UAE must offer the best opportunity for research, including unfettered access to equipment, material and time. Some academics will inevitably move on but perhaps joint ventures with their new institutions can mean the UAE continues to benefit. For a country that aspires to be a knowledge economy, it’s an investment in the UAE’s future.