UAE Universities Are Under Threat from Job Insecurity, Research Suggests
Melanie Swan, The National
August 13, 2014
Short-term contracts for university staff are causing job insecurity and “major professional instability” in higher education, newly published research suggests.
Foreign staff make up the vast majority of teachers at federal and semi-private institutions, with many hired on contracts of only one or two years, although they are regularly renewed.
“The high percentage of academic staff who are expatriates in the UAE is, we believe, unique in the world,” said Dr. David Chapman, professor of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota, who led the research along with a team from the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.
“Since there is ample international literature arguing that an important factor in higher education quality is the identification and commitment of academic staff with their institution, having a high percentage of academic staff on short-term contracts raises interesting questions about how universities can build identification and commitment with this particular population of instructors.”
In spite of the lack of stability felt by academics interviewed as part of the research, Dr. Chapman said he was impressed by their dedication to their institutions and students.
“We were impressed by the high level of commitment to quality teaching expressed by many of the instructors. While many may see themselves as short-term residents, they appear to be working hard to offer quality instruction.
“It would be interesting to conduct further research to examine the impact of the high reliance on expatriates on short-term contracts on student outcomes.”
For the study, researchers interviewed 30 academics teaching at five universities. The results were published in Higher Education Policy, an international peer-reviewed journal.
The team found a variety of reasons given by teaching staff for coming to the UAE. The most common were classed as “root seekers,” or those who wanted to live closer to family in the region, followed by “redemption seekers,” defined as people who had “encountered difficulties in their previous position or in their personal lives.”
“Comfort seekers” were the next largest group, made up primarily of staff “in mixed-race or cross-ethnic marriages who found the multiethnic character of the UAE to be a more comfortable setting in which to live and raise a family.”
The team found “nation builders,” comprising Emiratis exclusively, was the smallest group.
Dr. Natasha Ridge, head of research at the foundation, said longer contracts and investment in the continuing professional development of staff were of key importance.
“There’s very little professional development going on in general in education and an important thing, even without longer-term contracts, would be funding for research to attend conferences, academic writing workshops and so on, so faculty have access to academics outside the UAE.”
Dr. Chapman said there were several solutions to reducing the feeling of insecurity among teaching staff. “Probably the most straightforward way . . . is to offer longer contracts and longer residency permits. A number of instructional staff on short-term contracts have, in fact, been repeatedly re-hired on a continuing basis. There may be more stability than might be suggested by just saying that they are on two-year contracts. Nonetheless, over time, the UAE may wish to build a more Emirati-based instructional staff.
Dr. Chapman said this was unlikely to happen in the short term because UAE nationals had many attractive career options open to them and universities would have to compete with organisations that had greater resources and could pay higher salaries.
Samar Farah, a researcher on the project, said she was surprised at how similar the experiences of the academics in the institutions studied were, both private and federal.
The biggest challenges were “the balance of attracting and retaining high-quality faculty while developing research-based higher education institutions”.
“These two factors are intertwined. It is challenge to both attract and retain faculty if they do not have sufficient job security, opportunities for research and professional development, and feel invested in the institution and academic community.
“It is evident from the research that many of the expatriate faculty working in the UAE’s institutions come from different educational backgrounds and are attracted to these positions by factors unrelated to work.
“This can be a challenge for the institutions because it is difficult to establish a shared vision surrounding teaching quality, expectations and engagement.
“Ultimately, all of these factors influence the quality of the education received by the students attending these institutions.
“If employees feel engaged or included in decision-making processes, they are more likely to feel secure and committed to the institution and its success.”