As the American University of Sharjah (AUS) pursues its goal of being the region’s leading research institution in the next five years, Chancellor Björn Kjerfve reveals some major developments that AUS will bring about in the field of education. He tells Arabian Business about the plans to create the UAE’s version of the Silicon Valley and establish interdisciplinary PhD programmes to propel the university – and the nation’s youth – into the future.
How do you manage to attract such a diverse student population?
We like to think it is the quality of the institution in terms of education, teaching, and research. Also, the fact that we are merit-based and provide an American-style education in the Middle East makes us pretty unique in the region.
There are other American universities in the UAE. So how are you different to these other institutions?
We are very different to the others because we are a not-for-profit institution. If we ever have profit, it goes into building our endowment to support students to study with us. We give well over AED100m per year in scholarships and aid and so on.
We are not a for-profit institution. If we ever have profit, it goes into building our endowment to support students to study with us
Some 27 non-profit American universities around the globe are part of the Association of American International Colleges & Universities (AAICU), and the American University of Sharjah is the only one in the UAE.
You put great emphasis on tolerance, diversity and respect. Is there a particular way in which you approach this goal?
What we do is consider everybody to be equal. We are very transparent and straightforward in this regard.
You describe the campus as being unique. How so?
Well, I am biased but I think it is the most beautiful campus in the region (127 hectares), and it was built with a love for education. It has a lovely Arabic feel and is well laid out with lots of fountains and greenery, as well as grass playing fields.
What constraints are there to providing an American-style education?
Language is obviously one constraint. Although the UAE is a country where English is really the second language, the quality of English is highly variable. What we drill into our students is that they need to be very good at understanding, speaking and writing. There are also many cultural differences between an American-style institution and the Emirati culture. We show respect and mutual understanding, where we understand the Emirati culture and we help students understand the global business and academic culture, which may be slightly different.
You said research is important in AUS. What areas do you specialise in?
A university doesn’t just teach students. The other equally important activity is creating knowledge through research and scholarship. We are buying into that ideal in a big way and there are very few institutions in this part of the world that do that.
We want students to be able to participate in cutting-edge, globally important research
In terms of our strategic planning there are two main areas of emphasis. One is that we want to be an absolutely outstanding institution in which you can get a liberal arts education. The other part is that we want students to be able to participate in cutting-edge, globally important research. We are focussing on this in four separate areas – bio-science and bio-engineering, materials science and engineering, smart cities (AI, IoT), and the environment, especially the marine environment. We are in the process of establishing interdisciplinary PhD programmes in each one of those four areas. We are also establishing three research centres, which are support centres for the campus as a whole. One is a high-performance computer centre; another one is a geospatial analysis centre and a genomics sequencing research centre, collaborating with BGI of Shenzhen, China.
Is engineering an important focus?
Of our 5,300 students on campus, 47 percent are studying engineering subjects. But what’s amazing is that those engineering students also take at least 42 credit hours of liberal arts. We are creating students who are smart in their majors, but have a strong foundation in the liberal arts.
When you pursue your goal of being the region’s leading research institution in the coming years, what does success in that regard look like?
There are a number of measures. Firstly, these institutes and centres I just spoke of will have matured and will draw talent in terms of students that will come here to study. They will have scholarships associated with them, which will attract top talent in terms of scientists and engineers. The other component is that next to the university we are creating the Sharjah Research Technology Innovation Park, which is our version of Silicon Valley. Over the next five to ten years we hope to attract hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of R&D-type companies that will want to set up shop here because they can make money in the market but need interaction with the AUS research facilities. So we are looking for the synergy between industrial and commercial types of R&D.
And more generally, our reputation will really come from the impact of our alumni. When they graduate, they go out to the market and when you ask CEOs and HR departments around the country and region, you will find generally that the alumni of AUS is by far the best.
How do academic institutions forge stronger links with businesses?
Clearly we have a long way to go in the sense that the country is only 47 years old, and AUS was only established 21 years ago. We have already been through a remarkable transformation. Our strategic plan aims for us to be the best research university in the region in the next five years, which requires money to buy the right equipment and invest in hiring the best minds. Fortunately we have a commitment from HH Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, of $500m over five years to invest in this transformation from a teaching university to a full-fledged comprehensive PhD granting research university.
Our strategic plan aims for us to be the best research university in the region in the next five years
Also, one of our centres is a joint effort between BGI, which is one of the world’s largest economic institutes in China. On top of that, we are expecting every one of our PhD students in the science and engineering areas to spend their third year abroad so that they can build their network in another institution.
How will the new visa laws for graduates, which are intended to help talent stay in the country, help AUS?
I think the new, extended student visas are important, especially for international students that who come here from abroad to join us. When those students graduate, they have a chance to continue doing their research, working in one of these commercial research forums in the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park adjacent to American University of Sharjah. I think it will be a very strong drawing card.
What is the UAE good at as a whole when it comes to higher education and where is it still lacking?
That’s a tough question. I applaud the UAE for recognising that education is really important. The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) has a very tough accreditation process that tells the parents and students which are the quality institutions to attend because they have achieved this accreditation. I look forward to seeing all 117 universities across the UAE undergo this rigorous accreditation process as only 76 of them are currently accredited. But the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education and the CAA will all help in strengthening the quality assurance process.
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