Mad science

Governments in the region have taken a strong stance on sustainability, but without demand from the private sector, would universities be crazy to offer environmental science?
Mad science
By Fida Slayman
Wed 08 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

Governments in the region have taken a strong stance on sustainability, but without demand from the private sector, would universities be crazy to offer environmental science?

As the push for environmental awareness gains pace in schools across the UAE, universities in the country are beginning to respond to the need for qualified experts in sustainable practices.

Across the country, some universities have now responded to the environmental imperative by integrating it within their programmes, yet the majority of environmentally-focused programmes on offer are postgraduate degrees, mainly serving to provide expertise to the construction and real estate industries.

I’ve noticed a growth in the job possibilities. I do not know of a single student who did not get a job once they finished.

Warren Fox, executive director of higher education at Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), says there has been "a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interest across the campuses in Dubai, but we have not yet come across any specific institution or campus where that is their primary programme."

Fox hopes that students "will seek out those programmes that at least have a component on environmental awareness and sustainability" and predicts the "incorporation of these types of issues into the existing curriculum."

Heriot-Watt University in Dubai is one such institution integrating sustainability into its degrees. Dr Essem Al Haj, head of the School of Built Environment at Heriot-Watt, says that the issue of sustainability features in all the university's courses.

"We look at the impact of sustainability on real estate in Dubai and the UAE; we talk about it in project management. We are doing five or six dissertations focusing specifically on sustainability, from issues relating to waste management, to the relation between design and sustainability."

The university is planning to offer a whole master's programme in environmental sustainability, says Al Haj, and the subject will be more fully integrated into existing programmes in the future.

The British University in Dubai, meanwhile, runs masters degrees in Sustainable Design for the Built Environment, a course which integrates architecture and engineering principles to provide sustainable design solutions.

In conjunction with the Emirates Green Building Council, the university also offers LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) workshops for construction industry professionals.

Other industry-specific programmes, however, have not completely ignored the environment. Zayed University offers a major in environmental health as part of its health sciences programme, while Middlesex University Dubai incorporates alternative tourism and sustainability into its bachelor of tourism degree.

But, according to Dr Sandra Knuteson, assistant professor of environmental science at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), programmes which incorporate, rather than focus on the environment in their curricula, don't give a balanced picture of what sustainability is about.

"You can learn about the environment in biology, in construction, but you don't really learn the management, you don't learn the human impact of it."

AUS's bachelor of environmental science degree - the only undergraduate programme of its type in the UAE, focuses on science, turning out graduates who have a global understanding of the problems they're trying to solve.

If an architect designs a green building to protect the ecosystem, she continues, "they have to understand what the ecosystem is, otherwise they're not protecting it with the appropriate measures." Likewise, if professionals read environmental reports relating to their field and don't understand the science, then "they're going to be lacking something."

AUS's programme puts priority on "teaching the science," Knuteson says. "We give students some experience with management ideas, with environmental policy, but environmental issues aren't just construction. It's a hot topic in Dubai, but it's not the only important issue there."

The programme at AUS looks at international environmental concerns, and puts them in a local context. "We have sewage treatment classes, where students go out to waste treatment areas, classes about ecology, desertification, and the marine ecosystem. The examples we have in class are very diverse."

Yet the undergraduate programme, she says regretfully, is undersubscribed. School leavers don't usually consider environmental science as a path to a well-paid career, and parents are much more likely to push their children towards more "respectable" degrees such as engineering or architecture.

But lack of interest in the programme does not reflect the job opportunities available to its graduates. "I've noticed a growth in the job possibilities," Knuteson says, referring particularly to Emiratis.

"I do not know of a single student who did not get a job once they finished. Just this summer, we had one Emirati graduate, and Nakheel and Dubal were fighting over her, so she was going between them and trying to figure out which one would give her the best opportunities."The government sector has prioritised sustainability much more than private industry, she continues. "At the government level they've realised the importance of the environment, but industry hasn't done so as quickly."

When companies across all vertical sectors start to put priority on the environment, the job market, and the demand for AUS's programme, will grow.

The experience of UAE University (UAEU), which offers a postgraduate degree in environmental science, has been markedly different.

There are skills shortages in all technical disciplines, including environmental sustainability.

"We always have a problem with the number of applicants;" says Dr Tarek Youssef, director of the environmental sciences masters programme, "they are always higher than the amount we can admit."

Since its establishment in 1991, enrolment in the programme has grown from 15 students to more than 280, half of which are expatriates.

Student of the postgraduate programme already have jobs in their preferred fields, and can clearly see the benefits that environmental qualifications will bring to their careers.

Its students come from all over the Gulf and Africa, where governments are increasingly becoming aware of the need for both sustainable policies, and the workforce to put them into action.

"Our students are in every single environmental agency in the country;" Youssef says, "in agriculture, in water, fisheries, you name it, our students are all over the place. I have students from engineering, medicine, science, every single discipline that's related to the environment."

The degree looks at issues such as desertification, global warming, rising sea levels and marine issues. "Students study this on both a local and international level," says Youssef.

Under a government directive, UAEU is planning to expand the number of graduate programmes on offer. These will be inter-disciplinary programmes with a strong environmental focus, he continues.

Like his fellow academics at the American University of Sharjah, Youssef laments the lack of job opportunities in the private sector. "The job market for private industries is not really growing," he says.

"I don't think the [environmental science] degree will help students in the private sector." But in the next five years, he adds, "the situation will be completely different."

Assisted by the examples set by a few companies in the private sector, the issue of environmental sustainability is slowly beginning to grow out of companies' corporate social responsibility policies, and into the most integral parts of their operational infrastructure.

Michael Nates, senior general manager for sustainability, health, safety and environment at Nakheel, says that graduates with an environmental science background are highly sought after.

The company has recently recruited more than 20 environmental graduates, all from local universities, into its trainee programme. These new recruits work in biological and water monitoring programmes, marine programmes, and environmental impact assessments, says Nates.

But attracting the right talent, he continues, is a challenge. "There are skills shortages in all technical disciplines, including environmental and sustainability. Competent and qualified staff with Gulf experience are particularly hard to find."

And demand for graduates with an environmental background, he says, is only set to grow, "especially as environmental and sustainability programmes and standards are supported by government and regulators." In time, sustainability could become as important a horizontal sector as marketing and IT.

But, says Dr Till Stoll, environmental officer of the Swiss Business Council and CEO of Green Destinations, it is not there quite yet.

The Swiss Business Council, a membership-based, non-profit organisation which assists companies and government in cultural and commercial associations with Switzerland, recently launched the Pool of Experts initiative in the UAE.

This database of experts from a range of fields, including, sustainability and environment, offers support to small and medium enterprises who wish to build up their international business relations.

To date, Stoll says, there have been few enquiries from the private sector regarding the environment. "In some projects, like in green buildings, there has been interest, but in all other technologies, like water treatment or solar panels, there's not been an overwhelming demand."

Vertical sectors such as transport or aviation "don't care" about sustainability, he continues, citing oil prices as their only concern. "Sustainability is still a fashion here, no one really knows what sustainability really is."

As long as industries remain solely money-driven, he adds, the issue of the environment will always take second place at best.

As governments in the region outline clear strategies and goals for green sustainability, industry will follow suit.Then, it will only be a matter of time before universities which would now be crazy to offer environmental science, would be crazy not to.

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