Universities in the GCC are working with pupils and teachers to promote the study of science, technology, engineering and maths to fit the local job market
The need for economic diversity has been highlighted in recent months as the effects of the low oil price permeate through oil-exporting nations. In mid-February, US ratings agency Standard & Poors (S&P) downgraded the credit ratings of Bahrain and Oman, and although Saudi Arabia retained its AA-/A-1+ rating, the kingdoms outlook was revised to negative based on S&Ps assumption that oil prices would average $55 a barrel in 2015.
Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that universities and governments are working hard to encourage students on to courses that will enable future economic diversification.
Growth in the region will require new knowledge and skills to support sustainable economic development, says Kevin Mitchell, interim provost at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) in the UAE. There is still a challenge attracting students to non-traditional fields. For example, there will certainly be an increased demand for individuals with expertise in areas such as environmental sciences, industrial engineering, international relations, mathematics and actuarial sciences, finance and economics.
Every year, says Mitchell, the AUS student recruitment team meets with thousands of senior high school pupils in the UAE and overseas to give them information about regional demand for jobs, employment opportunities and trends. In addition, the university is in its fourth year of an initiative called Sharakah, which sees it partner with leading UAE high schools.
One of the objectives of this initiative is to support and train high school teachers and administrative staff on how to prepare their students for challenging college experiences, says Mitchell. We also work together to inform students and parents of the importance of selecting appropriate majors for their university studies. Enrolment numbers show that our efforts have been successful. However, we believe there is still more to achieve in the near future.
Other universities also report strong links with schools. Texas A&M University in Qatar, for example, works with local schools, teachers and students through enrichment programmes designed to ensure entrants have the maths and science skills needed to undertake engineering courses at university level.
We are working with schools to put young Qataris on educational pathways for science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM], says Hamid Parsaei, director for academic outreach at the university. Those are the disciplines that will lead Qatars knowledge-based economy, and we are eager to stimulate interest and learning in those areas.
Corporate scholarships are common, particularly from state-owned firms such as Aramco
Through a series of one-day programmes called Young Engineers and Scientists, bilingual faculty and technical staff undertake hands-on activities with students, such as building towers or bridges to teach principles of science, engineering and design. The students have fun while learning about science and engineering from the perspective of ordinary, everyday design challenges, says Parsaei.
For mid-level students in grades seven to nine, the university hosts a three-day Engineering Explorers programme, which covers more advanced topics and includes a mix of lectures and activities. They work in teams and compete on projects that demonstrate their understanding of how to apply science towards solving engineering problems, says Parsaei.
The Future Engineers programme for students in grades 10 and 11 is more detailed. Originally run over five days, it has recently been extended to eight. The initiative comprises sophisticated design activities because the students are more mature and can absorb more material to learn about what it takes to become an engineer, says Parsaei.
Supplementary to these outreach schemes, the university also works with maths, science and technology teachers to ensure they are aware of the best teaching methods for engineering principles.
We created a competition to identify and award Qatars STEM educator of the year, says Parsaei. We asked schools to nominate their best maths and science teachers, and the inaugural winner was supported to attend the American Society for Engineering Education conference in Indianapolis in the US in June 2014. The 2015 winner will be named in April.
Looking ahead, the university is launching a new academic journal to publish and promote research on engineering education, and it plans to increase student numbers in its workshops. It is also launching a two-week Summer Engineering Academy for 20 students entering 12th grade to work with faculty members on active research programmes in five key areas: renewable power; environment and water; gas processing; cyber security; and control informatics.
This programme is designed to engage bright young Qataris in hands-on research with faculty members, says Parsaei. All of the research areas are directly related to Qatars development goals and strategic priorities, and the brightest young people can get an early start on their engineering education by participating in research towards addressing Qatars grand challenges for engineering.
Medicine is another key area where GCC states want to grow their skills base. Weill Cornell Medical College Qatar (WCMC-Q) has an active outreach programme to encourage young Qataris into a medical career. More than 300 students a year apply for their summer and winter enrichment programmes known as the Qatar Medical Explorer Programme and the Precollege Enrichment Programme.
These programmes provide students with the opportunity to attend pre-medical and medical classes, get hands-on experience in the labs and prepare for college admission, says Noha Saleh, director of student recruitment and outreach at WCMC-Q.
The university also has a scholarship competition aimed at local high school students. Launched in 2008, the Doctor of the Future scholarship now awards four places every year.
Like AUS and Texas A&M, WCMC-Q works closely with local schools to support both teachers and students. Its one-year Adopt a School programme currently sees it partner with five schools to provide curriculum support, teacher training, and workshops to students seen as having high potential. As part of the programme, faculty members serve on school boards, attend meetings with schools and teachers, and offer talks to students to motivate them to pursue medicine, says Saleh.
Alongside this, the student recruitment and outreach team visits an average of 40 schools a year and hosts between 16 and 20 open days on the campus. Regionally, the office visits another 30 schools in Abu Dhabi, Al-Ain, Amman, Bahrain, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Oman and Sharjah. At the same time, the university hosts a community outreach event where visitors can take part in interactive demonstrations using models and simulations to describe key scientific principles and present anatomical features of structures such as the heart, eyes and skeleton. Between 400 and 600 people attend the event every year.
The latest initiative from WCMC-Q is the Qatar Aspiring Doctors Programme, which began this year and is designed to prepare students for the requirements of pre-medical or foundation courses. Twenty-three students are currently enrolled in this pilot programme, which offers module-based online courses to improve the students performance mainly in biology, chemistry, English and research skills, says Saleh. The programme also provides hands-on science activities, e-library access and support from our faculty and staff.
That so much is happening in terms of outreach is commendable, but perhaps not surprising given the competitive nature of the education market in a region where bright students often go overseas to study. Saudi Arabia in particular is estimated to have sent more than 150,000 students to international universities under the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), which allows study in fields critical to future growth in the kingdom, such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering and computing.
By far the most popular destination for Saudi students is the US, which, during the 2013/14 academic year had 53,919 students in residence. Half were on undergraduate programmes and 21 per cent on postgraduate courses. The other 29 per cent were undertaking other non-degree courses. Overall, there are more than 100,000 Saudi students in the US at the moment, including those not on the scholarship programme.
This number has soared since the KASP programme was introduced in 2005 with the aim of sending 15,000 students overseas for higher study. The programme is now on its 11th wave, which will see 10,467 more students travel abroad to learn.
Corporate scholarships are common too, particularly from state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramcoand Qatar Petroleum (QP). In December, QP hosted a ceremony for 140 Qatari students who had completed masters degrees, bachelors degrees and other technical courses.
QP attaches a great deal of importance to developing and attracting Qatari youth, and seeks through its strategic plans for education in prestigious universities, higher institutes and specialised training centres in Qatar and abroad to empower and employ a well-qualified and competent Qatari cadre of both genders in various disciplines, particularly in the oil and gas sector, said Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, president and CEO of QP, at the ceremony.
For young people, then, there is no shortage of opportunities and support for further education, particularly when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects. The use of academic bridge programmes designed to get local students up to the required competence levels in core subjects is also becoming more common.
It seems that universities are working hard to attract local students to their courses and are reporting increasing numbers of participants in their summer workshops, open days and other schemes. Partnerships with schools are increasing too, strengthening teaching capability in STEM subjects while also creating familiarity and interest among students. These, coupled with corporate support for degree programmes and other scholarships, mean the regions brightest students are being given more opportunities than ever to take up the subjects that GCC states need if they are to achieve true economic diversity in the future.
|Top Arab universities, 2014-15*|
|1||King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals||Saudi Arabia|
|2||American University of Beirut||Lebanon|
|3||King Saud University||Saudi Arabia|
|4||American University in Cairo||Egypt|
|5||King Abdulaziz University||Saudi Arabia|
|7||American University of Sharjah||UAE|
|8||University of Jordan||Jordan|
|10||Jordan University of Science and Technology||Jordan|
|12||Universite Saint-Joseph De Beyrouth||Lebanon|
|13||Ain Shams University||Egypt|
|14||Lebanese American University||Lebanon|
|15||University of Sharjah||UAE|
|17||American University in Dubai||UAE|
|18||King Faisal University||Saudi Arabia|
|19||Umm al-Qura University||Saudi Arabia|
|21||Sultan Qaboos University||Oman|
|22||King Khalid University||Saudi Arabia|
|24||University of Balamand||Lebanon|
|25||Abu Dhabi University||UAE|
|26||University of Baghdad||Iraq|
|28||Al-Imam Mohamed Ibn Saud Islamic University||Saudi Arabia|
|30||Arabian Gulf University||Bahrain|
|32||Higher Colleges of Technology||UAE|
|35||Beirut Arab University||Lebanon|
|36||University of Mosul||Iraq|
|37=||University of Babylon||Iraq|
|39||University of Khartoum||Sudan|
|40||Universite De Tunis el-Manar||Tunisia|
|42||Alfaisal University||Saudi Arabia|
|43||Prince Sultan University||Saudi Arabia|
|46||University of Dubai||UAE|
|47||Ajman University of Science & Technology||UAE|
|48||University of Bahrain||Bahrain|
|50||Princess Sumaya University for Technology||Jordan|
|*=According to QS Quacquarelli Symonds. Source: QS Quacquarelli Symonds|
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