In less than half a century, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone through extraordinary change. Today, work progresses on world-class art and cultural venues in its capital of Abu Dhabi, while neighboring Dubai has gained renown as a millionaire’s playground. But older Emiratis can still remember when both cities were vast desert expanses, and can recall growing up in tents, eating simple meals cooked over hearths.

To meet the demands of such relentless change, the country’s leadership has promoted higher learning for its native population. Among the educational institutions that has been key to that effort is the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), which celebrates 25 years this month. Now the country’s largest institution of higher education, it is helmed by vice chancellor Dr. Tayeb Kamali, an intellectual brimming with ideas to innovate the learning process and to provide his students with cutting-edge content.

Having earned an engineering doctorate from George Washington University and an MBA and bachelor’s degrees in aeronautical and aircraft engineering, Kamali has worked to implement training, research and applied technology programs in the region. Additionally, he has been instrumental in HCT’s partnering with other institutions to boost local learning and research, including a center in Abu Dhabi with the Wharton school and sponsoring Arabic Knowledge at Wharton. The college head sat down with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton to chart the evolution of education in the UAE.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What has been the process and approach of building institutions of higher learning in the UAE? What has been the strategy?

Tayeb Kamali: The Higher Colleges of Technology, being the largest educational system today — we have nearly 20,000 students — was established in 1988. We are in our 25th academic year and have become the main source of graduates that are much needed in a young country like the United Arab Emirates. Clearly, we feel very proud of where the country is and where the education system is. That fact that we are over 40 years old as a country and our institution is 25 years old, and you look at all the development — economic development, the social development, the cultural development of the UAE — you can see that education played a major part from a very early stage.

Now there are, of course, two other public universities in the country, the first being United Arab Emirates University, which was established in the ’70s, and they currently have around 12,000 students. We also have Zayed University, which is the newest of the three. This clearly shows the emphasis that the country has put on education and all the resources that have been put into the development of the human mind. There’s no doubt that educating the people is a priority for the country.

We started with only 245 students in 1988 in four small campuses in two cities, and today we are in 17 campuses across the country in almost all the major cities. So you can see where we were and where we are in terms of how much we have grown. And not only have we grown in number, but also we have grown in the type of programs and disciplines we offer. Today, I’m pleased to say we have nearly 100 categories in different disciplines, whether it is engineering, management, IT, health sciences and others. So we are a complete university in that respect, because we have to be ready to meet the challenges that the job market requires from us. The country is growing so fast, and we have to grow fast in producing the graduates that will take on responsibilities in different areas.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So what are the needs that must be met to keep up with the development in the UAE?

Kamali: Traditionally, you think about the usual programs that every university starts with. They have general business studies and also engineering, but if you just take them as they are, they probably will not be adequate for here. The country is growing in some specific areas that are very important, and I’ll give you a couple of examples. One, you look at the cities that we are in, whether it is in Dubai, or Abu Dhabi, or Sharjah, you see a tremendous growth of population and infrastructure that will go along with it. So we need engineers to manage the large infrastructure we have, we need engineers to also manage specific areas of development, whether it is factories, whether it is mills, whether it is vital transportation areas — our airports are among the largest in the region — so there are a lot of different areas of expertise that’s needed. So the Higher Colleges is constantly trying to fill that market in terms of the skills that are required. You look at our public transportation systems, whether it is the metros, the transrail, the transbus, all of these things have given us a very distinct set of disciplines that a few years ago we were not even considering.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give an example of a field of study that you have today that you didn’t have previously?

Kamali: Transportation engineering is something we did not have. We did not have a lot of areas relating to the tourism and service industry. Ten years ago, we didn’t have these programs in place, now it’s very much needed and we offer them. If you look at the country’s plans for nuclear plants, we will need graduates in that field, so we have started to look at offering programs to graduate people for the jobs in that field. This is another area of study that we did not have before. As the Higher Colleges, we are constantly trying to match what we have with what is needed.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you stay abreast of what’s needed in different industries?

Kamali: Since the beginning we have had advisory committees from industry that tell us where things are going, what projects are coming in place, and they tell us the kind of programs that we should be offering, and what we should not be offering, because there won’t be jobs for them.

It’s been a trademark of the Higher Colleges in terms of the advisory committees that take a very serious role in every program. You take (the) aircraft engineering technology program, it has an advisory committee, for example, from airports, from airlines, from logistics, and from the aircraft manufacturers. And they tell us, ‘Look your graduates should have skill A, B, C, D,’ and that’s how we structure our programs. The same process is followed for mechanical engineering or business administration. When you take a program like business administration, they tell us, ‘Look when you teach, these are the new skills that we need, don’t give them traditional (material).’ The nice thing about our education system in the Higher Colleges is that we take them seriously and we proactively make the changes as necessary. We are not a traditional university. We are always on the go. We are always trying to monitor and update the kind of programs that we need.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are there any programs that you’ve phased out of your curriculum?

Kamali: We’ve had a few programs that were needed before and now there is less demand for them. We phase them out as required, because we do not want to offer graduates who don’t have jobs; there are enough requirements out there that can easily be filled. We should not be wasting our time in disciplines that we don’t need. For example, generic business programs are no longer offered.

The campus is very advanced in its educational process. The entire campus is wireless, and you see students checking in with faculty through laptops; you’ll find they’re checking their homework, their grades through their laptops; they’re downloading material.

We also emphasize several learning outcomes. The learning outcome is not just the outcome of the competence, it has requirements such as leadership qualities, it has technical competencies, it has linguistic competencies, it has global understanding, and it has liberal arts components. So our programs are much more comprehensive in the sense that they produce a graduate that has all these skills. Leadership qualities, for instance, is very important for a graduate. When he or she steps out the door they should know how to present their ideas in a confident manner. We want to produce graduates who are confident and ready to go from day one.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why is it important to build that expertise base especially within the Emirati population, which makes up your student body?

Kamali: We do have a shortage, no doubt, of Emiratis in a lot of areas. We want to have more Emirati nationals in the workforce. That’s a national objective. It’s also the commitment of the country to offer free education to every citizen. Every citizen has a seat in the K-12, at no cost, and has a seat in a university setting also at no cost and some of them even go abroad on a scholarship.

That’s why we are all nationals here. It’s not that we don’t think that a number of foreign students wouldn’t help. A mix of nationalities adds a great value to the learning process. But we are focusing on Emiratis for now, so that we can try to get as many as possible out and put all the resources behind them. We want to make sure that we help increase the percentage of nationals in the workforce.

But the graduate division it is not only for Emiratis, and it is not free, even for Emiratis. Everybody pays to join the graduate degree programs, and it is a whole mix of nationalities.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Many foreign education institutions are trying to build a presence in the Gulf. What do you think about these efforts and what benefits could they bring?

Kamali: I think for us, of course, it’s a great thing. Because when you think about the number of universities that are in different countries, we still don’t have that many compared to other regions. But I think what’s important is that the universities that do come here, that they understand all the challenges that are here. Because every university that is in the country, of course, helps its development, and helps secure educational opportunities not just for nationals, but also those who are residents of the UAE. When you think about our population today, it’s close to 8 million, so there is a lot of requirement for universities from all over the world to come and offer programs. You see already universities such as New York University and Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai has a host of universities in its Knowledge Village zone.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think these Gulf satellite campuses of these foreign universities are viable?

Kamali: If they come here with a proper plan, there’s no doubt they can be viable. You probably know the setup of (an) education system, requires a lot of hard work and planning. I don’t know of any cases where it hasn’t been viable. But I’m biased, I like to see more universities come and even if somebody tells me they’re not viable enough, I say the opposite. I think the first step is to be here and see what the job market requires, and develop a proper framework for their delivery. As an educationalist — if I can call myself that — I enjoy seeing names like Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai or New York University or Sorbonne or Michigan State, these are very important names in education that certainly will add value to the United Arab Emirates economic development and the skills the job market needs.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What have been some beneficial partnerships HCT has had with foreign institutions?

Kamali: An example is our partnership with three German universities. We recently found out in the last few years, as the country is growing, that we don’t have a program in logistics. When we say logistics, that itself has components: logistics management and logistics engineering. When we think of logistics engineering, then you have three categories, air, sea and land. So we have been in discussion for over a year now with these three universities that are in a consortium, and together, we will jointly offer a set of the most advanced logistics management and engineering (programs). So that’s just one project that we’re working on. There are other programs too, and we feel partnerships are very important in that respect.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the challenges of cultivating higher education here, either in that institutions have faced or that you’ve seen in your experience?

Kamali: The challenge for anyone who wants to set up an educational entity, whether it is a local or international, is that learning has changed. It’s no longer what you knew. The students of today are much more different than 10 years ago, and I only say 10 years ago, because a lot has changed in the last five years. The challenge will always be how do you offer an innovative curriculum, coupled with an innovative set of faculty, which can really click together?

We discovered our students react far better and they become great learners once you raise their bar. We have our annual conference every September and last year our theme was "Going Forward, Raising the Bar." A lot of what we were teaching in the past few years, it’s becoming easy for our students. The skills that we were teaching them, it’s no longer as challenging. So what we are doing is (asking) how can we challenge our students to a higher level of learning, so that they can be satisfied in terms of the knowledge they acquire from us. At the same time, when they are so rich in knowledge, they can be great producers when they take responsibilities in the real world.

In last 10 years, how much have we talked about the knowledge economy? It’s a nice phrase, but let’s go and define what that means. Every educationalist has a different definition for knowledge economy. For us, a knowledge economy is always about innovation. It’s innovation when you decide what to put in the curriculum; it’s innovation when you deliver education; thirdly, how do you know that you have delivered what you think is innovative material?

That’s where the role of assessment comes. Then the challenge for us is, what are the assessment tools? This is critical. For any university or any education system, the challenges they have can be answered in these three areas I just mentioned — the curriculum, the learning process, and assessment. Every institution has to keep these three pillars in their everyday operation. Do I have the right curriculum? Do I have the right faculty to deliver it? Do I have the right assessment so that I know that I have really delivered what I think I delivered? So effective learning, how do you measure it? That’s what I mean by the third pillar.