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UAE Higher-Education Power Shifts: Phase 2

CAIRO –The president of the United Arab Emirates appointed new heads of the three federal universities this week in a second phase of a higher-education governance shakeup, stripping a longtime education minister of even more authority.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, appointed to the role of minister of education and scientific research last month, has now also been named chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University, the state news agency reported. Maitha Al Shamsi was named president of Zayed University and Mohammad Hassan Omran Al Shamsi was appointed chancellor of Higher Colleges of Technology. With a new higher-education minister and the new chancellors in place, it is possible that even more administrative changes are on the way.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan previously held all three of these positions at the federal institutions, while also serving as minister of higher education and scientific research. Now three different people hold the university leadership positions, creating uncertainty about control and influence.

“You’re not sure how the politics of all this is going to work,” said a source in the UAE who asked to remain anonymous because he works in the university system. “It’s a real big-time unknown.”

Sheikh Nahyan led the education ministry for more than two decades. He is known for valuing and advancing higher education and having a clear sense of direction and mission. He tightened admission standards for federal universities, made English the primary language of instruction and helped pave the way for more opportunities for women.

Last month, Sheikh Nahyan stepped down from the education ministry position and told local press that he would continue to head the three federal universities, which is why many did not expect this week’s announcement. He is now Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development.

Emirates prime minister, vice-president and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum said he appreciated Sheikh Nahyan’s efforts in leading and consolidating higher education in the Emirates and praised his work in establishing standards and criteria for university education, the state news agency said.

Sheikh Nahyan is replaced as both chancellor of the UAE University and minister of education by his younger brother, Sheikh Hamdan, who has served as minister of public works since 2004. Sheikh Hamdan, an aviation enthusiast who is also chairman of the Sheikh Zayed Housing Program, now finds himself thrust into the limelight, having previously maintained a relatively low profile.

The appointment of Maitha Al Shamsi as Zayed University president marks the first time a woman has reached such a prestigious university post in the country. With a Ph.D. in sociology from Egypt’s Ain Shams University, she served as assistant provost for research at UAE University before becoming Minister of State in 2008.

Mohammad Hassan Omran Al Shamsi, appointed chancellor of Higher Colleges of Technology, is not an academic, but has been chairman of the board of telecommunications company Etisalat since 2006.

“Over the last three decades and now as chairman, Mohammed Hassan Omran has been the architect of Etisalat’s design and development and has transformed the company from a well-respected telecommunications service provider, to a leading regional operator with over 33 million customers across fifteen markets,” says the website of Khalifa University, where he is on the board trustees.

As the new chancellor of Higher Colleges of Technology, Omran will be the ceremonial head of the largest education institution in the country. It has 17 men and women’s campuses across the Emirates and a community of over 18,000 students.

An earlier article in Al Fanar provides more details on Sheikh Nahyan’s career.

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