A Conversation With the Leader of the UAE’s Largest University

DUBAI – With 22,000 students and 17 campuses nationwide, Higher Colleges of Technology is the largest higher education institution in the United Arab Emirates.

Its chancellor, Mohammad Omran Al Shamsi, was appointed chairman and chancellor of the university in April last year, granting him the status of a minister and marking the first time three different Emiratis led the nation’s three federal universities.

A 1977 graduate of Cairo University, Al Shamsi began his career in the engineering department of Etisalat—a telecommunications company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates—and rose to the position of chairman and CEO almost a decade ago. In 2012, he retired from the company.

Now, as the head of Higher Colleges of Technology, Al Shamsi says he seeks to incorporate more technology into teaching. Al-Fanar Media spoke with him about the university and his plans for its future.

How did Higher Colleges of Technology grow to be the UAE’s largest university, and what are some of the institution’s successes?

I think both are linked, so success made us larger. I think the philosophy of starting Higher Colleges of Technology was different than conventional universities. How? Conventional universities normally depend on a large campus in one location. In the UAE, although we are quite a small country, the idea was that the best way to do it is to have spread campuses. Today we have 17 campuses all over. In almost every city, there are one or two campuses, and with that, we became closer to the people, and it became, in many instances, the first and the best choice for our students.

This is one. The second thing is the way we teach students. It is more practical than conventional universities, more applied. So, we adopt a philosophy called learning by doing. There are more contact hours between the student and the teacher. The idea is that learning by doing is engaging the students with the teacher, with the lecturers, for more contact hours. With that, the student can get more knowledge and work more numbers of hours in labs and libraries and so on. The mechanism is different.

We also adapted, and it was changing over time, but we adapted industry advisory councils, so in every city [in which] we operate we do have an industry advisory council composed of possible employers for those students – from government and the private sector. They help us. They advise the academic staff to focus on relevant subjects, which is very important. And also, they are involved more with our students. They provide internships for them‑this is part of their education by the way. Any student cannot get a certificate at the end of his study unless he works an internship in a relevant industry or government or whatever for one semester. In this way, we ensure that the student, or the graduate, becomes more acquainted with the system, knowledgeable, and when they go to work, they hit the ground running. They work immediately because they are used to the system. Those are the differences between us and conventional universities. This helped us get more numbers of students.

What are the goals or aims of the university looking forward over the next five, ten years?

I worked for more than 35 years in the telecom business and I am retired, so with that knowledge and also with the development in technology, I see that the way we educate the newer generation, or the young generation, is changing—changing to adopt more technology in teaching. With this technology, it becomes more interactive, number one. It becomes more capable because for example, if I have a certain specialization, I don’t need to repeat [a] lecture everyday. With the right system to educate the student using technology, I can record that lecture and make it available to students at anytime they want to see it.

We have started adapting this and I have a plan to work on it to make a major change in the way we educate students, in the way lectures interact with students, and with the way students use technology—not only for education, but also for life.

The UAE has a lot of ambition to move forward. The vision of the leadership of the UAE —they want to push the UAE to a more advanced stage of development, and that cannot be done unless we enable our graduates to do that, so start from education.

How will you integrate technology more?

We have already started. One example of something we started: The first year generally is called foundation, and with foundation we enable our students with better English language but also specific subjects relevant to their study. We started using iPads and smart devices instead of books, so all that the students use are iPads, with application, and this application, they download it from the digital library, and interact with it, and then they do their homework on the iPad, and when the teacher asks them to see their homework, they can project it on the TV using Apple TV or something like that.

This is one of the examples. We have an international digital library, and we subscribed to that to make such books in digital formal available to all students. So they can download whatever books they need and they can study on it and work on it, and most of these books are interactive. So, you are interacting with the system, learning. This is why we say “learning by doing.”

You mentioned the foundation year. From what I understand, that’s slowly being phased out.

Yes, the foundation year was made to enhance the capability of secondary school students to go to the university. The government decided that over the next few years, this foundation will not be needed as the secondary school will look after that, and I think this is very important because students waste one year of their life on this foundation year, which is not required. There is work on that by the government.

 So you see that it is positive that this is being phased out?

Of course, It is very positive—very positive for the students, for the country, and for us as a university in order to focus our work as a university get better, to focus our education on academics.

When looking at the goals you discussed—integrating more technology, advancing with the vision of the leadership—what are the challenges?

There are always challenges. One of the challenges that we face in the country as a whole is that most of our graduates would like to go to the government sector, public sector, because they get better salaries, they work less hours. But this cannot continue forever. It is important that more and more go to the private sector, and the government is pushing for that and enabling that.

All sectors within the government are aware that this is a very important area—to enhance or to enable young boys and girls who graduated to go into that area, so this is one of the challenges. I believe there are many solutions being done. There are different funds by the government, by the local government in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other emirates, to enable such graduates to go into that area – they give them soft loans, they give them advice, they give them legal support, management support and so on. It is a very important step for our country, a very important step for our graduates.

What sectors or jobs do Higher Colleges of Technology graduates usually go into?

We graduated some 65,000 students, so you can see them almost everywhere. We have a very big and capable engineering department, and from this we have petroleum, chemical, mechanical, aeronautical, electrical, civil. So, you can see from this, where they will go.

ADNOC is one of our major employers—Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This is the largest employer in the country and they are one of the largest employers for our graduates. But they go to telecom. They go to banking, government, police, army, to insurance—to all sectors. Media also.

What interesting research are you working on at HCT?

HCT is not a research university. It is applied. However, we do have small research in certain areas in coordination with some of our clients—with businesses like ADNOC, Telecom. But that is not major. I believe there is a need to enhance that, and we are working on a program to enhance the research to focus on relevant topics to the country needs, but that is still in a very early stage so I cannot talk about it more.

* This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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