Over his tenure as the United Arab Emirates’ education minister, Sheik Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan worked to expand the country’s education spending — and according to The New York Times, UAE now spends more than a fifth of its total budget on schools.
Now that al-Nahayan is leaving his post to become the nation’s cultural minister, he explains how massive investment – including a purchase of 14,000 iPads for the country’s university students – is meant to ensure UAE’s economic success well into the future.
UAE’s schools are run on the basis that the country’s chief economic strength is its relationship with its export partners. Therefore, the majority of classes are taught in English although the country’s official language remains Arabic. According to al-Nahayan, switching to English is a nod to reality and doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of pride the country’s national heritage. The switch also allowed UAE a lot of recruiting freedom when it came to attracting educational talent as more teachers speak English than do Arabic.
Q. What is the benefit of ensuring that Arabic is still taught and not completely replaced with English?
A. Arabic is still offered to students, of course, but the main language of instruction is English in most cases. Our advantage, as a result, is that we are able to graduate students who are fluent in both languages, and we plan to enhance this approach. Bilingual students will have greater opportunities of success and more choices open to them in the future.
English instruction isn’t the only way that the country seeks to be more future-facing. Like a lot of countries in the Gulf region, UAE has a substantial youth population and lawmakers take various steps to make sure that ten years down the road they are not faced with a highly educated populace that can’t find employment.
In order to encourage students to enter fields that are projected to be undersupplied, the government grants scholarships to those who choose to major in those fields – making sure that there’s a steady supply for employment demands in the coming years.
Q. How much does the government invest in education?
A. We are focused on building a knowledge-based economy. We are investing in our people, who will drive our economy and society forward as global trends shift. We’re also being creative and including technological advancements in our scope, which included the historic move to bring 14,000 iPads for student and faculty use at our federal universities in place of textbooks last year.
Plans for the future include more higher education investment and work on advancing energy technologies to keep the UAE’s economy growing.
Q. What other challenges remain?
A. We need more research from universities — especially in fields that are important to us, like energy, alternative energy, resource management, water management. These are of concern to us. We have set up the National Research Foundation, but more needs to be done.