One of the many things the pandemic taught us was that there is no real substitute for personal contact. So, my recent and first visit to the UAE with a team from the University of Manchester, where I work, was especially significant. The timing meant I was able to mark the 15th anniversary of our hugely successful Middle East Centre in Dubai, which supports working professionals, and whose role we hope to expand across research and business engagement.
The UAE may now be very familiar to people around the world. But seeing is believing when it comes to the country. It is a sensory experience with tangible energy, world-class cities and familiar landmarks – you quickly run out of superlatives to describe it.
However, the Emirates, like my university, is much more than bricks and mortar. After three intense days of meetings with senior figures in government, academia and business, including many of our alumni, the abiding impressions were of the warmth and openness of people, optimism for the future, respect for the culture and heritage and genuine interest in our institution.
The visit confirmed our belief that there are many opportunities for further collaboration with UAE organisations across our three strategic pillars: teaching/learning, research and social responsibility. These are all areas of strong mutual interest with the UAE. Football may be important, but Manchester’s links with the UAE go way beyond it!
Our collaborative model means we prefer to partner with UAE organisations and universities and build relationships, supported by our Middle East Centre. This includes social responsibility, which has been embraced strongly by the centre and the student and alumni community. I saw this for myself at Dubai Cares and when planting young mangroves with Emirates Marine Environmental Group. Embedding social responsibility in the academic and corporate sectors can make a real difference and we can all contribute.
One area of opportunity discussed at almost every meeting was the potential to develop research and innovation partnerships in the UAE, where current programmes are recognised as high quality but still relatively modest in scale. Manchester’s global reputation is built on our innovation and research impact, and so collaboration in areas of shared importance, such as environmental sustainability, clean water, AI and technology look extremely promising.
The university already enjoys strong links with the UAE. This is illustrated through our collaboration and partnership on graphene, the revolutionary advanced material first isolated in Manchester, the use of which we are now seeing accelerate. Today, we have the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (supported by Masdar) and the Masdar Institute on campus. We are also building a deeper relationship with Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi around the applications and commercial development of this potentially world-changing innovation.
Graphene also plays a crucial role in sparking and promoting interest in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) among younger generations of students – both women and men. In my experience, people’s passions and career paths are often inspired by a teacher, a role model, visits and stories.
The UAE has all these inspiring elements in place to help achieve its vision of a knowledge society. We saw for ourselves the work of Khalifa University as a beacon for STEM. In particular, I would like to see more women pursue these subjects generally. In the UK we are still under-represented, although our engineering department (the largest in the country) is led by a woman. Two important factors helping encourage women interested in STEM are successful role models and more career flexibility. I have always supported targets aimed at that goal and putting young women in senior roles, if they are ready, capable and well supported. The Emirati women I met were impressive in their confidence and ambition.
Science is important and I spent 10 years serving on the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science & Technology, which advises on policy across a broad range of issues. Half the council members were successful women – all great role models. But we also discussed the arts and creativity as well, and we shouldn’t forget the real importance of the humanities, creative activities and industries and social sciences. At the University we are passionate supporters of creativity and host the Centre for Creative Writing, an art gallery, a museum and performance spaces for music and drama. This is what makes us human and so is important for all societies.
I see a very clear affinity between The University of Manchester and the UAE. Manchester was at the heart of the first industrial revolution and the UAE is a driver for Industry 4.0. The UAE has ambitions to become a knowledge society and universities can support this through research and by becoming innovation factories, while never forgetting universities’ unique role in discovery.
The job of the university’s Innovation Factory is to draw in ideas and support and encourage our staff and students to develop them. Our new innovation district (ID Manchester) represents a £1.5 billion investment commitment to attract innovative companies and strong entrepreneurs to sit alongside us as partners in innovation. We hope this will also benefit the UAE. I am already looking forward to my next visit.