Abu Dhabi’s partnership with New York University created an “entirely new model” in higher education to better equip young people in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, a trustee for the university has said.
Rima Al Mokarrab, chair of the Tamkeen board of directors, made the comments in the lead-up to New York University Abu Dhabi’s 10th anniversary on Tuesday.
She said NYUAD’s contributions to academia, the arts, and research have been “greater than anyone could have hoped for”.
“It’s only been 10 years and the best is yet to come,” she said.
Tamkeen, New York University’s UAE partner, is tasked with delivering projects to enrich the UAE’s social, cultural and educational landscape.
A decade ago, Abu Dhabi sought a higher education partner that could better prepare students for life in a "crossroad city" like Abu Dhabi, said Ms Al Mokarrab.
“The whole world travels with us and through us. Because of this, our experiences, as well as our challenges, don’t stay neatly within our borders,” she said.
“So we asked ourselves, did higher education in general truly prepare students for this new reality?
“How should we think about educating students in a world that is hyper-connected and rapidly changing? And how do we help them engage with ideas and creativity at home and around the world?”
New York University, from another crossroad city, was asking the same questions, and coming to very similar conclusions - making it the perfect partner.
But Ms Al Mokarrab said Abu Dhabi was not seeking to bring an identikit institution to the UAE.
The emirate wanted to build an institution in partnership with NYU that reflected the energy and ideas emerging from here, she said.
“We wanted to create an institution that would allow the world to deeply engage with the Middle East’s Muslim and Arab culture, with all the richness that brings, but not to stop there – to look outward to other places and perspectives,” said Ms Al Mokarrab.
“NYUAD had to be ‘in and of’ Abu Dhabi, not a copy-paste of NYU New York, and not apart from its city and community,” she added.
The institution they ultimately built had three identities: Emirati, American and global, said Ms Al Mokarrab.
“We wanted to build a community where these three identities could live together harmoniously, enrich one another, and do good for the world.
“The institution had to embody openness and engagement, where your first instinct is to see our common humanity, to seek to understand and, when you disagree, to do so constructively”.
It was an incredibly complex task, she said.
“Our mandate was simple to say, hard to do: create a world-class institution, in our lifetime, not in 200 years,” said Ms Al Mokarrab.
They achieved it through mutual respect and a deep partnership.
One challenge involved finding methods to provide for the movement of people and ideas.
“You can’t educate and prepare students for a more interconnected, complex and challenging world in theory,” said Ms Al Mokarrab.
“That learning has to occur and be lived in its own context all over the world, and it’s going to look and feel different in each environment.
“That is why we shifted the traditional model of higher education, in which study abroad was rare and for a minority of students, and pioneered the NYUAD model, which offers universal study abroad, usually in more than one country, as part of a globalised curriculum.”
Its successes are very much apparent, said Ms Al Mokarrab.
In its eight graduating classes, NYUAD has produced 16 Rhodes scholars, the highest number per student of any university in the world in that period, she said.
“More than half of these scholars are UAE nationals earning graduate degrees at Oxford in public policy, development studies, economics, and diplomacy,” added Ms Al Mokarrab.
Emirati students are the single largest group of students among 121 nationalities.
UAE nationals comprise almost half of the 3,700 people who have enrolled in NYUAD’s non-degree programmes, which includes the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Scholars Programme for young future leaders from across UAE.
The institution’s work has also benefited the wider Abu Dhabi community.
It has supported 700 entrepreneurs to accelerate their start-ups, delivered executive education to thousands of professionals, and staged more than 600 arts performances and exhibitions from across the UAE and around the world.
Its research has been ground-breaking, said Ms Al Mokarrab. Successes include creating the world’s first unhackable computer chip and supporting the UAE’s Covid-19 response by developing innovative new saliva-based testing methods.
“NYUAD’s contribution will be through the wonderful efforts of its people – the students, faculty and staff who make up the NYUAD community,” said Ms Al Mokarrab.
“Their outlook is shaped by their time in the UAE, their experiences in the NYU Global Network, and their engagement with their peers.
“In this community I see energy and optimism, and great ambition, too,” she said.
“I have no doubt that their contributions will be transformative and this is just the start.”