Exclusive Interview With PMU Rector Dr. Issa Al-Ansari
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011
Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, located on a sprawling campus along Alkhobar’s picturesque Half Moon Beach, is no ordinary institution. As one of the key initiatives of Eastern Province Gov. Prince Mohammad bin Fahd, the primary idea behind creating this excellent and modern seat of learning was to prepare future leaders in various fields of knowledge and to remove the barrier between the academic and business communities.
The move to create this one-of-its-kind university was first proposed in 2002, but it took four years of hard work, many feasibility studies and numerous contacts with the world of academia across the globe before the dream became a reality. When 500 men and women graduated from the university recently, there were many happy faces. Among them was that of the 52-year-old erudite gentleman Dr. Issa Al-Ansari who is the university’s rector.
A veteran educator who has been involved in many educational projects since graduating from Riyadh’s King Saud University, he was at the center of the creation of the new university. “The mandate from Prince Mohammad bin Fahd was very clear – to create a world-class university that can contribute to the real development of Saudis and Saudi Arabia,” he told Arab News in an exclusive interview in his office. “The quest for excellence was and is at the heart of PMU’s existence.”
A cursory look at Al-Ansari’s achievements reveals the much-accomplished administrator and academic that he is. After his graduation in English Language Studies from King Saud University, he obtained his master’s degree from Pittsburgh University in the United States and his PhD from Southampton University in England. Before becoming PMU’s rector, Al-Ansari was dean of the College of Technology in Dammam. He has made many invaluable contributions by serving the local community as supervisor general of the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd Program for Youth Development, and as chairman of the Council of Educational and Social Committee in the Eastern Province. He is a key member of the Committee of the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd Prize for Scientific Distinction and the popular governor’s close adviser.
According to Al-Ansari, the continuing rapid development of Saudi Arabia and the growth of various new sectors of the Kingdom’s economy call for a substantial number of university graduates capable of leadership in diverse fields such as business, engineering, information technology, cultural studies, education, community development and public administration.
He says one of the objectives of the university is to link academic programs and specializations with the actual requirements of the surrounding work environment. “This is undertaken by maintaining effective participation and cooperation between the university and local business firms.”
“Prince Mohammad greatly believes that the challenges of the modern workplace could be met only through high-quality education. To make this dream come true, he took the initiative in 2002 to help establish this university with unique characteristics and distinctive mission-vision statements,” Al-Ansari said. The university has 3,500 students, both men and women on its rolls.
Following are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: So what is unique about the university?
A: Ours is not a traditional way of teaching. We have adapted what we call the learning environment, meaning our students can learn everywhere on the campus — not just in the classroom — that is the last place where learning takes place. As soon as our students enter the campus the learning process begins, whether at the library, in the corridor, the coffee-shops or here in my office, everything is Wi-Fi connected and is geared toward creating a learning environment. The moment our students switch on their laptops, they have their own learning portfolio; this is just like any financial portfolio. We have invested heavily in information technology. The other most important aspect is our faculty. Ninety percent or more than 90 percent of our faculty members come from abroad — from some of the finest institutions of learning in the world. They come from 26 different nations. The idea behind having this incredibly international faculty is to promote what we call a multicultural society. Here at PMU we are trying to encourage our students and their instructors to live with each other and to learn from each other. We are providing them with the right environment for learning. We want to instill in them what we call the global competencies — critical thinking, self-development, IT, teamwork and English language. Before placing a single brick, Prince Mohammad’s mandate was clear: He wanted something unique. He wanted a university that offered quality education. And so the first thing we did was to sign on with Texas International Educational Consortium (TIEC). It is a group of 32 American universities. We sent the university designer Zuhair Fayez to the United States to meet with TIEC with a view to adapting the learning-environment philosophy while he built the university. That is why if you notice you will see from inside and outside an extraordinarily long corridor; it has a philosophy behind it. That is to encourage our students to learn from each other. You will see so many groups of students in clusters talking together, engaged in discussions. This guy, a senior from engineering; another one a business management junior; yet another a sophomore … they are talking together, sharing their experiences. This is the idea. We are not a traditional university.
Q: What about curriculum design? Is it always evolving to suit the local needs?
A: Let me clarify: We are not designing our curriculum on the basis of the local marketplace. We design our curriculum on the basis of the needs of the global marketplace because we expect our graduates to compete with the best in the world. Our graduates might and do compete in the Gulf marketplace; they might go to Europe; they might go to the United States. We are preparing our graduates to be capable of meeting global needs — not just with the needs of the Saudi market. The Saudi market needs are only a part of global needs. Let me also state that even when our graduates work in the Saudi marketplace, they face competition from a multinational work force. There are so many expatriates in this country, so our graduates have to know the culture of others; they need to know how to communicate with others; they have to be fluent in English in order to communicate with the expatriates. We are preparing our graduates for the global marketplace. That is why when we designed the curriculum, we did what we call “the needs assessment.” Right in the beginning we invited big companies such as Saudi Aramco, SABIC, SCECO and others. We conducted many workshops. They told us about their wants. We invited TIEC to understand the global wants. And then we mixed the local wants and the global wants with what we want as a nation, as a society and as a university … all of these were formulated into what we called the needs, and then we designed our curriculum on that basis. It was a very, very long journey. From 2002 until 2006 we were working merely on theoretical aspects. We wanted to get the fundamentals right.
Q: Does the university have a focus on humanities?
A: Recently we have established the college of humanities. We now offer a degree in human resources management; we offer a degree in law as well. We have some graduate studies. We started the executive MBA degree three years ago. This year we are offering another graduate program in education. Next year we will have a graduate program in engineering and IT as well. We have very good relationship with industry. We have, for example, two endowed chairs with Saudi Aramco, one in supply chain and the other one in environmental studies.
Q. What role does higher education and specifically your university play in transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based economy?
A: Higher education plays a pivotal role in realizing the development plans of Saudi Arabia and in transforming it into a knowledge-based economy. The visionary steps of Prince Mohammad paved the way for the establishment of this university. As I said in the beginning, the aim was to provide quality, modern education with international standards in the Kingdom itself, so that Saudi youth wouldn’t have to seek it abroad. I believe that Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming a knowledge-based economy. Its businesses and industries are adopting the latest technologies and establishing strong ties with international markets. Universities in the Kingdom are trying to provide the required expertise, undertake research and graduate studies in the different academic fields in order to face the challenges imposed by a knowledge-based economy. It is within the mission of PMU to break all barriers between academia and the business world, disseminate knowledge and perform applied research to help and support enterprises to perform as efficiently as possible and attain the economic growth they are targeting.
Q: Does your university work together with its foreign counterparts? Can you give us some details?
A: Over the past few years PMU has succeeded in establishing a number of memoranda of understanding with international universities and institutions. These MOUs provide valuable opportunities for PMU to work with counterparts that represent a diversity of backgrounds since the universities and institutions are located in different countries around the world. These countries include the United States, Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Japan, China, India and Australia. PMU adopts the North American model of education, and, as I mentioned right at the beginning, our system and academic programs have been designed by TIEC (Texas International Educational Consortium).
Q: It would seem that university officials would have to seek a near-perfect balance between the capabilities of Saudi students entering the job market and international standards for education. Has this been a challenge?
A: Since Day 1, PMU had decided on certain objectives that became guidelines for all future projects. The founders of PMU decided that it would be a Saudi university with international standards and also decided the profile of the graduates. Graduates of PMU must possess six competences, and these are communication, technology, professional competence, critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and leadership. Of course there is a challenge to prepare entering students and graduate them with the required profile; however, PMU has succeeded in doing that. This is still a big challenge facing many traditional universities, but PMU succeeded in creating a student-based learning environment and equipped it with all the necessary supporting facilities including the most modern and effective instructional technology.
Q: In an earlier interview regarding preparing students for overseas study, you mentioned a set of skills those students needed for academic success abroad. It would appear the university is focused to a large extent on technical and engineering degrees but still immersed in the humanities.
A: PMU started with three colleges: College of Engineering, College of Computer Engineering and Science and the College of Business Administration. Recently, a fourth college was established, and that is the College of Arts and Sciences. Also, the university is considering the establishment of a college of medicine. All these colleges have been established based on the results of feasibility studies. Thus PMU does not focus on technical and engineering studies only but caters to all academic fields. The most important objectives are to fulfill the needs of its surrounding community. PMU considers certain aspects of humanities are important for building the knowledge base of all students. Therefore, PMU designed and delivers a core curriculum to all its students in the freshman year. All students learn basic language skills. For students planning to study abroad, language skills are of paramount importance. In addition students must be aware of a number of cultural issues, so they can connect to their new environments and communities.
Q: Do you see the further expansion of university programs occurring with a broader field of majors in different disciplines or do you expect the institution to retain its initial character for some time to come?
A: University leadership has envisioned a broader perspective that PMU is striving to achieve in the next few years through both short- and long-term plans. There are plans to establish new majors within the existing colleges and also to establish new colleges. The aim is to increase the capacity of higher-education venues. PMU will establish joint programs through expanding its partnerships with academic institutions and corporations in the coming years.
Q: How do you view the government’s support for higher education? How does this reflect the development of higher education?
A: The government’s support is remarkable to say the least. The number of public universities has quadrupled in a few years’ time. Universities are spread throughout all the provinces of the Kingdom. In parallel, private universities have been established in major cities to provide an extra venue for higher education. The increase in the number of higher-education institutions brings with it a strong drive among universities to attain high quality in all their activities. This will definitely lead to the development of higher education in the Kingdom and make it more compliant with international standards.
Q: Over the years, studies and surveys have recommended careers for young students to consider that often result in gluts of trained people competing for a limited number of positions. Is this a concern for the university, and if so, what are the measures taken to prevent such oversupplies?
A: The world is a global village today. Saudi Arabia is definitely not in seclusion as there is rapid progress in industrialization, trade opportunities and global tie-ups, which necessarily demand a maximum number of professionals from various disciplines to come together and join hands in nation-building attempts. PMU envisions such demands through evaluating the present and future needs and hence offers courses that are perfectly aligned with the identified needs.
Q: Private-sector employers say that graduates still have to undergo some kind of training before they are absorbed in the job market. What is your experience in that regard?
A: No university can prepare students and graduate them to fit into every available job in the workplace. For example, graduates from the mechanical engineering program cannot possess all skills required by the multitude of jobs that relate to mechanical engineering. Graduates need some specialized training before they are able to perform as required by their employees. This kind of job-specific training must be provided by employers and is not the responsibility of universities. However, universities must make students acquire the competencies that will enable them to quickly adapt to their work environments and acquire the skills required by their jobs. PMU has made the acquisition of such competences central to its academic mission and has designed all its academic programs and activities on campus to make students acquire them.
Q: Do you have any advice for parents of young students who hope to gain entrance to universities instead of telling them only to study hard? How can parents best help their young people achieve their educational goals?
A: Parents must understand that the new generation has to compete with the changing trends in the world to succeed in the present knowledge-based society. Parents must act as motivators for young students and help them grow as whole persons. Just memorizing what they are taught in schools is not enough. They must get engaged in other activities to sharpen their skills and be able to compete and succeed.
Q: Where would you like to see the university in 10-years’ time and are you on the right track to get there?
A: PMU started its first academic year in 2006, and ever since it has been operating according to a well-defined implementation plan. During the first five years the university had a set of strategic goals. We believe that PMU has accomplished almost all its strategic objectives and has successfully graduated its first batch of students. In 10 years, I would like to see PMU fulfilling international standards in all its endeavors, and the base for accomplishing this is already there.
Q: Any closing thoughts you would like to share?
A: PMU is a realization of an ambitious idea conceived by Prince Mohammad. It is an institution of higher education dedicated to providing educational opportunities to both men and women. Prince Mohammad has also launched a new initiative under the umbrella of PMU to cater to the needs of a precious part of the community and that is the visually impaired. A new college called Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz for the Visually Impaired is being established and will soon start its first academic year. Also, PMU hosts the Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz Chair for Youth Development, which has already started functioning to fulfill its objectives.
Q: Thank you, Dr. Al-Ansari. One last question: You have had such a long and illustrious career in the field of education. What gives you immense satisfaction as an educator?
A: When you start something from scratch, and you see this thing growing and serving the community — in one way or another, that is the happiest moment. We were very happy at the graduation ceremony. There were 500 students — men and women. We played our role in making them what they are, for shaping their minds — making them good human beings, good leaders. You are dealing with human beings. You are not constructing a building or building a car; you are building people. That is what is immensely gratifying to me and to all those who have been involved in the creation of this university from the ground up.