The University of Birmingham Dubai has opened what it calls the world’s “smartest” campus in Dubai International Academic City.
The environmentally sensitive campus’s launch on April 20 was attended by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of the Executive Council of Dubai.
Britain’s University of Birmingham first opened a branch in Dubai four years ago. According to the Dubai branch’s provost, David Sadler, the new campus makes “a distinctive architectural statement.”
The designers, Hopkins Architects, “took references from the historic core University of Birmingham in the U.K. and placed it into a Middle Eastern and Dubai context,” Sadler told Al-Fanar Media in an interview over Zoom.
‘A Living Laboratory’
“We like to think that we are the smartest campus,” Sadler said. “By this, we mean that we have a huge number of sensors throughout the building to monitor all aspects of the building’s operation—occupancy, temperature, air quality, and lighting—and feed into the building management system.”
“We have a huge number of sensors throughout the building to monitor all aspects of the building’s operation—occupancy, temperature, air quality, and lighting—and feed into the building management system.”David Sadler Provost of the University of Birmingham Dubai
The collected data will be used in research and teaching in the faculties of computer science, artificial intelligence, and mechanical engineering, “turning the building into a living laboratory.”
“Being an environment-friendly campus is about how to use the building, how to programme timetables, and how to plan for the use of space.”
Major challenges for the building’s designers included temperature control, ventilation and air conditioning, Sadler said.
“We incorporated two shaded internal courtyard spaces, borrowing the concept from the Arabic wind tower,” with one building higher than the other to allow a natural airflow. “We also have water running in the courtyards and soft landscaping that create a pleasant cooling effect.”
The buildings overlook parkland and natural spaces to reflect the “green heart” of the university’s campus in Birmingham.
Study programmes at the University of Birmingham Dubai include bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects like business, accounting, economics, computer science, artificial intelligence, engineering, public health, psychology, water resources management and international commercial law.
“We offer 46 different programmes, not a combination of one with another,” Sadler said. “We deliberately went that broad that quickly.”
“The logic behind that,” he said, “is to have the power of making connections across different subjects,” and to foster an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.
“We are not trying to narrowly focus on one or two subject areas but to ensure that our students will be exposed to a variety of perspectives in classrooms and in their interaction with peers from different programmes.”
The campus can support up to 2,900 students and boasts innovative teaching and research space to encourage cross-disciplinary working. About half of its students are from Dubai, and the rest represent more than 60 different nationalities.
During his visit, the crown prince encouraged the university to increase the number of nationalities “to reflect the diversity of Dubai.”
Choosing a Major and a Career
Sadler said the university helps students choose their major subjects in two ways—through conversations before admission and through career advice that comes later but still early during the student experience.
“There is a lot of information out there, unlike when I was a student. We need to help them to distinguish between valid information and what’s just noise.”David Sadler provost of the University of Birmingham Dubai
“The first thing is to make sure that students are choosing the right programme for them,” he said. “We engage in a dialogue with applicants, to see if they chose that particular programme for the right reasons.”
In the later career advisory phase, “we prioritise short internships, employer engagement, and the interaction with the world of work, so students can see what they are looking for,” he said. “We already have companies providing internships to our students in banking, production, and services.”
The university plans to support entrepreneurship, as well.
A Changing Labour Market
Sadler said academic programmes at the University of Birmingham Dubai take into account the needs of a changing labour market.
Most of the university’s graduate students already have jobs and enrol part-time to learn new skills, he said.
The university also seeks to provide undergraduates with skills that have emerged during the last 10 to 20 years like digital awareness, and understanding how to access and make sense of news and information from a variety of sources.
“There is a lot of information out there, unlike when I was a student,” Sadler said. “We need to help them to distinguish between valid information and what’s just noise.”
Students also need soft skills like learning “to work in an interculturally sensitive manner,” he said, something “not always easily acquired.”
Regionally Relevant Research
In research, Sadler said the university was focusing on topics of regional interest, including disability issues and water desalination.
“Those are regionally relevant research that can speak to the local needs, not just in Dubai, but in the wider region. Those are our ambitions. We will not be doing practical physics or molecular chemistry that requires tens or hundreds of researchers working across universities in the U.K. and worldwide. We will be doing stuff that has a meaningful regional resonance.”
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Sadler also wants to increase social science and humanities learning.
Many universities have “a very strong career-oriented focus and very narrow interpretation of career focus,” he said. “There is an assumption that degrees in medical training, engineering, computer science, business are the only way to the world of work. But soft skills are just as much sought after by employers.”
He noted that research money tends to flow more to projects of immediate practical applications and less to issues of longer-term value.
He added: “Personally, I think the region suffers from small funding of research in humanities and social sciences.”