EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Emirates Aviation College

Adopting a hands-on approach to education in the Middle East.
Dr Ahmad Al Ali, senior vice president of Emirates Aviation College
Dr Ahmad Al Ali, senior vice president of Emirates Aviation College


Twenty years ago, undertaking further study usually meant attending lectures, preparing papers and then sitting exams, giving many students little exposure to real-world employment situations. In contrast, the education institutions of today are more focused on basing courses around hands-on training and interaction with the corporate world that their students will soon be entering.

“More industry knowledge is the way forward,” explains Dr Ahmad Al Ali, senior vice president of Emirates Aviation College (EAC), which currently has 1400 full-time students and another 500 part-time. “I went through a very academic programme myself but I always appreciated and understood the need for a vocational or hands-on programme; or if you are offering an academic programme, it’s important to at least introduce some industry background.”

And in the Middle East’s increasingly competitive job market, qualifications coupled with real-world experience could mean the difference between sink and swim. “A lot of our students are Emirates employees, either pilots, cabin crew or aircraft engineers. And the reason they chose to study with us – pilots and engineers in particular – is that they say they don’t want to be flying for the rest of their lives. Likewise, if they come to an age when they are grounded, they have some kind of backup option for employment,” he explains.

Established in 1991, the college’s initial purpose was to offer vocation courses in Dubai based on high-national diplomas in the United Kingdom. Then part of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, it became the ‘academic wing’ of Emirates airline in 2002, a change which heralded a new direction for the institution. “We continued to offer vocational programmes but decided that the way forward was really to offer higher-level programmes,” explains Al Ali. “We moved into undergraduate programmes, which were introduced in 2004 and are fully accreditation by the Ministry of Higher Education. We also decided that EAC needed to go a bit further in terms of higher education, and moved into offering MBA programmes.”

Today, the college offers a diverse range of vocational, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in aviation and related fields, such as supply chain management, information technology, aircraft maintenance and even tourism. The college is currently undergoing further transformation to become a fully-fledged university by the end of 2011, although plans are in the early stages and full-details are yet to be announced.

The MBA offering is one of the most popular at the college, and is offered as a programme in general business, information technology, aviation, and logistics and supply chain. Al Ali explains that when it was introduced, a decision was made to collaborate with the UK’s highly-regarded Coventry University in order to quickly establish credibility. “And that credibility has been achieved, very quickly, which we’re very proud of,” he says. “We have about 350 students in our MBA programme. To achieve that number within two-and-a-half years is really quite a big step. Other, bigger universities struggle to have 30 and 40 new students in a year, we secure around 80 to 100 in a year.”

Al Ali explains that it’s not only international collaborations that have proven key to the college’s success. “We always compare ourselves to international standards. For example, if we set a Masters of Science (MSc) programme; we ensure that it’s on the same level as what would be offered in the United Kingdom or the United States. We also invite experts, specialist professors in certain fields, to come and have a look at what we have developed and offer suggestions to develop it further if necessary. We also make sure that the learning outcomes of the programmes are actually at the level of the qualification that would be reached internationally,” he says.

And the location of the college, in a central district of Dubai, attracts a student body that is largely made up of expatriates. “Dubai is very, very accessible from wherever you are in the world and that makes it very easy and an attractive place to study. We’ve been taking many students from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines, for example, who would otherwise have been going to the US or the UK,” explains Al Ali. “Our MBA students get a dual award, a UK and a local award when they graduate. So they have both recognition from the United Arab Emirates and the international award. It’s also more convenient because we are closer than the US or UK and it’s a lot cheaper for them too.”

UK qualifications body Edexcel, as well as the UK Quality Assurance Agency, which monitors the country’s education bodies, accredit many of the Aviation College’s programmes to reflect this demographic. “We are probably one of the most audited colleges in the UAE, to be honest, because we have so many accreditations,” Al Ali says with a smile.

While many of the programmes offered by the college are aviation-centric, the growing recognition of logistics and supply chain management as a unique and separate sector has seen an increased focus on relevant programmes. “We introduced an MBA in logistics and supply chain management a year after the introduction of the aviation MBA, and it’s been quite successful,” says Al Ali. “With Dubai being a major logistics hub, the course has picked up pace and is now our number two programme in the post-graduate studies. It’s picking up a lot faster than the general management MBA or the IT management.”

The MBA in logistics offered by the college is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), which
means that graduates are entitled to a chartered membership upon completion of the course. “We are also looking at an undergraduate programme, at a Bachelor level, and one of our research students is doing a PHD in logistics,” he says of current development plans.

The college’s course-offerings are fluid, according to Al Ali, and are regularly amended to reflect corporate need. “We can introduce new programmes to suit the growth of the industry and to support the infrastructure projects that are currently taking place,” he explains.

Currently in development at the request of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is an aviation and logistics programme tailored for young UAE nationals that it has targeted as future employees. Consultation with such clients is key to ensuring the graduates fit the specific needs of the company, explains Al Ali. “A lot of corporations don’t want just any graduates with academic knowledge, they don’t have work place ethics, and other things the employer would expect from them. But by designing a programme with a corporate, and with their needs in mind, it makes it a lot more flexible and easier. When these guys graduate, they know what’s expected of them.”

This year will see the launch of a number of programmes designed with corporate needs in mind. A two-year course for aircraft maintenance engineers will give graduates the same training they would receive in the Emirates airline hangars and, once completed, an aircraft engineer licence issued by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). Al Ali predicts this programme in particular will prove popular with students and employers due to the current shortage of graduates with such a specific skill set
and qualification.

Another new programme, an MSc in aviation safety, has seen the GCAA team up again with the college, along with the Dubai Police, to develop the course’s curriculum. “They come up with ideas of what they would like in the programme and our job is to pitch it at the right level, at the masters level. We take their ideas onboard and develop a programme around it, but obviously we have to put together an appropriate syllabus,” explains Al Ali.

Industry relationships are vital to the success of the college’s programmes, which is ultimately the employment of its graduates in their desired fields, according to Al Ali. The ties with its parent company Emirates extends beyond the financials, with the airline featuring heavily in the college’s syllabus in terms of on-the-job training, as well as in its strong ties with its recruitment department. Al Ali estimates that up to 90 percent of its engineering graduates are employed in the Emirates hangers. “We have an understanding with the recruitment department in Emirates that we will send a list of our graduates and they will select the top 10 to 20 percent to be given priority in terms of being offered a job with Emirates,” he explains.

“Really, the first graduates that are interviewed for jobs will be ours. Other graduates that haven’t done so well also stand a chance to be employed by Emirates, or they will go to other airlines. It makes sense though that we take the top students.”
Al Ali quickly points out, though, that industry ties reach beyond Dubai’s official carrier. “We get other airlines that come to us and ask us, do you have any graduates, or do you have anyone about to graduate in a few months, because there is such a huge shortage of graduates from these types of programmes.” But he maintains the importance of industry relationships is as much for the hands-on learning as the job prospects. “When I was at the university I often discussed with my colleagues that I didn’t think we were providing student’s education that the workplace needs,” he explains.

“Take for example our degree and higher-diploma students in engineering, they are trained in Emirates hangers for a few months of on-job training during their studies, and the staff identify the students that they want, they teach them what they want,” says Al Ali. “It makes it interesting for the students and also, for those supervising them the opportunity to pinpoint or choose which students makes it very easier. They can then ask us to arrange an interview once the students graduate.”

Getting to know the industry’s most influential and knowledgeable figures provides a richer educational experience, according to Al Ali. “We invite senior management within Emirates to address the students and to give a seminar. For example, we’ve had Maurice Flanagan, the vice chairman and Abdulaziz Al Ali, vice president of recruitment has come and talked about recruitment challenges. We always try to bring an industry flavour into the programmes so that the students can interact with the senior people in the industry. And they can ask questions too, which makes it more interesting.”

Another crucial aspect of the college’s development and the “richness” of its education offerings is the maturing of a newly created research department. “We’ve just introduced a PHD programme, a Coventry University programme, but the research is conducted here, students will have a supervisor form Emirates Aviation College, in addition to a supervisor from Coventry University, who will come on a regular basis – every two to three months – to check on their progress and ensure that their research is at the level expected of a PhD student.” The college currently has nine PhD students, who are working in a range of aviation and logistics fields. “One of our lecturers is doing a PHD also, and one of their subjects is to look at the cabin crew, how they manage their life, whether they are single or married, how they cope with the flying time – work/life balance. It’s an interesting topic,” says Al Ali.

Similar to the research undertaken in the PhD programme, MBA students are required to complete a dissertation, which Al Ali explains is the chance to develop an idea that can then be implemented in the real world. “The aim of that is for our graduates to be efficient in their roles and to be able to use and implement their projects to improve productivity,” he says. “One of the most interesting projects that I’ve supervised is by one of the students who is a network engineer, and he has come up with a very nice dissertation on optimising fuel efficiency by flying a certain route. He chose the Dubai to San Paulo route and his research shows that even a little bit of diversion on the route can save a few million dollars over the year – just on a single route.”

According to Al Ali, this innovation and real-world adaptability sums up the college’s ethos perfectly. “This is the sort of thing we encourage, not just writing a dissertation for the sake of an exam or going through a programme, but to really have something hands-on that can benefit an employer, and the student in their career,” he says.


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