Be a part of the solution

Education experts brainstorm on challenges in UAE's higher education and how to overcome them. We present five action points for the UAE education sector

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Engineering students at Heriot-Watt University Dubai familiarise themselves with equipment during class. The UAE needs more such engineers; Abu Dhabi itself will require 250,000 of them by 2020
GN Focus

A shortage of students in certain streams, their preparedness to be a part of the workforce and the aim to make the UAE an education hub for the region are some issues that must be collaboratively addressed by the government, academic institutions and corporate houses. These points formed the highlight of the panel discussion on higher education trends at the Education Forum organised by Dubai International Academic City, a member of TECOM Investments’ Education Cluster. Gulf News Editor at Large Francis Matthew moderated the discussion.

Are our students ready?

“Our young people do not feel prepared for the workforce,” says Chadi Moujaes, Vice-President, Booz & Company, a global consulting firm. In a September survey conducted by the company, less than 40 per cent of young respondents felt they were ready or somewhat ready for a job. Only about 40 per cent said that they had ever been exposed to a work environment. The survey polled a total of 415 citizens of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar aged between 15 and 24.

Being ready for the workforce starts with being alert to socio-economic trends and predictions. Prof. Badr Aboul-Ela, Director, Commission for Academic Accreditation, UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, says students and institutions would do well to align themselves to the country’s economic goals. “Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have their strategic plans, which clearly focus on certain sectors. In Abu Dhabi the focus is on oil and gas, along with chemicals. Pharmaceutical industries and tourism are priority too,” he says.

Where are the engineers?

All experts acknowledge a shortage of manpower in certain sectors. Mapping existing student courses and enrolment shows that this shortage is likely to continue. For students planning their careers and for institutions readying to expand, these are clear focus areas that will see lower competition and easier rewards. A shortage is being felt in specialisations such as engineering and medicine. Prof. Aboul-Ela says, “There is a requirement for engineers; Abu Dhabi will require 250,000 engineers by 2020. The country can only produce 5,000. The UAE lacks nursing students as well — this is a worldwide trend. This is because the number of students studying basic sciences is low, which means there are fewer students who are eligible to pursue engineering and technology studies.”

According to the experts, balancing supply and demand is tough because it is a moving target. However, when economic goals are clear, policymakers have a roadmap to work with. Prof. Aboul-Ela points out that not only is there a lack of demand from students, there is also a shortage of courses. The reluctance of several for-profit institutions to offer programmes requiring high capital investment compounds the problem. “There is a lack of supply — it is easier to start a law school or a business school. It is not as easy to start an engineering programme,” he says.

Need-based solutions

Prof. Raed Awamleh, Director, Middlesex University Dubai, believes the figures do not reflect a deficiency in the  supply of diverse degree courses, but illustrates student demand instead. He cites an example of how the government has tackled this issue in the UK, which based its higher education funding model on paying universities more to teach non-business programmes. “Here in the UAE, this could translate into increased scholarship programmes for  various degrees or other programmes,” says Awamleh.

Moujaes says institutions must pay attention to society’s needs in order to meet the skill shortage effectively. “For instance, to address the shortfall of IT engineers, [Indian IT company] Infosys has created an academy that churns out 5,000 trained personnel every two months after a crash course. There must be flexibility in regulation to allow that.”

The government is already at work on a needs assessment study. “We are going to have data for institutions by the end of the year. We are getting comprehensive data from all higher educational institutions, which will help inform general policy. It is useful for institutions to know which direction to take,” says Prof. Aboul-Ela.

Increasing choice

Evolving immigration patterns, the downturn and economic growth are changing the education landscape. Education is not merely a cost centre but can become a key export centre as well. In the UK, the sector is the second biggest contributor to the country’s net balance of payments according to British Council research cited by international education provider Study Group.

Prof. Ghassan Aouad, President, University of Wollongong in Dubai, says: “The global higher education landscape is facing key challenges because of the economic downturn and changes in the external drivers including demographics, students and staff recruitment, as well as the emergence of new markets that are now competing with traditionally well-established higher education systems. We can expect a shift in the current trend that works to the benefit of the UAE and the region.”

Prof. Aboul-Ela says there has been steady growth in the number of institutions and the courses being offered. “There are 72 licensed institutions in the UAE and 602 accredited programmes. There are now 14 PhD programmes in the UAE, when five years ago there were two.”

Prof. Awamleh points to the statistics, which say that 25 per cent of all international branch campuses of universities across the world are opening in the UAE. There are more than 120 branch campuses from universities across the world in the UAE. This is because of the diversity of the student population that one finds here. “The question to ask is if Dubai is a student hub. Are we attracting enough?” he says.

Community participation

Experts say higher education institutions in the region face the dual challenge of achieving education excellence and stepping up research and development, and innovation activities. Education providers need to align the  competencies of their graduates with the requirements of the marketplace and build better linkages with industry to foster innovation.
The best solution to these is if educators work together with the government and the private sector. Moujaes cites the example of Ireland, where the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, made up of representatives from the worlds of business, education, government and state agencies, advises on education policy.

“Industry and the community must play a significant role through their representatives in universities’ boards and advisory councils for the establishment and continuous development of educational programmes,” adds Prof. Aboul-Ela.