As I wrote this article on the development of education, reports of the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) began to dominate the media.
A state of panic and fear gripped nations, both small and big, as we have witnessed their people struck down with this virus, rushing to secure food and supplies amid concerns there is no cure in sight.
The UAE has dealt with the crisis very rationally, and has been ahead of other countries in its response to the pandemic. Amid this crisis, the words of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, remind us that we are blessed, thank God, with a wise leadership that never hesitates to take the necessary actions to protect our beloved nation, its citizens and residents.
Education in the UAE made great strides under Shaikh Zayed, who was keen to stay abreast of the latest scientific developments. He also recruited experts, from the region and world, to advance the UAE’s education sector
His Highness has affirmed that the crisis will come to an end, and that when it does, we will emerge stronger, despite the challenges we face. His Highness also reassured us that the UAE is able to supply everyone in the country with all the food and medication they need.
This is a brief introduction, but a necessary one at this time, especially as we live within a tightly integrated global system, where we all affect one another. I will now return to the main subject of this article; the continuous development of education as the key to progress.
First: The importance of education
Indeed, there is no doubt that the role education plays in the advancement of nations is an important one.
No nation has ever progressed, developed or enhanced its status without education as the cornerstone of that endeavour. It is, therefore, no wonder that education is the measure of nations’ advancement and progress.
Moreover, education is an integral part of achieving development, which is particularly relevant as the world witnesses rapid change in all areas, from politics, the economy, transportation, medicine, technology and thought, to communications and the climate.
I have dedicated an entire chapter to these issues in my new book, to be published soon, ‘Change: Adapt or Perish’. Education, therefore, is the true path the UAE and other developing countries must take to engage confidently in change, now and in the future.
Education is an ongoing process. It requires constant development to keep pace with the latest global advances in the field. Continuous development of education is undoubtedly the key to progress, and we will examine this further through the following points.
Second: The UAE’s emphasis on education
Education enjoys great significance in the UAE and has always been a top priority, since the establishment of the Union by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Shaikh Zayed believed in the major role of education in realising the UAE’s goals.
Education in the UAE made great strides under Shaikh Zayed, who was keen to stay abreast of the latest scientific developments. He also recruited experts, from the region and world, to advance the UAE’s education sector.
The wise leadership, led by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has embraced the same approach and developed the sector to the extent that it is now the main driver for the progress the UAE is witnessing.
This is particularly due to the adoption of best international practices, learning from global systems, whether in school or university education.
The UAE has also been keen to establish educational institutions that focus on scientific research, recognising its importance in continuing the sustainable development process to achieve national progress and prosperity.
Rapid international developments in education mean that enhancing the sector is a vital and continual process. Failure to focus on educational development and respond to change essentially means hampering or ceasing the development process. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to enhance education.
Third: Education and preparing for the next 50 years
The continuous development of education gains even more importance and momentum now the UAE has designated this year as ‘2020: Towards the Next 50’, which will see the launch of a comprehensive national strategy spanning the next five decades as the UAE seeks to be the best country worldwide in all fields.
Realising this vision will not be achieved with slogans or hopes, but through hard work and action. This means there is a need to adopt effective policies.
The UAE has in fact already taken impressive steps and gone to great lengths to upgrade the educational sector in line with international standards.
In this context, one of the most effective initiatives I have seen is the Education Strategy 2010-2020. It was developed by the Ministry of Education and placed the student at its centre, focusing on the quality of educational performance in schools.
The strategy consists of 50 initiatives, which include restructuring secondary education, developing curricula to meet the requirements of higher education in the UAE and beyond, and aligning curricula with the needs of the job market.
It also seeks to improve the selection process of educational staff, in addition to achieving a balance between the components of knowledge and the subject matter in science, mathematics and English.
The UAE’s educational development policy has resulted in remarkable achievements in these areas, measured by several independent indicators. The most important achievement is the leading position the UAE now occupies in international assessments of educational quality.
Meanwhile, several recent indexes have recognised the UAE for its encouragement of innovation, as well as efforts to enter new fields that were once monopolised by a select few countries, such as the space sector.
The UAE places great hopes on prominent sectors like the space industry, which have the potential to boost development and help ensure a sustainable future.
Fourth: Education in the post-oil era
The UAE’s focus on developing education is particularly relevant amid the changes we have seen in the use of traditional resources. Its strategic framework aims to diversify the national economy and reduce dependence on oil, which is gradually losing its importance as a commodity for a variety of reasons.
In this context, it is important to highlight the words of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, in his keynote remarks at the World Government Summit, held in Dubai in February 2015: “We are thinking and planning for 50 years ahead, for the coming generations, and so we are building a diversified, solid and sustainable economy that does not depend on traditional resources and opens up new opportunities for capacity building in the country. Our highest priority is investing in education.
We are prosperous now, and so we must invest all our capacities in education, because there will come a time, 50 years from now, when we load the last barrel of oil aboard the ship. The question is, will we feel sad? If our investment today is right, we will celebrate that moment.”
These words, which marked the start of a new phase of serious thinking about the post-oil era, highlighted the importance of education and the vital role it plays in preparing for the inevitable time, when we will be less dependent on oil and other resources.
His Highness also stressed the need to constantly improve and develop education, to stay abreast of current international developments, particularly those related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In this context, it is worth noting that experts and researchers have emphasised that the concept of wealth is shifting from material aspects to knowledge. Knowledge has become the real wealth as we move towards knowledge-based economies.
Studies show that education is the greatest contributor to national incomes, when compared to other areas of productivity, such as the generation of capital and employment.
Studies also suggest that economic growth now depends on technological advancement based on education, not capital accumulation.
Fifth: Education and the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The education sector is experiencing significant and, perhaps, unprecedented developments worldwide, particularly in light of new challenges.
Some of these challenges could bring about a real revolution within the sector, not only in terms of its nature or for those within it, but also in terms of the applications of Artificial Intelligence in all educational areas, which could completely change the traditional view of education.
The focus on education is heightened further amid the rapid and unprecedented transformations brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence technology.
This raises many questions about the future of the education system and how it can adapt to future jobs, especially in light of studies that expect robotics and smart devices to replace humans in many areas of life and work in the years to come.
Experts stress that future jobs will differ completely from those today, and education alone is the way to prepare people for these jobs.
International reports have identified many of the skills required for future jobs in the 21st century, and educational institutions should cultivate these skills in students to ensure they still have jobs in the years to come.
Future jobs will rely on technical, technological and modern skills and knowledge. The more a country’s education system is able to produce these skills and knowledge, the more nations will enhance competitiveness in global indicators.
Sixth: Education and emerging developments
There are new developments which cannot always be anticipated. They happen suddenly and their implications can be catastrophic.
As much as these developments may offer new opportunities, they test the ability of existing educational systems to respond to unexpected events, such as this viral outbreak that threatens our way of life.
If education fails to keep pace with unexpected challenges and changes, facing threats before they claim thousands, probably millions of lives won’t be easy, and this may bring existential challenges to humanity, which is the price to pay for globalisation.
This has been the case with the novel coronavirus, Covid-19. Its spread, and the fear that has come with it, has also created challenges for education.
It has led to new developments in distance learning. Though distance education is nothing new, and has been in widespread use for decades, many countries, and indeed the entire world, may find this is now the only option for education, for a long time to come. Are we prepared for that?
It is not only about technologies or the capabilities available; it is about the entire education system.
Aside from its positives and negatives, for this system to achieve educational goals in the best possible manner, in addition to providing all of the technological requirements for it to succeed, all those involved, whether teachers, students or parents, should be trained.
Training should go beyond traditional methods, using innovative tools and effective techniques to ensure distance learning is a viable alternative to conventional forms of education, able to be implemented at all times, not only in times of crisis.
Seventh: Areas of continuous educational development
Since continuous development is key to achieving progress and ensuring a better future, according to the UAE’s vision, the main areas that need continuous development include:
1. Curricula, particularly with the rapid development of science and technology, and new approaches. Every day brings new developments in various branches of knowledge around the world. This requires constant enhancements to curricula, so that it reflects the latest scientific findings, and this should be done on a regular or annual basis.
2. Teaching methods and techniques. Traditional approaches often cease to be effective. Therefore, methods and procedures should be modernised by utilising technology and adopting the latest practices in teaching and learning.
3. Continuous training of teachers. It is widely accepted that the teacher is the most important element in the educational process. Therefore, academic qualifications and certificates are not enough for teachers. They must be skilled in the developments in their field, particularly the latest teaching methods. This can be achieved through continuous training.
4. Focus on labour market requirements. This may require moving away from some irrelevant specialisations, and focusing on those that are in demand, particularly applied disciplines.
5. Prioritising modern science, especially in technological innovation. Given the expectation that future jobs will require specific skills, our education systems must focus on honing these skills, through vocational and professional education in particular.
The continuous development of education, in addition to staying abreast of the latest global developments are essential approaches, specifically for countries seeking to maintain progress, improve peoples’ lives and ensure sustainable welfare for their citizens, as is the case in the UAE.
Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research