Dubai skyline Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai’s date with the fourth Industrial Revolution looks all set.

With its world-class infrastructure, a fund of rich human capital and the willingness to engage with artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics, automation, smart manufacturing, Internet of Things, Precision Medicine and Block Chain, Dubai is confidently taking a lead in connecting with the future driven by technology, innovation and disruption.

The signing of the recent agreement, in the presence of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, between the UAE and World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, to host the Middle East’s first Research Centre of the Future in Dubai, demonstrates this resolve of the UAE’s leadership.

With its cultural, economic and physical proximity to both the East and the West, and a willingness to embrace new ideas and approaches, Dubai provides an ideal place to develop a new model for knowledge and innovations to create a better future for generations to come.

With its cultural, economic and physical proximity to both the East and the West, and a willingness to embrace new ideas and approaches, Dubai provides an ideal place to develop a new model for knowledge and innovations to create a better future for generations to come.

- Dr Fazal Malik

This agreement with the WEF comes only weeks after the unveiling the UAE’s ‘Fifty-Year Charter’, by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to mark the anniversary of his 50 years of government service.

As a road map for transformation, the charter plans the programmes, services and strategies to improve the lives of every citizen living in this part of the world.

This charter, when seen in conjunction with Dubai’s plans to emerge as the regional hub for the knowledge economy, makes it obvious that there is a strong will, a clear direction and a well-thought strategy in place to harness the benefits of the fourth Industrial Revolution.

One of the key focuses on the charter is Higher education.

Universities as free zones

In future, the universities are expected to become free zones to allow students to carry out business and creative activities. Going forward, education, particularly the higher education sector, will be one of the indispensable stakeholders in the journey to the future.

There cannot be a clearer focus than the one provided by the leadership in Dubai to redefine the role and revise the outcomes of higher education in this part of the world.

But the million dollar question is that how is the higher education sector responding to this paradigm shift: What are the preparations in place to face the challenges and benefit from the opportunities? Also how is higher education transforming its core practises to nurture a talent that is learning differently?

With the winds of change sweeping across the society, industry, governance and academia, the higher education sector’s engagement with this overwhelming change is, complicated, dialectical and even problematic in some places.

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A quick run through the global academic landscape reveals a complex scenario. Some universities remain rooted in ‘brick and mortar’, and refuse to accept the world around them is changing. Some institutions are making small, cosmetic arrangements in the programme offerings to indicate that they are in sync with this transformation.

Yet, a minority of universities are fully engaged with the changing environment they operate in.

At these campuses, the focus is shifting from teaching to learning, from creating graduates to developing entrepreneurs, and from generating employment seekers to creating innovators and disrupters.

- Dr Fazal Malik

At these campuses, the focus is shifting from teaching to learning, from creating graduates to developing entrepreneurs, and from generating employment seekers to creating innovators and disrupters.

It is in these institutions where proscenium arch of the classroom is broken, education is set free from the disciplinary dogma, labs and studio turn into workshops, lobbies become trading floors and libraries transform into multimedia learning zones.

Teachers are taking the role of facilitators and partners while the limits of time and space are becoming irrelevant as learning becomes a life-long process.

The UAE in general and Dubai, in particular, has provided a good environment for the universities to flourish in. While quality control remains of paramount importance, there is enough scope for creativity and innovation to bring the best practises in learning to this part of the world.

No wonder, the higher education sector is showing steady growth in the UAE.

100 nationalities at Dubai International Academic City

Dubai International Academic City alone has 27 international, regional and national universities offering more than 500 undergraduate, postgraduate and research degree programmes for students from about 100 nationalities.

This is a phenomenal ecosystem with rich resources, which should provide the social, economic and intellectual capital to translate the great vision of the leadership of Dubai into a reality.

The process should start from thinking outside the traditional roles attributed to the universities.

The change needs to start from a revision of the mission and vision statements, strategic goals and operational plans to reflect the new needs, demands and requirements of changing times.

This implies transformation in programmes, curricula, pedagogies, assessments to respond to the changes in society and industry.

Data helps in decision making

As data grows at phenomenal speed, the analysis and application of data will be critical to decision-making.

These developments also narrow down the gap between the subjects and disciplines, bringing in multidisciplinary learning approach to replaces the conventional compartmentalised learning models.

Man and machine collaboration, which is fuelled by the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, increases, the more complex machines like robots, self-driving cars and smart manufacturing will involve a holistic approach to learning.

A better understanding between the machine and humans, which should involve engineers, designers, mechanics, psychologists, lawyers, sociologists and anthropologists to work together, is essential.

There cannot be a better time to implement these changes than the present one. The leadership of this country has provided the best possible context for higher education to come out of its inertia and engage with the future.

Dr Fazal Malik is dean of Humanities, Arts and Applied Sciences at Amity University Dubai.