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Mohammad Abdullah, Managing Director, Dubai International Academic City, delivers a speech at the ‘What About Youth?’ event on 2nd November, 2020 at the Dubai Knowledge Park. Photo Clint Egbert/Gulf News Image Credit:

Dubai: More than half of students in the UAE and region would not study in the same university again, nor would they study the same course again, if given the choice, a new study released on Monday suggests.

The reasons why they would choose another university (51 per cent) or course (52 per cent) was not explored in the ‘What About Youth?’ study, conducted by KPMG and The Talent Enterprise in collaboration with Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). However, 97 per cent of students polled said they do not receive formal career guidance from career counsellors at university or any kind of advice from alumni in the UAE and region. Instead, over 60 per cent of students rely on the opinions of family or friends for career guidance.

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‘Startling revelation’

“This is quite a startling revelation considering most students spend five to six of their most formative adult years in undergraduate and graduate education,” the study said about the less than half of students who would study their course again. And with only three per cent of students receiving career guidance at university, it could explain why only around half (56 per cent) of them have “a clear plan of what they are going to do when they graduate”.

Who was asked?

The study covered 874 students from the UAE, “representing” over 25,000 students from universities in DIAC, besides more than 10,000 students, representing a population of more than 128,000 from across the region. All together, the study says it represents the views of more than 153,000 students from countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with Emiratis accounting for more than half of all regional nationals surveyed.

Rethink needed?

Commenting on the findings, Radhika Punshi, managing director of The Talent Enterprise, said universities need to rethink how they will provide an enriching experience to attract and retain students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen a suspension of campus life in many cases with a shift to distance learning. It also means there needs to be a lot more done to inform course choices at a much earlier stage, she added.

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Radhika Punshi, Founder and Managing Director, The Talent Enterprise, talks about empowering the future workforce and social drivers that help shape the next generation of talent at the ‘What About Youth?’ event on 2nd November, 2020 at the Dubai Knowledge Park. Photo Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Expectations gap

The study also gathered the view of employers, who generally maintain that graduates today are lacking in “agility and resilience”, the soft skills that are “most critical” to have “given the uncertainty” created by the pandemic, said Marketa Simkova, Partner and Head of People and Change Middle East, KPMG. Only 58 per cent of the youth, when employed, display “resilience” at the workplace, the study said. Employers value youth who can “adjust to any situation thrown at you, especially during these times”, Simkova said. Youth cannot afford to stay inflexible towards working on different tasks or roles from one day to another at work just because it is not mentioned in their “job description”, she added.

Starting salaries

There is also a marked difference in expectations of starting salaries between expats and nationals. Around 58 per cent of expat students are expecting a starting salary of Dh2,500 to Dh7,500 per month. Meanwhile, around 50 per cent of Emirati students expect a starting salary of Dh15,000 to Dh30,000 per month (only 20 per cent of the expat students expecting the same amount as their starting salary). Overall, 88 per cent of youth are willing to work as an unpaid intern for a “short period” of time. The top four sources of finding a job for today’s youth are internships, online job portals, personal contacts and college placement cells.

Brimming with confidence

Despite these perceptions, 72 per cent of students believe their education and personal attributes will enable them to “get a job anywhere in the world”. Nearly eight in 10 young people are “excited” about what the future holds, with 88 per cent believing “the best is yet to come”. However, as the 24-month research was concluded in March 2020, a follow-up study is under way to gauge how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected youth sentiment.

Broad themes

The study was shared during a media briefing on Monday at Dubai Knowledge Park. The key findings of the research can be broadly grouped into primary themes: youth are more confident about the future; universities must be agile in the future; young people believe in themselves; student demand for career counselling is growing; women are more likely to wait for their dream job; and more work is needed to encourage and incentivise careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as the UAE eyes more missions to space in the coming years.

Actionable data

Commenting on the findings, DIAC managing director Mohammad Abdullah said: “Helping educators and employers meet the expectations of young people is intrinsically linked to the vision of our leaders for a robust, resilient and sustainable higher education sector. And that is why we initiated this research with KPMG and the Talent Enterprise: to provide actionable data on youth sentiment and fuel Dubai’s knowledge and innovation-based economy. Understanding what matters to young people today has never been so important, with major developments impacting the type of skills or talent required for future jobs. The UAE is a desirable destination for youth, and universities need to expand the range of STEM and entrepreneurship-focused courses as demand for highly skilled talent rises.”

Role of educators and employers

Simkova added: “The research suggests that students demand more career guidance, and employers can certainly play a role here. By participating in university mentorship programmes and shaping entry-level graduate programmes that provide adequate career direction and baseline skills to youth, employers cannot only tap into available talent pools early on but also encourage careers in STEM, analytics and research that are key to nation building, thereby serving their social responsibility to the UAE.”

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Marketa Simkova, Head of People and Change, KPMG Lower Gulf, talks about empowering the future workforce and social drivers that help shape the next generation of talent at the ‘What About Youth?’ event on 2nd November, 2020 at the Dubai Knowledge Park. Photo Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Punshi said: “The current COVID-19 pandemic is necessitating most industries and organisations to significantly reinvent themselves, and the education sector is no exception. Educational institutions across the world, including the UAE, will need to find new ways of attracting, engaging and retaining students. Universities will need provide a compelling experience to students with the fast adoption of digital, immersive and blended learning platforms, along with ensuring that students do not miss out on the quality of interactions and social connections that they would in a typical classroom environment. This is possibly the most exciting yet most challenging time for educators to reform and reinvent.”

She added: “From a students’ perspective, our research shows that while students demonstrate a sense of achievement, grit, ambition, optimism and a growth mindset, they may need additional support in navigating the change and complexity we face today. Their ability to deal with ambiguity and to recover from setbacks, often known as resilience, as well as their sense of confidence, need to be nurtured and embedded into the education experience.”

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Radhika Punshi, Founder and Managing Director, The Talent Enterprise (centre), and Marketa Simkova, Head of People and Change, KPMG Lower Gulf (right), talk about empowering the future workforce and social drivers that help shape the next generation of talent at the ‘What About Youth?’ event on 2nd November, 2020 at the Dubai Knowledge Park. Photo Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Popular careers

The most popular areas of study for youth pursuing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees were business and management. UAE national youth are more inclined to pursue a career in consulting and business management in comparison to expat youth. Close to 40 per cent are keen to pursue careers in management, consulting, finance, HR and sales, with entrepreneurship a popular choice for 10 per cent.

With the UAE set for more space missions, STEM-related careers across science, engineering, technology, robotics and artificial intelligence are popular pathways, with 21 per cent interested in these fields. It is recommended by the study that educators and employers establish programmes and initiatives to encourage careers in these fields to meet the UAE’s vision for a knowledge-based economy empowered by highly skilled talent.

Students demand more guidance

An overwhelming majority (72 per cent) of students would like to receive better advice on the jobs market from career guidance counsellors, professors, faculty, alumni or mentors. Universities that provide better career guidance may be more likely to stay ahead, and it is recommended that they generate more forums to enhance the awareness of parents in career counselling, the study said.

Women more likely to wait for dream job

Women are more passion-driven towards their work and 85 per cent of them believe that their opinions matter. They’re also more willing to wait for their desired job than men, with many keen to pursue careers in human resources, education, social and life sciences. However, more may be done to empower young women. Incentivising women to participate in business cases and entrepreneurship initiatives is one recommendation.

Joint workshops

Following the launch of the key findings, DIAC, KPMG and The Talent Enterprise will jointly host a series of workshops to explore the research in greater detail. These will feature leading public and private sector experts to delve into the issues “that matter most to the youth of today”.