Trevor Spedding is the president of the University of Wollongong, Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied picture

‘I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a good book.’ Groucho Marx.

‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.’ Albert Einstein.

The above are two quotations relevant to the field of education that come to mind for Trevor Spedding, president of the University of Wollongong,

Dubai (UOWD) when asked to share his favourite quotes for this field. The man at the helm of affairs at one of the most vibrant campuses in the UAE says the best years of his life have been spent teaching rather than learning.

“For me, it is definitely teaching,” says Spedding. “I learn a lot more from teaching than when I read books. To teach well, you must really know your subject and be able to articulate in a way that is accessible and sparks your students’ imagination. When you get it right, it is the best feeling in the world. I have learned so much from my students.”

Having been with the University of Wollongong in Australia since 2005 (he was the Dean of Commerce), Professor Spedding comes to the UAE with a rich body of international experience having worked in the field of education across many continents. So how can you constantly push the boundaries of learning without losing your way?

“I don’t think you can ever lose your way,” is his belief. “When you are younger, a lot of your learning is factual,” he says. “As you learn more, you start building connections. The more you know, the more you can make the connections and that’s the foundation of a deeper understanding.”

Through the years in the field, what he has learnt that cannot be taught and only be experienced? “Empathy and emotional intelligence. But they are so important in the workplace,” he says.

Following is an email chat with Professor Spedding

Q: What’s the unique aspect of higher education in the UAE?

“Dubai must be one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Sitting in a classroom with students from all over the world is a unique learning experience. Understanding and respect for other people’s culture is an excellent preparation for the global workplace.”

Q: What basic concepts of education still define it best?

“This gets back to my two quotes. A good education should provide a student with the inspiration and empowerment to learn. There are so many distractions in today’s world, but if you are doing your job right, you will want to turn off the television and read a book. Knowledge on its own is pretty useless unless you have the imagination to apply it effectively and make a difference.”

Q: Can the spirit of enquiry be instilled or is it inbred?

“I think that everyone has the spirit of enquiry. Some people are born inquisitive. In others, it lies dormant. It is our job as educators to inspire our students to find the switch and turn it on.”

Q: What were the concerns that gripped you as a student? How many of those are relevant today?

“I did a degree in Mathematics, but not because it was my favourite subject. I was always more interested in the arts but I thought it would be easier to get a job at the end of my Maths degree. The major concern of most students is still the ability to get a good job after they graduate. However, there is growing evidence that employers are turning towards students with a good, broad education rather than in-depth knowledge in a specialist area.”

Q: What should be the constants in a student’s approach to knowledge? And the variables?

“The constants are the spirit of enquiry, dedication and the joy of learning. One of the most significant variables is contextualisation: How you best apply that knowledge may depend on your personal circumstances, your job, your community and culture, etc.”

Q: What’s your interpretation of ‘knowledge-based economy’?

“With the advent of the information age, the global economy has developed beyond agriculture and industrial-based economies to a situation where

a significant proportion of what we do is down to the knowledge of our workforce. The greatest resource we have is our people. It is critical, therefore, that as educators, we can respond to the challenge of helping to equip a workforce with skills that will allow them to contribute to their countries’ ongoing development.”

Q: What shapes the ethos of a university or college?

“The ethos of a university is shaped by its staff and students. It’s interesting to walk around the public areas, lounges and coffee shops of a university and listen to what the staff and students are talking about. If they are discussing intellectual issues rather than football or the latest

soap, then you know that you are creating a learning environment. An ex-student once told me that she got her first job because her employer was convinced that the education she obtained from the University of Wollongong prepared and/empowered her to make the right decisions. Feedback from past students and employers are some of the best indicators that you are providing a learning environment for your students.”

Q: How important are university rankings and what truths do they establish for an institution?

“Rankings are constructed in many different ways. Some give more weight to research, others to reputation, etc. Some things are easier to measure than others. For example, research output is relatively easy to measure but student experience is quite difficult. Rankings may be a good starting point for considering a university but should not be thought of as the absolute decision. Some of the best teaching universities in the world are not necessarily well-known for their research.”

Q: Describe your typical day at UOWD.

“There is no such thing as a typical day for me. That is why I enjoy my job so much.”

Q: What are UOWD’s benchmarks?

“UOWD is the oldest international university in the UAE, accredited by the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. We started in 1993, so 20 years is a reasonable time to set up some benchmarks. I would say we put into practice the University’s core values in the way we operate. Whether it’s our students or staff, the aim is to make our values of excellence, integrity, mutual respect, accountability, respect for diversity, and community partnerships part of their experience.”

Q: Should a college make a student career-ready or world-ready?

“Both. I feel that a university education should help you make the right decision. When you graduate and get your first job, it’s important to understand the consequences of your decisions, firstly in your discipline area, and then how your decision affects your company in the short-term and long-term, how your decisions affects your colleagues, the sustainability of the company, the local community, and the environment. It may even be necessary to understand the global perspective of your decisions if, for example, you are dealing with a workforce from a different country. It is important to understand the components and ramifications of your decisions so that you can hit the ground running in your first job.”

Q: What are your personal best practices? How do you apply them to your work?

“I have always enjoyed drinking a good cup of coffee but when I moved to Australia in 2005, I was really impressed by the quality of the coffee there. If my schedule allows, I try to get out of my office for a coffee break preferably with a colleague just to reflect on things. It helps to take time out to get things into perspective. I am writing this from a coffee shop.”

Q: If you had to be a student again, what would you do differently?

“As I mentioned, I did a degree in mathematics. It has served me well but I didn’t enjoy it at the time. And so I didn’t really enjoy higher education until I started my PhD. I should probably have sought a little more advice on what other degrees had to offer and picked something which I may have enjoyed more.”

Q: Your vision for UOWD?

“I would like UOWD to be the very best University in the UAE to study, teach or research.”

Q: Your message to students?

“I think it would be great if we could live our life backwards. I feel sorry that young people are forced make to make some of the most important decisions in their lives, without the experience and wisdom which comes from living before they really know what they want from their lives. So choose wisely, work hard, but ensure you enjoy yourself along the way.”