The higher education sector is on the cusp of a massive transformation as it seeks to catch up with the demands of a global shift in the way careers and businesses are defined. As against the historical trend of incremental adaptation to changing conditions, the ongoing transformation is of such scale that it will cause massive disruption to the concept of higher education as we know it.

Several colleges and universities around the world have already embraced the flexible hybrid model that offers a combination of virtual and physical classrooms. Apart from this, active learning has started supplementing lectures more than before, and course materials are shortened and digitised. We speak to a few experts from the sector in the UAE to understand what the latest trends are that will shape the future of higher education here.

Integration of curricula with occupational certificates

Dr Hamad Ebrahim Ali Odhabi, Vice Chancellor for Financial and Administrative Affairs at Abu Dhabi University says the COVID -19 pandemic demonstrated that teacher-led instruction can be transformed into online instruction seamlessly. However, he stresses that student-led learning requires both online and face-to-face instruction that allows students to learn from each other and develop interpersonal and life skills. As a result, he expects hybrid learning to be ubiquitous and the use of technology and appropriate pedagogy to advance.

Dr Hamad Ebrahim

“To produce work-ready students and complement the academic degree, it is expected that the integration of curricula with occupational certificates will be the norm. Each academic programme may include one or more professional certificates as a major requirement. It is also expected that coding and data analysis will be part of the general education for all students,” says Dr Odhaibi. He is also of the view that automation of processes to save time and improve access to resources using tools such as Power Automate and Zapier will be adopted by most colleges.

Experiential and skills-based learning

Another trend that will increasingly catch up in higher education is experiential and skills-based learning. Dr Karim Seghir, Chancellor of Ajman University, says his institution has already tied-up with a number of Industry Leaders to impart industry-relevant skills to its students. Long-lasting skills that educators need to impart will need to be related more to ways of thinking, rather than to specific technologies that in any case become obsolete after a certain time. And that is yet another emerging trend according to Dr Seghir. He agrees with Dr Ali Odhabi on the emergence of hybrid learning.

Dr Karim Seghir

“Online learning is one of the foremost trends that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced upon universities worldwide. And while universities are returning to on-campus learning, some form of online learning will have to be retained going forward, making hybrid learning the model to look out for,” says Dr Seghir. He adds that education institutions will have to train students not only for jobs in the public and private sector but also for entrepreneurship in their chosen fields if they wish to. He points out that AU has an Innovation Center that has already incubated more than 115 startups across various industry verticals driven by AU graduates from various academic fields.

Synchronous and blended learning

Pointing out that a significant shift has already occurred in the higher education sector as a response to the current market demands, Zawahir Siddique, Dean, Westford University College says synchronous and blended learning is the most trending higher education phenomenon and remains the institution’s focus and core delivery method. “To our advantage, we were able to foresee and adopt these changes almost a decade ago to offer our students, a healthy and safe work-life-study balance,” says Siddique, adding that modernising academic material to suit a digital and technologically advanced workforce, is the need of the hour.

Zawahir Siddique

Stressing the need for education to go hand in hand with the evolving market trends, he says programmes offered by institutions must provide students with an opportunity to receive practical and relevant industry exposure. Organisations are actively looking for candidates that adapt easily to changing work conditions and can be fluid in their job roles. The focus of the educational institutes should be to prepare students for a diverse work environment.

Relevance of learning content

Relevance of learning content is also pointed out as a major factor that will be considered in imparting quality higher education in future. “Higher education must be useful in the current and future context,” says Dr Phil Considine, Director of Executive Education at Strathclyde Business School. He suggests courses on sustainability, strategic foresight, and social skills.

Dr Phil Considine

“Courses must address technical skills gaps within the context of the future, but also social skills necessary for functioning in the workplace. Skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, dealing with multiple stakeholders etc. cannot be under-estimated,” says Dr Considine.

Stressing that learning must be based on practice he says higher education courses need a framework in place to ensure the knowledge and learning are applied. He cites the example of an MBA programme that has a module called Strategic Leadership Development where students explore the trends and future directions of strategic leadership in organisations as a reflective leadership journey and personal action-plan.

Personalisation and digitalisation

Experts like Dr Considine are of the view that higher education should be personalised, offering students an individualised learning agenda with flexibility in delivery and framework of micro-credentials. “Finally, the digitalisation of materials delivery and global connectivity — the benefits of displacement during the pandemic accelerated digitalisation, remote learning and pace of innovation, this should be a continuum,” he says.

As the higher education landscape continues to evolve and follows a transformative path, more important and disruptive education trends are bound to emerge in the near future, further redefining education at this level. Until then, these are some that you must keep tabs on.

Microcredentials - Closing the skills gap
Microcredentials, or expandable qualifications, have become a critical corridor for learners to advance their careers, gain higher pay, and display competency in a shorter timeframe than what full degree programmes allow. While the popularity of micro-credentials is growing, there are concerns if the skills developed through these credentials are only valuable in the short term. Are short-term credentials a sustainable option with long-term career outcomes?
“With workplace automation and digital transformation becoming a top market priority, there has been an unprecedented demand for a resilient and adaptable workforce. Micro credentials are a useful way of addressing skills gaps over the long-term. According to the WEF, upskilling and reskilling will play an increasingly important role in enabling firms to build the capacity to respond to technological changes. More employers are changing their approach to employee training and development programmes. As bite-sized qualifications that demonstrate skill and knowledge, micro credentials give employees the opportunity to obtain knowledge in niche subjects or even wider ones. The workplace can effectively benefit from them due to their flexibility and cost-effectiveness. They also promote a culture of lifelong learning and give employees the opportunity to explore subjects of interest and implement them in their own way. The key to the sustainability of micro credentials rest on the ability of providers to build the necessary architecture for these to be accumulated into high-level certification and awards through credit recognition.”
- Professor Paul Hopkinson, Head of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai and Academic Lead for Heriot-Watt Online
heriot watt
Professor Paul Hopkinson, Head of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai and Academic Lead for Heriot-Watt Online Image Credit: Supplied