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The combination of geopolitical shifts, technological advancements, and the drive for sustainability transition has created a landscape of continuous disruption, compelling universities to embark on a transformative journey. Higher education institutions globally are transcending conventional boundaries to emerge as both the critical forces of innovation as well as the architects of the future workforce.

Amid this transformative wave, universities in the UAE are spearheading a change, becoming agile, anticipatory and creative. With dynamic curricula, flexible learning and assessment strategies, and robust industry connections, these institutions are preparing graduates to succeed in the evolving labour market.

Across disciplines, from science, medicine and engineering to humanities and business studies, the launch of industry-relevant courses is further reshaping the educational landscape, offering students unparalleled opportunities for growth and exploration.

Curricula modification

“Our outlook is always global to reflect the business world,” says Prof Fiona Robson, Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai. “We involve a range of stakeholders to input into our curricula design. This includes our international advisory boards who play a pivotal role in evaluating our plans and sharing their expertise on current and future trends. Our academics are constantly involved in horizon scanning to identify future trends, which are reflected in their curricula as well as research,” she says.

Prof Fiona Robson, Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Embracing a comprehensive approach to education, universities in the UAE are creating an ecosystem where students not only develop subject knowledge but also cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and a deep understanding of real-world applications. The shift is evident in the launch of interdisciplinary courses, cross-disciplinary research, and hands-on experiences — woven into the academic structure.

“We continuously evolve our technology education initiatives to meet the growing demand for interdisciplinary professionals. Our approach integrates cutting-edge advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, data science, cybersecurity, and digital transformation across various disciplines, including engineering, business, architecture and the sciences,” says Dr Tod A. Laursen, Professor and Chancellor, American University of Sharjah (AUS).

Dr Tod A. Laursen, Professor and Chancellor, American University of Sharjah

“Through collaborative projects, cross-disciplinary coursework, and experiential learning opportunities, we equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in today’s technology-driven landscape and thrive in interdisciplinary roles,” he adds.

Recognising the ever-evolving nature of the healthcare landscape, characterised by unpredictable changes, Gulf Medical University (GMU) has developed a curriculum that combines the humanistic principles of medicine with cutting-edge technology, research, and core medical sciences.

“By embracing this comprehensive approach and prioritising early clinical exposure, we ensure that our graduates are well-equipped to meet the multifaceted demands of modern healthcare and make meaningful contributions to the UAE and beyond,” says Prof. Hossam Hamdy, Chancellor, Gulf Medical University.

Prof. Hossam Hamdy, Chancellor, Gulf Medical University

“Changes in healthcare encompass not only advancements in technology, with new innovations emerging daily, but also shifts in societal expectations, which continually escalate in complexity and demand,” adds Prof. Hamdy.

Central to GMU’s educational approach is an emphasis on behavioural sciences and communication skills alongside biomedical sciences. “By nurturing empathy and understanding in our graduates, we cultivate healthcare professionals who can sensitively navigate the emotional complexities of patient care and respond proficiently to the evolving needs of diverse communities,” he says.

Moreover, GMU has seamlessly integrated artificial intelligence and informatics into its curriculum. “By equipping our students with the tools to analyse vast quantities of data and make informed decisions, we empower them to thrive in an increasingly data-driven healthcare landscape.”

Meanwhile, business education is undergoing a significant transformation to align with the evolving market trends.

“At Westford, MBA programmes are meticulously designed to not only meet but anticipate the current and future needs of the business world. In addition to fundamental business concepts, the curriculum integrates cutting-edge topics such as digital transformation, sustainability, data analytics, AI, entrepreneurship and global business trends,” says Hanil Das, Co-founder and CEO, Westford University College.

Hanil Das, Co-founder and CEO, Westford University College

“Emphasis is placed on fostering leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills through experiential learning opportunities, industry collaborations, and case studies,” adds Das.

Knowledge to action

Sustainability principles are now integrated across various academic disciplines, ranging from engineering and business to social sciences and the arts, empowering students to drive positive changes in their future careers. Through experiential learning and community engagement initiatives, students are encouraged to find solutions to pressing environmental, social and economic challenges, thereby fostering a culture of sustainability both on campus and beyond.

“Sustainability is a core value at AUS. Approximately 72 per cent of all AUS undergraduate and graduate courses have at least some component related to sustainability. Through environmental organisations, we have launched several sustainability-focused programmes and initiatives. We have also created a comprehensive Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce the university’s carbon emissions. Moreover, many of our faculty and students are actively engaged in sustainability research and major environmental events such as COP28,” says Dr. Laursen, adding, “These efforts have seen AUS ranked among the world’s top 600 universities in sustainability, according to QS World University Rankings: Sustainability (2024).”

Bridging the gap

In response to the changing dynamics of the job market, universities are enhancing their support services such as internships, co-op programmes, and industry outreach activities to help students with practical exposure and networking opportunities.

“Westford proactively adapts to meet workplace demands, especially in business studies and executive education. Key strategies include internships and collaborations with companies like HCL, Alibaba and other leading corporations, providing hands-on experience. These internships bridge the gap between theory and practice, enhancing skills and employability,” says Das. “Collaborations with industry help us tailor programmes and meet current needs, ensuring graduates are equipped with skills for success. Through partnerships, guest lectures, and events, Westford fosters symbiotic academia-industry relationships, empowering students for today’s dynamic business world,” Das points out.

One of the hallmarks of GMU’s transformative curriculum is the early exposure of students to real-world healthcare settings. “Unlike traditional programmes that delay such exposure until later stages, we believe in immersing our students in clinical environments from day one. By engaging with patients and their experiences from the outset, students develop a deeper understanding of the human aspect of medicine – a facet often overlooked in conventional curriculum,” says Prof Hamdy.

At Heriot-Watt Dubai, students are exposed to real-life case studies and industry guest speakers, initiatives that help them put theories into practice. “Students benefit from our extensive connections with organisations and professional bodies who share their expertise and opportunities. We promote many internships, and all students work with our careers service to develop their future plans,” points out Prof. Robson.

Moreover, the focus on creating more opportunities for research, innovation and entrepreneurship underscores a commitment of the UAE’s education system to align with global standards. Universities are encouraging cutting-edge research to not only empower students with valuable knowledge and experiences but also provide solutions to some of the world’s most critical challenges. ■