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‘Vocational education will play a critical role’

August 2016

Karim Daoud, Regional Managing Director of Pearson, says the UAE is seeing an increase in educational attainment levels, which is good

What are biggest challenges faced by higher education institutions in the UAE?
The higher education sector in the UAE is not alone when it comes to facing a set of complex and entrenched challenges. Figuring out how to adapt to, and indeed thrive, in a dynamic and technology-driven 21st Century education environment is just as much a challenge for university leaders here in the UAE as it is in North America or Europe. The economic drivers and environmental conditions may differ, but the challenges are equal. There is no doubt that massive and unprecedented change, driven by technological forces, is transforming the higher education landscape and response times for governments and institutions are shorter than ever before if they are to respond to change. The question for universities is how to channel such change into positive outcomes for universities and their learners.

Pearson has published a report dealing with this very issue, entitled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. This report, co-authored by an ex education advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues that the next 50 years could be a golden age for universities, but only if higher education leaders embark on a course of deep, radical and urgent transformation that sees their institutions respond to the demands of 21st Century learners. This report holds many lessons for universities in both the UAE and around the globe. These include:

  1. At the forefront of challenges facing universities is the need to offer good value to students, especially given the significant increase to the cost of university education over recent years. This issue becomes even more pressing when traditional university offerings are under pressure from alterative disruptors in the sector, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are forcing institutions to rethink their strategies.
  2. Competition amongst universities in attracting funding and talent has never been so fierce, so universities must also become better at distinguishing themselves and creating niche research and teaching offerings that set them apart, how and how quickly you adopt change is the only way to sustainable competitive advantage.
  3. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, universities in the UAE, like the rest of the world, must seek to prepare their students for working life and citizenship in a global, 21st Century world, an essential differentiator when it comes to graduate employment.

Do educational institutions in the UAE/GCC need to do more in order to better equip students with skills and knowledge?
The UAE, like many other countries in the region and indeed right around the world, is seeing an increase in educational attainment levels, which is of course, very good news. However, a common global challenge that is also being witnessed here in the UAE, is that despite the high levels of education being achieved, school leavers and graduates do not always have the skill set needed for success in the workplace.

We work closely with employers across the Arab world and one thing that we hear consistently is that new workplace entrants need to be better equipped with what we call 21st Century skills – that is, the skills required by modern, internationally orientated and competitive organisations. These skills are wide and varied but include leadership, digital literacy, communication, emotional intelligence, entrepreneurship, global citizenship, problem solving and team working. 21st Century skills are the type of skills that are transferable across roles and industries. By providing our young people with an education that includes these kinds of skills we are setting them up for lifelong career success, because these are the skills that will be of benefit for both themselves and their employers in the long term, regardless of the career path they choose. Like Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, says, “The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know”.

The Learning Curve, a joint initiative of Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit, issued a report in 2014 that held six key lessons about the importance of embedding skills into modern education systems that is very pertinent for the UAE. These lessons included:

  1. The OECD estimates that half of economic growth in developed countries in the last decade came from improved skills.
  2. It has become increasingly clear that basic reading, writing and arithmetic are not enough – the need for non-cognitive skills is pronounced.
  3. Teaching the right skills in childhood is far more effective than trying to improve the skills of adults.
  4. Lifelong learning helps stem age-related skill decline.
  5. Technology can provide new pathways into education but is no panacea – there is little evidence that technology alone helps individuals develop new skills.
  6. Developing countries must teach basic skills more effectively before they start to consider the wider skills agenda. There is little point in investing in pedagogies to foster 21st Century skills when the basics of numeracy and literacy are not in place.

Should there be more focus on imparting job-oriented or vocational education than the general education in the UAE to prepare a skilled workforce for the future as the economy is diversifying?
Here at Pearson we are passionate advocates for vocational education and view its importance as equal to that of purely academic-focussed education. Vocational education will play a critical role in helping governments across the Arab region achieve ambitious targets, for example, the UAE’s 2021 Vision of becoming a competitive, knowledge-based economy. Vocational education will also be increasingly important as the UAE prepares for a successful 2020 World Expo.

As the UAE economy expands into different sectors and becomes more globally orientated, the demand for a highly skilled and trained workforce will become even more pronounced. The Arab region’s ‘youth bulge’ – a demographic condition where the population is disproportionately represented by people under the age of 30 – presents opportunities for the region if utilised in the right way.

The region suffers from high levels of youth unemployment and yet is also characterised by a chronic lack of candidates to fill positions across all levels and all industries. In other words, we have a severe skills gap. This is where quality vocational education – evidenced by international accreditation and recognition – can offer enormous promise. By equipping young people with a vocational education that results in highly skilled, well remunerated and reliable employment, we are capitalising on the potential of the region’s youth bulge and helping secure a bright and prosperous future for not only individuals, but the wider community. Vocational education is arguably the most important means by which we can power the UAE’s move into sectors outside the oil and gas industry, leading to higher levels of productivity, economic growth and ultimately, the well-being of the UAE people.

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