GCC's higher education sector: Chalking out the future of tomorrow
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GCC’s higher education sector: Chalking out the future of tomorrow

GCC’s higher education sector: Chalking out the future of tomorrow

As industrial revolution and digital advancements scale the demand for technical and cross-functional skills, how has the regional higher education space responded?

Gulf Business

The GCC region has regarded education as a key element for sustained development. As regional governments pursued economic diversification in a bid to leverage non-oil-based sectors and develop knowledge-based economies, they held higher education as a priority.

Regional educational initiatives not only aim to leverage the potential of the GCC’s youth population – projected to grow to 65 million by 2030 – they also endeavour to prepare an entire generation of professionals with deep technological skills, essentially bridging the gap between existing skillsets and those that employers require in the future.

This transition towards innovation and sustained development warranted near- and long-term investments in human resources, infrastructure, and technology to keep up with the pace of science and technological revolution. To this end, regional governments have exerted concrete efforts to achieve qualitative and quantitative growth in the higher education space.

Through licenced institutions and well-articulated programmes, the higher education landscape of the UAE and other Gulf states aim to be more responsive towards the needs of local economies and contribute towards greater economic good.

“The UAE is becoming more competitive as an international education hub, competing with some of the more established education markets such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Over the past few years, we have witnessed an increase in the quality of education, a greater variety of tertiary education options for both local and international students and an increase in international branch campuses within the Emirates,” says Professor Mohamed Salem, president, University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD).

“In a short span of time, the GCC countries have elevated their positions on a global scale. This is not only due to the rapid developments in their economic infrastructures but also due to the groundwork that’s in place to promote trade and tourism.

Education is one of the sectors that has witnessed a significant transformation, mainly because of the internationalisation of higher education along with countries reforming the industry so that they are on par with global trends and best practices.”

Technological disruption, automation and other new skills have led to the manifestation of many new job opportunities across high-growth professions that warrant dynamic skillsets. The demand for ‘digital’ and ‘human’ factors is propelling growth in the professions of tomorrow across seven key professional clusters – data and AI; care economy; green economy; engineering and cloud computing; people and culture; product development; and sales, marketing and content, according to the World Economic Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow: Mapping Opportunity in the New Economy report.

Combined, these professions are set to generate 6.1 million new job opportunities in the coming three years, the report revealed.

“Increasing demand for high-growth professions has further driven the value of a range of distinctive skill sets that underwrite these seven professional clusters and their promise of growth and prosperity in the new economy. These in-demand skills can be divided into five distinct skills clusters: Business skills, specialised industry skills, general and soft skills, tech baseline skills and tech disruptive skills,” the report added.

“Up to 80 per cent of the learners in the Middle East believe that they need to develop their soft skills along with the traditional STEM knowledge, as per the findings of the 2019 Global Learner Survey by Pearson. Employers will be hiring people with uniquely human skills like creative thinking, reasoning and collaboration, strong interpersonal communication skills, EQ skills, diversity and cultural intelligence, and those who embrace and celebrate change,” opines Majid Mneymneh, vice president, Higher Education and Corporate, Pearson Middle East.

Higher education institutes in the UAE have tailored their programmes or added new ones, offering education that attends to the needs of growing market segments and industries.

“UOWD’s programmes are aligned with national priorities. One of our recent additions was the Global Executive Master of Luxury Management (GEMLux) degree, which gives students an international insight into the luxury goods and services market, with study tours to some of the world’s most iconic luxury shopping capitals. Students will also graduate with a dual qualification from UOWD and the internationally renowned MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy,” Professor Salem notes.

“Our Bachelor of Nursing is a two-year bridging programme that will enable nurses to maintain their licence to practice nursing in the UAE healthcare sector. We also have a Masters of Nursing degree which is designed to position nurses at the forefront of innovation and best practice in the nursing profession. We have also introduced shorter executive education courses to help working professionals upskill and reskill in these times – we offer a three-day programme on Internet of Things (IoT) with a focus on IoT as a leadership opportunity and how to use it as a mechanism to transform businesses.

Other programmes in these formats include Digital Content Marketing, Logistics Analytics and Simulation, Business Intelligence and Data Mining,” he adds.

Industrial revolution, digital advancements and a shift in consumer needs have not only created millions of job opportunities, but have also scaled the demand for technical and cross-functional skills.

“AI and automation are constantly on the rise and the report by the World Economic Forum reveals that about five million occupations will cease to exist by 2030, as artificial intelligence and robotics replace human intervention. Ten years from now, we will witness a lot of jobs spin off from technologies that are emerging today — drones, alternative energy, VR and augmented reality, cybersecurity and blockchain developments,” Mneymneh opines.

“Although the future jobs are still not known, we are supporting educational institutions to increasingly adopt a curriculum that caters to a blend of practical and soft skills such as data analytics, leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving, cognitive ability and creativity, to provide students with the right skillset to work and collaborate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to PwC research. Given the potential of disruptive technologies, regional governments have embarked aggressively on a strategy to build knowledge-based and technologically advanced economies. While Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a robot in 2017, the UAE has launched the world’s first graduate-level, research-based AI university.

The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) in Abu Dhabi will offer Master of Science (MSc) and PhD level programmes in essential areas of AI – Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Natural Language Processing – while empowering students and engaging businesses to advance AI as a force for positive transformation. The university’s first academic year is scheduled to start in January 2021 and it has received applications from over 80 countries. The university will provide all admitted students with a full scholarship plus benefits.

Another university in the UAE capital that is offering AI tailored courses is Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. In January, the university inaugurated the Sorbonne Centre for Artificial Intelligence focused on developing fundamental and applied research, and around the research centre, it is launching two executive training programmes including one on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence and another on Actuarial Specialist in Data Science.

Meanwhile, Ajman University also announced a Master of Science programme in Artificial Intelligence, scheduled to start in the academic year 2020-2021. Also targeting regional executives interested in AI is Microsoft, which launched its AI Business School a year ago. Its AI Business School, run in collaboration with INSEAD, offers free online course materials including brief written case studies and guides and videos of lectures, perspectives and talks that executives can access.

These academic initiatives are in line with the UAE’s vision to bring this discipline to the forefront, leading the nation into a new AI-empowered era. The UAE ranked 19th on the Government Artificial Intelligence Readiness Index 2019 compiled by Oxford Insights and the International Development Research Centre. Oman ranked 59th while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait ranked 78th and 79th respectively.

Meanwhile, Bahrain is aiming to prepare the next generation of cloud professionals, equipping them with skills needed for the future of business. In 2019, University of Bahrain announced that it would introduce a one-year cloud computing certificate, and a full cloud computing bachelor’s degree – in collaboration with AWS Educate’s Cloud Degree initiative. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud platform, and its global initiative, AWS Educate, aims to provide students and educators with resources to expedite cloud-related learning.

Meanwhile, in the UAE, Al Dar University College offers a Bachelor of Information Technology in Cloud Computing for students keen to work in areas such as network infrastructure, storage technology, data-centre and virtual server administration.

Such offerings are in line with the growing requirements of regional organisations, who are seeking individuals with deep technology skills. Almost 73 per cent of UAE-based firms are already deploying some form of cloud-based solution, research by the International Data Corporation (IDC) that was commissioned by Microsoft reveals. Meanwhile, over 90 per cent of UAE-based organisations are undergoing digital transformation initiatives.

To support this ecosystem, Microsoft has launched its Cloud Society initiative, which offers training and engagement opportunities with cloud experts and has over 256,000 members across the Middle East and Africa.

Digital transformation
Regionally, the Covid-19 outbreak may have expedited distance learning, but higher education institutes were already graduating towards a more blended academic approach.

“Digital transformation has been ongoing for a number of years now. Our current circumstances have mandated many educational institutions to use distance learning as a learning delivery system, however, its viability has been present for some time. The more technology advances, the more we will witness institutions adapting to educational and student needs,” states UOWD’s Professor Salem.

“Through distance learning, we are able to educate a higher number of international students as more and more students look for greater flexibility and accessibility to education. It particularly serves students who are employed full-time or are remotely based and do not wish to compromise on gaining high-quality accredited education. Additionally, we are also able to virtually offer education fairs to let students experience our offerings from the comfort of their own homes,” he says.

But does digital transformation for higher education institutes have a slightly different bearing in terms of a deeper shift in their operating models and value propositions?

Perhaps yes, as it would potentially impact all business segments. But as millennials adopt technology at an unprecedented pace, for higher education institutes to go down the digital route in the future would yield considerable benefits as digital systems and software would enhance communication between faculty members and students, aid in effective workload management, improve student evaluation and activate intervention protocols where necessary, offer instant resource access via digitised documents or digital libraries, and potentially engage an international student base.

“Higher education is one of the biggest sectors that is well positioned to derive considerable benefits from digital transformation,” states Mneymneh.

“The main advantage of online education is flexibility. Traditionally, students were required to travel to fulfil degree requirements and gain a recognised degree to launch themselves in their respective careers. With the advent of online learning, an individual can continue to work full-time while getting an additional degree or can get an accredited educational degree from an international institute without the need to travel to their campus and with the freedom to direct their own study schedule,” he adds.

It remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 will completely overhaul the education system of the future. But what is certain, is that it will never be the same.

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