Education is one of the critical elements of an innovation ecosystem. Here, Professor David Sadler, Provost at the University of Birmingham Dubai explains the role that universities can play in supporting the UAE's ambitions for the next 50 years
The new academic year is well under way and the UAE is abuzz with Expo 2020 Dubai and preparations for the country’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The UAE is less than half the age of the University of Birmingham but in that time, it has already achieved some incredible feats, propelling itself onto the global stage – and even sending a spacecraft to Mars.
Education has in no small part helped the country rise to its towering heights and will be the fuel that drives progress over the next 50 years.
The UAE recently unveiled a range of exciting policies as part of the Projects of the 50 initiative, which comes as a significant boost for young Emiratis set on embarking on an ambitious career.
The bold plans set out by Projects of the 50 - for instance spending up to Dh24 billion ($6.53bn) on getting 75,000 Emiratis into private sector jobs - will require higher education institutions to cultivate the local minds needed to fuel the country’s bold ambitions.
If the next generation of innovators and trailblazers is going to help the UAE meet its national objectives, then universities in the country will need to ensure they are aligned with the country’s trajectory. The UAE recently announced plans to attract the world’s best coders to the country, as part of the “100 Coders Every Day” programme, for example.
This move indicates the potential level of demand for computer science graduates over the coming few years and represents a major opportunity for young, local students interested in carving a career in some of the most exciting, fast-moving, and rewarding sectors.
Top universities are making established degrees such as Computer Science and entirely new ones, like Artificial Intelligence and Bioinformatics, readily available.
Teaching methods are also worthy of consideration. World-class, research-led teaching is the foundation of any higher education experience and students can benefit from being taught by the academic staff writing the research papers and the textbooks.
While students and universities may have become used to and relatively comfortable with virtual classes over the last 18 months, face-to-face teaching is now being prioritised where possible. The bimodal approach that mixes virtual and physical teaching has made higher education more accessible than ever, but now we are thinking about how technology can supplement face-to-face teaching, rather than replace it.
Incorporating technology into the physical learning environment is part of the natural evolution of teaching. Fourth Industrial Revolution technology, like AI and blockchain, will weave its way through every stage of the supply chain in industries of the future, so it is important that universities prepare students now for the workplaces of the future.
Education providers today have the unique challenge of equipping students with the skills and knowledge needed to fulfil the jobs of tomorrow – many of which do not even exist yet. Technology will continue to play a central role in the future of education and will be particularly important in the UAE’s education sector, which is working to build a competitive industrial sector and digital economy over the Next 50. Indeed, the country needs capable students with core skills but also with the ability to adapt and apply knowledge to future industries and sectors still being forged.
Recently, Siemens and the University of Birmingham Dubai announced the launch of a new ‘smart campus’ right here in the UAE. The partnership sees digital sensor and analytics technologies, AI, decentralised energy generation and storage, and renewable energy combine to create a ‘living lab’, where research, teaching and learning all benefit from access to new data and connectivity. Already, we can see that the need for a blended approach to teaching, incorporating advanced solutions, is creating significant new opportunities for edtech partnerships between multiple private and public sector entities with universities at the core of such collaborations.
There is huge local and national value in universities making such long-term commitments to their local communities – Birmingham is not alone in making significant investments in the UAE. If higher education really is going to create the calibre of graduates needed to drive the Projects of the 50 and industries of the future, institutions need to become part of the fabric of the nation.
All of us working in higher education have a significant responsibility in ensuring students are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need not only to succeed in their own careers, but also in helping the UAE to achieve its goals over the next 50 years.
We know that investments in technology and collaboration with public and private sector entities will help to build the kind of facilities and ecosystem fitting of a global education hub. The trick is to act now to help power more accomplishments like the Emirates Mars Mission and support the country on its ongoing odyssey of exploration and development over the next 50.