x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A new golden age of discovery relies on more than science

Vocational education is booming in the UAE. That's good for the economy – but there is more to a nation's life than economics

A few of my cousins are starting university this September and when I asked them about the fields of study they're planning to pursue they told me business, information technology and engineering. None of them were even considering non-vocational subjects, such as humanities and the social sciences.

My cousins are not alone. A new study by HSBC found that 84 per cent of UAE students prefer to study vocational subjects. Compare this to countries such as the UK, US and Canada, where 60 per cent of students are in vocational courses.

And this, of course, is not a new trend. During my own time at university, the majority of students majored in vocational subjects. Even those I know who were interested in other disciplines opted for vocational education, thinking that this was the best way to secure their futures. Sometimes they did so because of parental or peer pressure.

Despite the huge value that humanities can bring to the development of societies and the human mind, they are nowhere near the top of the list of subjects that students take.

One can argue that this is normal. The UAE is a small country that is rapidly developing its economy and infrastructure. There are demands for skilled employees in business, engineering, medicine and information technology. Furthermore, both the government and federal higher education institutions place a strong emphasis on promoting and supporting vocational education.

The Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute was established in 2007 to develop students' skills and prepare them for the workplace.

More and more students are enrolling in the institution that offers - in its entities across the emirates - courses in work-orientated, "real-life" subjects such as tourism, engineering, management and human resources.

Last year, 3,500 students were offered places at the institute, compared to 2,000 in 2011.

The Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), has also seen a steady increase in its own enrolment figures over the past five years. For the next academic year's admission, for example, they said that they have had 4,000 Emiratis competing for 1,850 places.

Vocational courses are important. They provide students with the expertise they need in certain fields, which will benefit the local economy.

However, over-specialisation could eventually mean the economy suffers from a lack of diversity. Not only that, the limited choices of subjects taken by undergraduate students might have an affect on the intellectual health of UAE society.

Vocational education does not encourage critical thinking, nor does it necessarily contribute to the intellectual scene of the UAE. Non-vocational study teaches us how to think critically and creatively, to ask questions, to reason, and look for answers. Despite this, there is a perception among young people that non-vocational degrees have no future in the job market.

But what do recruiters really want?

They often place a priority on "soft skills" such as problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, flexibility, initiative, effective communication and critical thinking. Acquiring raw subject knowledge is not critical in many fields, as this can be done during work experience, as part of a person's lifelong learning process.

Unfortunately, we are a society that doesn't always encourage diversity of thought.

We are taught to think in the same manner, to act in the same way, to study the same subjects, and to be the same in almost everything. Most of us don't value individualism as much as we should.

Humanities provide us with a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present and a better vision for the future.

If we want our society to move forward intellectually, we must not limit our efforts to science and technology. We have to give as much attention and support to the other areas of knowledge and cultural studies.

Vocational training is important for the development of the economy, but non-vocational education is critical for the growth of our mindset and society.

As Dana Gioia, the chairman of the US National Endowment for the Arts, once said: "The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price."

Those words have rarely seemed more appropriate or timely.



On Twitter @AyeshaAlmazroui