x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A university education is not just about getting a job

The figures paint a depressingly clear picture: higher education in the UAE is first and foremost seen as preparation for the workplace.

There are only two students studying philosophy and 20 students studying history at university in the UAE, according to official statistics. Of equal, if not greater, concern is the small number of students studying maths and science in general, compared to applied and vocational subjects.

The knowledge and research capacity may suffer because of this over-specialisation, but there is another question: where will the next generation of teachers come from?

The declining number of students studying humanities and social science subjects is not restricted to the UAE. There has been a worldwide trend that views education as a subset of economics and vocational degrees as more preferable than traditional, generic degrees. In the UK, for example, a recent study published in The Observer indicated that poorer students are rejecting humanities in favour of vocational subjects.

Academics in Europe and the United States have expressed concern about the long-term implications and intellectual health of societies when undergraduate degrees narrow to a few subjects, but there are still a significant number of students studying courses in non-vocational subjects in western universities.

This is not so in the UAE. While 14 per cent of students in the UK are studying maths and pure sciences - and the British government is concerned that this figure is too low - less than 3 per cent of UAE students are pursuing these subjects. Art and design attracts 11 per cent of students in the UK; only 2 per cent in the UAE. On the vocational side, business and management courses attract 13 per cent of the students in the UK; a massive 29 per cent in the UAE. Seventeen per cent of UAE students are enrolled in engineering programmes, against 7 per cent in the UK.

These figures paint a depressingly clear picture: higher education in the UAE is first and foremost seen as preparation for the workplace. This message was reinforced recently by Dr Ayoub Kazim, the chief executive of Knowledge Village and Academic City in Dubai, who called for more programmes in areas such as tourism and hospitality (despite the substantial number of courses offered and even a specialist university catering to this industry) in order to fill the "gaps" in Dubai's economy.

There are serious social implications from this narrow focus of undergraduate degrees. But even at an individual level, is this level of specialisation actually the best way to prepare students for their professional lives?

One of the most common observations in modern life is that successful workers are likely to hold a number of different jobs during their working lives. On average, people aged 60 to 64 have held 6.7 jobs in the UK and 10.5 in the US.

The same trend is apparent in the UAE. At a recent Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research conference in Abu Dhabi, I asked the packed hall how many people were working in the same area that they had studied for their first degree. Only a handful of the audience raised their hands.

It is clear that a successful worker in the modern world is not someone with specialised vocational skills, but a person who has flexibility and the ability to adapt to the changing world in which they work. It can be argued that a general liberal arts degree is a much better initial preparation for work than highly specialised vocational degrees.

The same point was made by Lord Dearing, the principal architect of the modern British university system, when considering undergraduate study in the 21st century. In many areas, specialist knowledge can be more appropriately acquired in post-graduate courses as part of lifelong learning, which is also a distinguishing feature of education in modern developed economies.

When asked about the skills required from graduates, recruiters consistently stress the importance of so-called "soft skills": critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and team work, creativity, adaptability and flexibility, initiative and entrepreneurship, and effective communication. Subject knowledge, a strength of vocational courses, is not high on the agenda of many industries.

Of course, there is a need for some vocational programmes in certain professions (medicine, law, education and engineering are obvious examples), but in many other jobs a degree in a social science or humanities can be more important. A journalist, for example, probably prepares by taking a general course in political science as opposed to in journalism. The famous Oxford PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) degree is the traditional foundation for the British civil service and for politicians, including the current prime minister David Cameron.

From another angle, my own son graduated with a good degree in mechanical engineering and now works in IT with a major international investment bank. During the boom years, major banks and corporations courted high-flying engineering students, not for their specialist knowledge, but for the transferable skills they possessed. Engineering courses have major project and group work components, and it is the soft skills learnt doing these tasks that are valued.

The UAE needs to reassess the emphasis on vocational degrees, with a view to the long-term social consequences of a narrow focus of education and to benefit students who are preparing for the workforce. If everybody has business and management degrees, there may not be much business to manage.

Mick Randall is an educational consultant and former dean of education at the British University in Dubai