x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Learning from the past to steer long-term education policy

Sensible education policy requires - and in the UAE it is getting - careful and thorough long-term planning at all levels.

At the start of each new school year, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of UAE University. The speech provides an important benchmark for shedding light on national education policy, which has become one of the most urgent development priorities.

There are certainly lessons that can be gleaned from the experiences of other countries. This year, listening to Sheikh Nahyan's speech, I recalled a press conference way back in 1986, between then-US president Ronald Reagan and the prime minister of Japan of the day, Nakasone Yasuhiro.

The context of the meeting was a diplomatic crisis that revolved around the trade imbalance between the two countries, particularly the growing dominance of the Japanese carmakers. (Of course, the United States now has similar concerns about Chinese goods.)

When Mr Reagan raised these issues during the press conference, there was a telling moment of diplomatic theatre.

Mr Yasuhiro looked directly into the eyes of Mr Reagan and said: "Mr President, this issue will not be resolved if you fail to change the curriculum of education in your country."

Listening to that comment, which was a strong criticism of his US hosts, I was astonished by the American president's calm response. Mr Reagan simply smiled and answered: "Yes, I agree."

Both leaders recognised the clear link between their economic competitiveness and the fundamental quality of education. In recent years, the UAE has come to a similar conclusion: in this technological age, the educational system is the key foundation of every other aspect of society. The future of the country is inextricably entwined with the quality of education, and in turn with the resources that are being invested.

It must be admitted that the previous education system in the country was very weak - and those in neighbouring countries continue to be deeply flawed.

Part of the solution is to bring foreign expertise into the sector. But the efforts to reform education must be traced back to the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. The development strategy takes a decades-long view, and education needs to be seen in that context. The Abu Dhabi Educational Council's plans to innovate in education throughout the school system, beginning with lower grades and extending through high school, have been in effect for the last two years, but are still in the initial stages.

In this year's speech at UAE University, Sheikh Nahyan described how this process would also affect the university system, including everything from curricula to the recruitment of teaching faculty and the overall administration.

UAE University is shifting from its role as a local institution to incorporate international standards that can accommodate students from all over the world.

Part of that process is forming partnerships with US educational institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California to foster top-tier research and development capability. Both of these universities are known for their scholastic achievements, the University of California for its Nobel-prize winning research faculty and the University of Southern California for its specialisation in fields of emerging technologies.

The partnerships that are being forged with UAE University are expected to be repeated at Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology as well.

That would constitute a fundamental change in the higher-education capacity at the federal level. And, as we have seen in other countries' experiences, in this globalised world, cutting-edge technology education is the bedrock of any competitive economy.

 

Dr Hasan Qayed Al Subaihi is an Emirati journalist and social commentator