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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

Plan to overhaul education will pay dividends

Human capital, not oil, is the country’s most important resource as it looks to the future

The Government plans to develop science and technology degrees as part of a future-facing education overhaul. Courtesy UAEU
The Government plans to develop science and technology degrees as part of a future-facing education overhaul. Courtesy UAEU

In 1976, the UAE was home to one university and 20 schools. Today that number has grown to 70 institutions of higher learning and 1,600 schools, but extraordinary growth brings both change and complexity. It is for this reason that the remarks of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, at the World Government Summit, provide a compelling snapshot of today and tomorrow.

“We need a new system of education that looks into the future,” said Sheikh Abdullah, who chairs the Education and Human Resource Council. “Educational institutes need to have new models to follow, that are constantly evolving and adaptable to changes around them.” He also spoke about breaking “old moulds” and for young graduates and school leavers to think beyond government jobs. Sheikh Abdullah discussed plans to overhaul this country’s education system to prepare graduates for the age of Artificial Intelligence and the next industrial revolution. Children will need to develop skills in technology, finance and engineering. Talent in computing will need to be recognised and fostered. In higher education, the Government plans to develop science and technology degrees. This is in broad recognition that our world is changing at a fast rate and that persistent investment is required in education.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told the summit that 65 per cent of primary students today will work in jobs that currently don’t exist. Many university graduates today lack the skills employers demand. Universities produce well-rounded individuals, but if it is their role to produce graduates ready to immediately enter the workforce, many are underperforming. Institutions, parents and guardians must take steps together, Sheikh Abdullah said. Currently too few Emiratis aspire towards private sector careers. At the dawn of a new global reality, graduates need to look beyond guaranteed jobs in the public sector.

The underlying message in all of this is that human capital, not oil, is this country’s most important resource. For many years now, the UAE has recognised this reality and acknowledged that change must take place - that moulds must be broken - and that in periods of change there is also opportunity.

Speaking at the same event three years ago, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy ­Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said: “In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be sad? If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you we will celebrate at that moment.” Taken together, the comments by Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Abdullah tell us much: the future of the country we know will be post-oil. We also know that the UAE has a long history of prudent investment. The recognition that expenditure must be supplemented by innovation suggests the dividends from oil will accrue long after the last barrel of oil is delivered.