x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Growing shortage of skilled graduates

Universities need to play a bigger role in helping fund research and train researchers, experts warn.

DUBAI // The country's universities are collectively failing to turn out graduates with the skills the economy needs, regional academics said this week.

Despite a pressing need for graduates in science and technology, transportation and logistics, teenagers continue overwhelmingly to sign up for courses in business, according to Dr Ayoub Kazim, the managing director of Dubai International Academic City.

Speaking at the QS Maple conference on globalising higher education in the Middle East and Africa, Dr Kazim called on private universities to play a bigger role in helping fund research and train researchers - an area in which the country is "lagging behind".

"We're lacking the funds, in spite of having so many institutions," he said. "Last year we hit the one trillion dirham mark for our GDP, so that means we need to be allocating Dh20bn at least.

"If you want to be considered on par with developed countries, you need to allocate between two and five per cent of your GDP to this area."

Only one in 250 - just 0.4 per cent - of Dubai's students are studying for doctorates, while two in five (42 per cent) are taking business-related degrees. One in 11 (nine per cent) is studying engineering, and one in 20 (five per cent) either science or medicine.

The picture is similar elsewhere in the UAE and around the region - including Bahrain, according to Dr Yousef Abdul Ghaffar, president of The Kingdom University. He blamed poor maths and science teaching in schools.

“It’s a big problem for any country,” he said. “After 10 years, you’ll have no doctors, engineers, nothing. It should be solved quickly.”

Mohammed al Ohani, deputy ministry for educational affairs in Saudi Arabia, said universities need to meet the needs of society.

“We want to develop into a world-class system of a knowledge-based economy by 2025,” he said. “But for this we need more research centres, more institutions, sustainable funding and educational leadership.”

Dr Warren Fox, executive director of higher education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which licences Dubai’s universities, says that while it is impossible to legislate what programmes institutions offer, the KHDA is actively trying to encourage them to take heed of under-served areas.

For the last two years, it has been compiling figures on what institutions offer which programmes, in order to assess where the problems lie. Key gaps include trade, retail and tourism.

The KHDA’s responsibility, he says, is to find the balance of offering programmes students want, and meeting the country’s economic and social needs.

“With the existing institutions, we bring them in and discuss with them the under-served areas and encouragethem to bring new options,” he said. “We hope they’ll consider areas such as architecture, physical science, nursing, areas like this.”

One new institution, Amity University from India, which will open its doors later this year, will offer courses including nuclear science and hospitality administration – a much better match, says Dr Fox.

The nuclear science course meets a particularly pressing need. “In seven years, the nuclear plant will be running in Abu Dhabi and we need to manage future expectations,” said Dr Kazim.

Transport and logistics companies – including Emirates and Etihad airways, the Road and Transport Authority in Dubai and the Dubai Ports Authority – are also crying out for experts.

“It’s a huge sector which requires both administrative and technical expertise,” added Dr Kazim. “But we can’t tell universities which programmes to offer, we can only make suggestions.”

With 49 of Dubai’s 52 universities in the private sector, the market rules, with institutions overwhelmingly offering the courses they see as most likely to attract students.

They are adamant, though, that regulation is not the answer. “I don’t believe that legislation or quotas address the issue,” said Dr Lance de Masi, president of the American University in Dubai.

“What to teach should be essentially the purview of universities, and what degree to pursue is a student’s prerogative.

“Students should, from early on in their primary school experience, be exposed to a wide variety of disciplines and be brought to an understanding of the relationships between those disciplines and the professions.”



Institutions target niche markets and non-business courses

Dubai // While there is no central control over what courses the UAE’s private universities offer, some are branching out of their own accord.

Middlesex University Dubai, a branch campus of a UK institution, now offers 32 courses in subjects including international development, tourism and journalism.

Still, 60 per cent of its 1,750 students study business.

“We have taken a conscious decision to expand our portfolio of programmes to include areas that we believe will be of importance in the future,” said its director, Prof Raed Awamleh.

He admitted, though, that “student demand may not be optimal at this time”, blaming lack of understanding of the careers other degrees might lead to.

Others are taking a more selective approach, looking for niches that are as yet not catered for. The University of Wollongong in Dubai spotted the growing demand for logistics, and introduced a master’s degree in the field three years ago.

“We saw it as an opportunity for us,” said Prof Rob Whelan, its president. “It’s been very effective as there’s clearly a need for people to be trained at master’s level. The UAE and especially Dubai has been setting itself up as a logistics hub.”

Similarly Cass Business School in Dubai, part of City University in London, is launching an MSc in aviation this week.

It runs the same course in Britain, where 80 of the 450 students are from the Gulf, around half of those Emiratis, Bahrainis and Omanis. That, according to Prof Roger Wootton, the course director, showed the need for a local programme.

The American University of Sharjah, meanwhile, is expanding its trade and industry-related programmes, with courses including a master’s degree in urban planning.

*Melanie Swan