x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Universities 'should focus on skills, not certificates'

Education experts tell workshop that students need to learn more about cognitive and social skills to find jobs in the private sector.

Students work at the welding and fitting workshop at VEDC Vocational Education Development Centre in Al Shahama.
Students work at the welding and fitting workshop at VEDC Vocational Education Development Centre in Al Shahama.

University students should be taught skills they can easily transfer to the workplace rather than focusing on degrees and certificates, education experts say.

The emphasis needs to be on developing Emirati students; cognitive and social skills so graduates can obtain jobs and "grow with their potential", said Naji Al Mahdi, the executive director of the National Institute for Vocational Education.

Mr Al Mahdi, speaking in Abu Dhabi at a workshop on Emiratisation, said the focus should be on creating an innovative generation that accepted change.

"We tend to think we give our students a high quality education by giving them a high-quality degree, but is this necessarily important?" he asked.

"What makes people more valuable to employers is not the bottom line, it is all the extra toppings."

Most Emirati graduates find work in the government sector, which provides higher salaries, more prestige and fewer working hours than the private sector.

But the Ministry of Labour requires employers in the private sector to have workforces that are 20 per cent Emirati.

The workshop, organised this month by the British Council to promote Liverpool John Moores University's (LJMU) World of Work programme, was dedicated to developing students' skills to help them find jobs.

In the UK, the programme runs with 300 partner companies using a curriculum specifically matched to the labour market. LJMU hopes to introduce a pilot programme in the UAE soon.

Mr Al Mahdi said he was interested to see how it would integrate the needs of employers into the classroom and boost Emiratisation.

"It's important they do it right from the start so that work placement does not become an end-of-the-line job," he said.

Higher education in the UAE "focuses too much on exposing students to content" and getting a specialist degree, which Mr Al Mahdi said was not enough to get by in the workforce. "We need to use a lot of other skills in life and this is missing in our education system," he said.

A 2010 study by the Confederation of British Industry showed that, along with good grades, useful skills and a positive attitude were the most important things employers look for - at 77 per cent and 68 per cent, respectively.

The survey quizzed just under 700 employers, who employ a total of about 2 million people.

It also found that only 8 per cent rated the university a student attended as important.

The World of Work programme is about teaching students self-awareness and understanding how "emotionally intelligent" they are, said Terry Dray, LJMU's director of graduate advancement and employer engagement.

The curriculum also focuses on awareness of organisations and business ethics, Mr Dray said.

"Recruiters often say that graduates who apply for jobs actually know nothing about the company," he said.

Mr Al Mahdi said the problem was that university life had become an extension of high school, which made young people "disillusioned".

"Education, at the end of the day, is supposed to be preparation for life," he said.

But David Kelly, the manager of student careers at Zayed University's Dubai campus, said students who only chose subjects that would land them a job could be missing out, as "every topic can lead to opportunities".

"You should choose your major based on your interests and skills, and what you're passionate about," Mr Kelly said.

Zayed University, which has five colleges around the country, is increasingly merging its subjects to cover a broader scope of interest, he said. It had also added a new degree in heritage, tourism and cultural studies.

Mr Kelly said there was "nothing worse than seeing a student who chooses to major in something they're not really interested in".

"A degree is not a finished product. It's a starting point," he said.

molson@thenational.ae