DUBAI—University, government and industry professionals gathered at a conference here last week amid wide—but still scattered—efforts to link higher education with industry in the United Arab Emirates.
The conference brought professionals together to discuss potential partnerships and collaboration after a 2013 regional workforce study revealed a dearth of qualified graduates in crucial industries that are looking to hire.
“There is clearly a gap between what the market needs and what the universities here are producing,” said Marwan Abdulaziz, executive director of TECOM Investments’ Science Cluster, in a conference session about the healthcare industry.
The problem isn’t unique to the UAE: In Egypt, unemployment is regarded as being partly driven by failure on the part of the nation’s public education system to keep up with capacity required for industry growth. “The government, young people and the private sector operate with very different mindsets,” said Shahinaz Ahmed, CEO of Education for Employment-Egypt, in an interview last year with Al Fanar-Media. “It’s almost as if they live in different eras of history and they speak very different languages.”
In the UAE, experts said bridging the gap between industry, academia and government is key to advancing local economies.
In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, oil and gas and the construction industries account for about 50 percent of GDP. Most Emiratis are currently employed in public administration, defense and security. And more than 30 percent of the total workforce is employed in the construction industry, according to data presented at the conference by Arif Al Hammadi, executive director of the higher education sector in the Abu Dhabi Education Council.
As the emirate seeks to shift its economy away from dependence on oil and gas and move into areas including aerospace and healthcare, the council is working to ensure that education is aligned with employer needs. The council is also providing stipends and scholarships to encourage students to enter fields where demand for skilled employees is high, Al Hammadi said. Some of those fields are finance, accounting, tourism and medicine, he said.
Universities are also trying to bridge the gap.
The Higher Colleges of Technology—a federal university with 17 campuses across the UAE—established industry advisory councils in every city where it operates, said Mohammad Omran Al Shamsi, chancellor of the university. The councils are comprised of potential employers from public and private sectors who advise academic staff about topics relevant to industries.
Last year, Al Shamsi introduced a second layer to the effort that allows company leaders to meet with university representatives and discuss their directions for the future, “not for tomorrow—for five, 10, 15 years,” Al Shamsi told Al-Fanar Media.
Another effort, the Emirates Foundation’s Kafa’at Program, aims to give Emiratis access to, and opportunities in, the private sector—and to help them understand what the sector is, Clare Woodcraft-Scott, CEO of the foundation, said at the conference.
But it remains unclear how effective such efforts are amid numerous challenges in linking universities and industries.
“There is an element of doubt between these two different entities,” said Ayoub Kazim, managing director of TECOM Investments’ Education Cluster, which hosted the December 10 conference. Universities harbor hesitations regarding funding or support they could get for students, programs, internships or research & development, while industries may be wary that academic institutions are revenue-driven, he said.
“We need to clear the air between them and we need to have that kind of healthy atmosphere where they could have continuous collaboration on various levels,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
Daniel Kratochvil, director of the office of planning and performance at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, said a lot of universities have realized the need for partnerships between the private sector and higher education. “A lot of universities discussed this, but it’s hard to do,” he said. There are challenges in committing the human resources and in determining the level of engagement and the logistics of how to form links, he said.
“I don’t think a university in this country has reached their full potential in this area,” he added.
Next year, a new university for medicine and health sciences is set to open in a complex called Dubai Healthcare City that hosts healthcare providers, companies and educational facilities. “We are all the main stakeholders of this game, and of this healthcare system, so we need to speak to each other,” said Amer Sharif, managing director of education at Dubai Healthcare City.
There has been a kind of Great Wall of China between these entities, he said, “but I think it’s now time that everyone speaks to each other.”