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Higher Education and Human Capital are Interwoven

Published on: January 2010​
Genre: Education​ Category: Op eds​

By Fatma Abdulla

The most remarkable of the country’s achievements in education have been the increase in literacy rates through adult literacy programmes and the development of cost free and culturally acceptable education for all its citizens. Numerous plans are currently underway for reform of primary and secondary education and their results will be witnessed in the years to come. However, we must simultaneously take the necessary steps to identify and address issues within the nation’s higher education system to maintain the gains of previous decades and to meet the challenges of creating a knowledge economy.

Institutions of higher education in the UAE face difficulties similar to those faced by universities in both the developed and the developing worlds. These include: increased demand for higher education while funding remains stagnant or declines, low retention and graduation rates, and competition for students from the expansion of private institutions. The two most pressing challenges for education in the UAE are interrelated issues of its quality and relevance.

Both Unesco and the World Bank cite management inefficiencies for draining resources away from higher education and diminishing its quality. These inefficiencies include duplicative offerings, high dropout and repetition rates, and the allocation of a large portion of budgets to non-educational expenses. Indeed, these inefficiencies are also found in higher education institutions in the UAE.

Economic development is also associated with the need for more specialised workers. Inefficiencies hinder the ability of universities to adapt their offerings and to keep current with the needs of the labour market. The difficulty of students to move between institutions is a major limitation to universities here fulfilling their role as the engines of social and economic development. The UAE must consolidate its resources and move towards greater flexibility and connectivity in its programmes. This would contribute to increased differentiation in the academic programmes that are offered and to the development of centres of excellence and research within different institutions.

The attrition and no-show rates of students at federal institutions of higher education are high and a disproportionate number of males is present in both. Three key factors can be blamed for student attrition and must be addressed. The first is that students are inadequately prepared for the rigours of higher education. The second factor is a lack of commitment or clarity in the goals of students. The majority of students in federal universities are in the first generation of their families to pursue higher education. Research in various regions of the world has shown that these first generation college students are more likely to experience difficulties in accessing information relevant to understanding the importance of obtaining a college degree, which institution they should attend and which discipline to pursue. The inflexibility of the current system, forcing students to make decisions about their majors when they apply for post secondary education, also limits student options and contributes to attrition.

The dearth of Emirati faculty also creates inefficiencies at the budgetary level due to recruitment and development costs, turnover, and the length of time it takes for faculty from diverse backgrounds to develop relevant and meaningful learning experiences for national students. Federal higher education institutions must make a concerted effort to develop a pipeline of national faculty with the necessary skills to assume teaching and research positions.

The United Arab Emirates has made significant headway in building a higher education infrastructure that is comparable to, if not better than, most of its neighbours. It must now continue with its commitment to the human development of the nation. The federal education system must work on creating a coherent policy framework with a clear vision for each type of institution. This framework should be based on an understanding of the nation’s current and future needs and should address the issues of duplication, programme relevance and student persistence. The lack of connectivity between institutions, the development of Emirati faculty and thlack of applied and institutional research must also be addressed.

Dr. Fatma Abdulla is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Dubai School of Government and Managing Director of Global Consulting Associates, a strategic advisory firm focused on health care and higher education.

This editorial was originally published in The National. It can be accessed here.

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