Can higher education institutions shape the Gulf’s post-Covid-19 economy?

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– Higher education institutions were quick to innovate following the outbreak of the virus

– Universities are adapting courses to suit national needs

– ICT has emerged as a key focus area for students, governments and the private sector alike

– Following significant investment, the UAE’s space programme recorded positive results in 2020

As Gulf countries look to rebound from the disruption of 2020, higher education institutions are playing a key role in meeting the needs of the region’s post-coronavirus economy.

Universities, schools and technical colleges were among the first institutions to innovate following the outbreak of the virus.

While many were initially obliged to close, educational institutions quickly adapted to the new situation by making learning materials available online, thus enabling students to continue their studies remotely.

In addition to updating their online offerings, schools and universities also developed a series of practical solutions to the crisis.

For example, shortly after the outbreak of the virus, experts from the UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology, the country’s largest applied higher education institution, developed a 3D-printed ventilator splitter that allowed hospital staff to treat multiple patients with a single ventilator.

Elsewhere, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), part of Hamad bin Khalifa University, worked with the Ministry of Public Health to launch an online self-assessment application that educates users on the symptoms of Covid-19, and advises them when to seek medical help.

Meeting future goals

While they have been effective in developing short-term solutions to some of the challenges associated with Covid-19, higher education institutions can also play a key role in realising long-term governmental development strategies that can boost the prospects of a sustainable recovery. 

This is a particularly pressing issue for countries in the Gulf, many of which are deploying long-term strategies to reduce their dependence on hydrocarbons revenues.

One prominent example of this tendency is Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world, which before the pandemic derived 50% of its GDP and 70% of its export earnings from the oil and gas sector.

In 2016 the country released its Vision 2030 economic development plan, a strategy designed to bolster its non-oil economy and increase the participation of the private sector. However, following the collapse of oil demand last year, these efforts to diversify the economy by developing sectors such as ICT, tourism and infrastructure have taken on greater importance.

“The key to revamping university education and aligning it with the country’s forward-looking strategy is to move beyond the traditional academic model and adopt a community-driven approach that identifies and matches needs and resources across government, private and non-profit players, thus attaining commercial and social sustainability,” Ahmad Hawalah, vice rector for business development at the University of Prince Muqrin, told OBG.

In an indication of greater interconnectedness, in February the university signed two separate memoranda of cooperation with the Yanbu Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the private company Nama Al Munawwarah.

The deals are designed to bolster cooperation with regard to scientific and economic research, as well as to create opportunities for graduates to enter the business world – efforts that complement the university’s expanded offering of courses in key growth areas.

“At Prince Muqrin University, a focus on the country’s development priorities have resulted in colleges and programmes specialised in tourism, IT and cybersecurity, and engineering, which are fields with strong investment potential,” Hawalah said.

In addition to meeting strictly national goals, some institutions can also play a key role in filling skills and knowledge shortages on a more local scale.

“With Medina being one of the main poles of transformation in the country and receiving a considerable amount of funds, universities here have a special responsibility, particularly because of the city’s importance with regard to Hajj- and Umrah-related tourism,” Abdulaziz Al Sarrani, president of Medina’s Taibah University, told OBG.

The growth of IT and computing

The fallout of the coronavirus, which included lockdowns and the closure of many brick-and-mortar businesses, ultimately led to a massive surge in demand for digital services.

In light of this shift to online platforms, the need for graduates in the IT and computing fields has been accentuated.

Skills in the IT domain – from artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, to cybersecurity – were in high demand even before the pandemic. The market will certainly require more experts in these areas,” Ahmad Hasnah, president of Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), told OBG.

However, Hasnah points out that the continued growth of digital services will lead to the development and expansion of subsidiary areas of study. One such area is the ethics of AI, cybersecurity and data privacy, with universities now needing to incorporate a foundation in legal studies into these particular frameworks.

“Another field that merits consideration is digital humanities, which focuses on the effects of cyberspace on areas such as labour, media and art,” Hasnah told OBG. “Therefore, although HBKU will invest heavily in IT-related programmes, it will also address surrounding ethical, legal and social issues.”

Making progress

While many of these programmes are designed to bring about long-term results, some are already bearing fruit.

An example of the success of such strategies is the UAE’s space programme.

After establishing the region’s first space research centre in 2015, in July last year the country launched its first space probe – named Hope – on a mission to orbit Mars, in the process becoming only the fifth spacefaring entity in the world.

In mid-February it was announced that the probe had successfully entered the planet’s orbit, where it will collect data on Mars’ weather and climate systems. Meanwhile, in a sign of the country’s ongoing commitment to space research, in September last year the government announced plans to send an unmanned mission to the moon in 2024.

Although successes have been registered in a number of critical sectors in the UAE, there is room for further progress across the higher education sector in the alignment of courses and instruction with national priorities. 

“Improvements are still necessary with regard to the employability of UAE graduates, and programmes should be revamped in this direction. If positive changes are made, universities can become a pillar of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country,” Ghaleb Al Hadrami, acting vice-chancellor of United Arab Emirates University, told OBG.

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