Ahmad Hasnah, President, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU)

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On the post-pandemic environment for higher education

To what extent was HBKU prepared to mitigate the risks and capitalise on the opportunities arising from the pandemic?

AHMAD HASNAH: 2020 was an interesting and challenging year. It served to expedite the adoption of innovation in higher education, such as implementing remote learning, which had long been on our radar; the necessary infrastructure to provide online education was already under development, but the pandemic accelerated work in this area. Switching to online instruction with just one week’s notice undoubtedly proved to be a challenge, as did training the faculty to use online platforms, and ensuring health and safety protocols in laboratories and workshops. However, owing to the changes that were swiftly implemented, we are now in a better position to advance our strategy to reach more students by offering distance learning from their workplace or home countries. This also applies to the faculty, since we can now work with experts and teachers outside Doha in line with our concept of extended teaching teams.

How are economic and technological trends shaping the curricula in tertiary education?

HASNAH: 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, but other disciplines are also drawing more interest. Take ethics, for example: when it comes to AI, cybersecurity and data privacy, the ethical dimension is very important and requires a foundation in legal studies for the development of specific regulatory frameworks. Another field that merits consideration is digital humanities, which focuses on the effects of cyberspace on areas such as labour, media and art. Therefore, although HBKU will invest heavily in IT-related programmes, it will also address surrounding ethical, legal and social issues.

What else can be done to promote the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines?

HASNAH: At all education levels, STEM disciplines are instrumental in the development of any country. The main focus should be on making the study of these areas attractive to students and this requires abandoning the mentality of one size fits all. HBKU and Qatar Foundation are looking at ways to offer a more personalised experience tailored to the specific learning mechanisms each student responds to best. While the end goal with regard to knowledge and skills obtained might be the same, the entry point for each student does not need to be.

STEM training should be complemented with teaching social disciplines to provide a solid competence framework upon which universities will guide student learning. Technological advancement requires a comprehensive set of social and economic tools to be ethically and commercially sustainable. That is why HBKU advocates for interdisciplinarity: besides technical or scientific expertise, students need to grasp the behavioural, social, legal and policy implications of new technologies. 

Moreover, by the time students graduate, they should have an entrepreneurial spirit. At HBKU we have established an innovation centre that guides recently graduated students in their entrepreneurial efforts – even if they fail at the beginning – by offering financial support. The overall aim is to encourage students to experiment.

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