University challenge: UAE's education chief Dr Ahmad Belhoul

If the UAE is to develop its knowledge economy and diversify away from oil, then it needs to ensure that its citizens are ready and willing to work in the private sector. Dr Ahmad Belhoul, the UAE’s new Minister of State for Higher Education, reveals how he is hoping to solve one of the country’s toughest problems
Belhoul is working to improve tertiary education, increase research and development and boost private sector partnerships.
By Ed Attwood
Fri 24 Jun 2016 12:30 AM

It’s the biggest problem the Arab world is facing right now. With demographics that are heavily skewed towards the young, securing jobs for an estimated 200 million young people in the Middle East and Africa will provide economic and political stability in a part of the world that needs it most.

Youth unemployment rates across the region are nearly twice the global average at around 25 percent and while the figures are lower in the Gulf, the worry is that local universities are churning out thousands of graduates who may not be ideally suited for their nations’ needs.

Sitting at the nexus of all this is Dr Ahmad Belhoul. Appointed earlier this year as Minister of State for Higher Education, as part of the most wide-ranging government reshuffle in the UAE’s history, Dr Belhoul’s remit is substantial. If the UAE is to develop its longstanding plan to build a knowledge economy, then its students need to be prepared to take challenging roles in a modern and ever-changing workforce.

“Finding jobs is critical,” he says. “One of the things we’re trying to focus on is not only getting a job in the private sector, but also that transition from being a job seeker to a job creator, through entrepreneurship. That, I think, is untapped potential for us.

“The jobs are there. The question is whether the current system is graduating students with the necessary skillsets? The labour market is not a static thing – it keeps changing and expectations keep growing.”

As young Emirati graduates have historically gravitated towards the generous salaries and benefits associated with the public sector, encouraging a sea-change in thinking will be no small task. Yet Dr Belhoul is clearly passionate about the task ahead, and has a wealth of experience from both the public and private sector, as well as in academia.

Prior to taking his current role in February, the minister had previously served as chief executive of Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy giant Masdar, as well as stints at Dubai Tourism, Mubadala and McKinsey. And the importance of education to the UAE was highlighted during the reshuffle, with three ministers – Dr Belhoul, Hussein Al Hammadi and Jameela bint Salem Al Muhairi – all serving the sector as part of wide-ranging moves that brought a total of eight new ministers into the cabinet.

For Dr Belhoul, there are three main areas of focus: improving the quality of tertiary education, ramping up research and development (R&D) and energising partnerships with the private sector.

“There is great potential for us to have a focus on science, technology and engineering, because that’s what the UAE wants to be going forward,” he says.

However, that’s easier said than done. The ministry will shortly be introducing a new department that will act as a conduit between the private sector and the universities by guiding the latter on the specific areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that are of strategic interest to the UAE. Dr Belhoul cites his previous experience at Masdar, where a focus on sustainability – in particular solar desalination – led to cooperation with the likes of US defence giant Lockheed Martin and French utility EDF.

“Today, the situation is that there is interest [from the private sector], but these corporations approach institutions directly – sometimes they don’t even find a point of contact,” the minister says. “So let’s say company X is interested in research Y – they would [now] come to us and we’ll be a facilitator. We would be willing as well to match that funding from the ministry to encourage that in the beginning.”

So which are the key industries where the ministry will targeting private sector employment? Broadly speaking, these are split into two areas: national priorities, such as water and food security, and domestic industries such as 3D printing, space technology, autonomous vehicles.

When it comes to R&D, Dr Belhoul says that this has historically mainly been carried out within the confines of academia, a practice he hopes to change.

“My view is very simple,” he says. “If you give academics money, they will spend it on early-stage research. However, if you focus on applied research – something that you can take to market very soon – then you will find a lot of private sector interest. And by the private sector sponsoring your research, you’re also offering jobs.”

But for those jobs to be taken up, Dr Belhoul says the mindshift in local attitudes towards jobs needs to continue.

“If you want a country to become more competitive, you have to graduate students the private sector is willing to recruit,” he says. “We’ve seen quotas being imposed before – they don’t work. They’re artificial from my point of view.

“Now there are some policy issues – the public sector is too comfortable and the private sector is a bit more demanding. But if you go back to the history of the average UAE graduate’s mindset, a decade ago I would say 99 percent went into the public sector or into quasi-government, and in my generation we’ve seen a number of Emiratis who go into the private sector to try out that experience.

“The problem is they become so successful that they get pushed to go back to government. I think the next phase is to coach and train graduate Emiratis that are willing to stay in the private sector.”

That will be achieved, the minister says, via providing the necessary skills through education, but also by asking some of the larger multinational private sector firms to offer more internships. In the short period since he has taken up his role, he has also asked for advice from these firms as to how the education system can be more helpful.

“They have their own ideas, they’ve done this before and every country’s different,” Dr Belhoul says. “So we said the least you can do is guide is, communicate to us about your expectations, and what you would like as an outcome of our system when it comes to education, for example. And on R&D, if you want to create a customised project for the region, let us help you.”

He is also encouraged by the number of local entities, such as Majid Al Futtaim, Al Ghurair and others who are making an effort to attract and retain local citizens.

“I truly believe that over the next five years, you’ll see more Emiratis working in the private sector by choice, and staying in the private sector,” he says. “At the end of the day, the numbers [of locals] are limited and the job opportunities are bigger – so at the moment, it’s a supply and demand situation. But as the country matures, more Emiratis will move into the private sector.”

According to recent research by Quacquarelli Symonds, four Emirati universities (UAE University, American University of Sharjah, University of Sharjah and Zayed University) are ranked in the top 20 of regional institutes, although none of them feature in the top 400 globally.

When questioned as to how well the UAE’s current higher education programme is functioning, Dr Belhoul is circumspect.

“Every country aspires to have the best education system in the world,” he says. “There are rankings out there. I think there is plenty of room for improvement. As higher education, we have a complementary role and there’s extensive work being done today by His Excellency Mr Hussein [Al Hammadi, Minister of Education] and Jameela [bint Salem Al Muhairi, Minister of State for General Education] to really reform education for us to be able to improve higher education.”

Right now, around 150,000 students are pursuing courses at just over 110 academic institutions in the country. About a third are in state-owned universities – UAE University, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and Zayed University – with the rest either in local universities or international institutes that have set up campuses in the country.

“We can never overstate the importance of the private sector, but there’s a big role for the ministry to play in terms of being very specific on what level of quality, what areas are required for us to complement what we have,” Dr Belhoul says.

“When you talk about private institutions, it’s very difficult to strike a balance between providing the right level of quality versus the financial incentive. And we’ve seen throughout history some private institutions putting more weight on the financial side – and when you do that, you tend to ease out on the quality. So as part of our role…we’re trying to increase the quality by being selective as to what institutions open up in the UAE.

“It’s actually too many [the number of universities], it’s too fragmented, in my personal opinion,” the minister points out, adding that since taking on the role he has been approached by three more universities interested in opening in the UAE. “I think, by international standards, we have too many small universities. That does not mean we’ll stop opening more, but I think we’ll be very focused.”

In particular, Dr Belhoul says, there is currently an “oversaturation” in the market when it comes to courses offering general business administration. That being said, however, he also points out that there are a lack of graduates from certain fields within that discipline, such as accountants and financial engineers.

“There’s also a severe shortage in medicine and education as well,” he adds. “But that’s also – in my personal view – market driven. If at the end of the day, as a student, I’m going to have a well-paid job in a comparative market I’m not going to take that course. I wouldn’t put too much blame on the private sector, it’s market driven.

“I have to say, I’m pleasantly surprised that we have a good number of engineers – it’s our second most sought after discipline after business administration.”

Higher education in the Gulf is often characterised by the region’s best and brightest graduates heading overseas – to the US, Europe or East Asia – to complete their studies. Over the last four years, the Saudi scholarship plan has resulted in between 70,000-90,000 students being sent to the US alone annually, a programme that is being slowly rolled back as the effects of the oil price hits home.

Although the UAE’s programme is smaller, Dr Belhoul says that both for Emirati students studying abroad, and for international students coming to the Gulf, the focus is likely to concentrate on postgraduate, rather than undergraduate courses.

“Today, if I look at my student base, about 75 percent are doing bachelor’s degrees,” he says. “So in our tertiary education system today, [the] undergraduate [share] is much more mature than before, so going forward, we’ll be sending more postgraduate students to do research.

“That’s also because the research [here] is not there yet, so that’s why we see sending more students abroad might be beneficial.”

One area that won’t change, however, is the amount of funding the education sector receives in the UAE. While the federal budget was trimmed slightly for 2016, the amount that will be spent on education, social services and health still amounts to more than 50 percent of overall outlay. The minister points out that spending will continue, but that he will also be seeking additional funding for R&D.

“Since 2009, there has been a commitment by the government, regardless of the number of students, regardless of the proposed budget, to fill that gap,” he says. “Regardless of the economic context, the government is very focused on funding education, making it a priority and improving it. “For us, when we talk about an economy after oil, when we talk about new sectors, that will never happen without human capital.”

As Dr Belhoul embarks on the trials ahead of him, he says he is “very happy to be entrusted with this great task”. But at the same time, he admits that the going will not be easy.

“My biggest concern, to be honest, is the culture and the mindset,” he says. “Because no matter what we do, no matter what we provide in terms of funding, if the cultural shift is not there, nothing will happen.”

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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