Start-ups, AI and social change: Zayed University embarks on radical new degree programme

Students at Zayed University began a new bachelor's degree programme on Tuesday, ushering in a new era of teaching and learning at the Abu Dhabi university.

The four-year degree that encompasses artificial intelligence, technology and sustainability aims to prepare students for the real world and places less emphasis on traditional elements of university life such as lectures.

About 140 students – the majority Emirati women, but including a co-educational mix from countries such as Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, Poland and Yemen – have enrolled for the programme.

The new offering comes from a tie-up with US-based education provider Minerva Project and is called "Zayed University X Minerva".

It is the first stage in an ambitious plan to transform the way the university teaches students over the next five years.

We need graduates who are prepared for this world right now. And we have to acknowledge that universities fall woefully short in that order
Ben Nelson

Noura Al Kaabi, the university’s president and UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, said the aim is to “future-proof” student careers.

"They are not incubated and isolated at a four-year university," said Ms Al Kaabi. "I hope we look back in four years and see new leaders of this world."

The degree is guided by Zayed University's new College of Interdisciplinary Studies, which offers traditional subjects such as science and courses in entrepreneurship, AI and social change.

Ben Nelson, founder and chief executive of the Minerva Project, said universities were not preparing students for the real life and this new degree was going to change all that.

"For the last 30 years, universities have done an abysmal job at training their graduates for the present," Ben Nelson, the founder and chief executive of the Minerva Project, told host Kelsey Warner on this week's Business Extra podcast.

"I don't need to worry about what is going to happen in the future because it is safe to say that all of these trends – of globalisation, automation, of significant industry disruption – are just going to continue and accelerate," he said.

"We need graduates who are prepared for this world right now. And we have to acknowledge that universities fall woefully short in that order."

Zayed University "not only recognised [that], but decided that they had to do something about it".

The degree is a bachelor’s programme in one of three majors. The first, "business transformation", is focused on how to take an idea from the concept phase to market, preparing students for careers in entrepreneurship, finance and strategy. Courses include market dynamics, financial planning and product analytics.

"Computational systems" will teach students how to use AI and software engineering to build technology tools and make informed decisions, with courses in calculus, linear algebra and pattern recognition.

The third, "social innovation", examines issues facing developing and developed economies and looks at how change is brought about, preparing students for jobs in the sustainability and public policy sectors.

Students are engaged through new ways of learning. Skills such as public speaking, debating and negotiation are honed, and most coursework is dedicated to projects, with internships and part-time work a critical part of the curriculum.

Zayed University's new approach comes amid concern that students are being failed by higher education around the globe – from the rising cost of tuition to insufficient investment in technology or innovation in teaching methods.

Recent graduates are entering a labour market that is also rapidly changing: 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet, according to the World Economic Forum.

Students will also be able to apply what they have learnt in professional environments where they will spend about a quarter of their time in groups working on challenging projects for leading companies.

For the duration of their study, students will be given access to exclusive internship and part-time employment opportunities to improve their long-term employability.

Classes will be conducted on Minerva’s learning system, Forum, as well as at both of Zayed University’s campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The hybrid approach affords students the flexibility to attend class from anywhere in the world.

"Don't let anyone tell you it is the same. No, no. It is different and it is better," Ms Al Kaabi told the incoming class. "I welcome you to the family of Zayed University."

Hosted by Kelsey Warner

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Updated: August 25th 2021, 10:57 AM