Today's workforce must upskill to secure jobs, say university leaders

Along with academic qualifications, skills-focused courses are also important

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People in today's workforce will need to upskill to ensure they are equipped for future jobs, say university leaders.

At an event at Expo 2020 Dubai, hosted by Scotland's Heriot-Watt University, speakers said the average student will soon change from an 18-year-old undergraduate to people of all ages.

Along with academic qualifications, shorter skills-focused courses are also important.

Those who fail to upskill risk becoming obsolete and overlooked for positions.

Robotics and AI are strong themes for the future workforce and almost every job will be touched by digital
Gillian Murray, Heriot-Watt University

The Edinburgh-based university, which has campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, has launched new tailored courses that address the key issues and skill gaps identified by businesses and industry leaders today.

Heriot-Watt Online will offer courses in subjects like digital transformation and data analytics, alongside undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships.

Richard Williams, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, said there is a “global war for talent” right now and it is up to educators to prepare this talent for future roles.

“If economies want to grow they need to attract and grow their talent. That also means upskilling people that are already in the workplace,” he said.


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“We are always looking for ways to make education more flexible to suit the changing profile of the average university student or the non-traditional learners.

“For example, the university student of today may not necessarily be an 18-year-old, but a working adult who attends college part-time, or may even be juggling childcare."

Over the next three years, Heriot-Watt Online will launch 20 courses for upskilling the workforce of the future.

Students of all ages, including mature professionals, can apply for a course and can opt to take short programmes or full-length programmes of up to four years.

The announcement was made during the Future Skills conference at Expo 2020 Dubai on Wednesday.

Gillian Murray, deputy principal for enterprise and business at Heriot-Watt University in the UK, said the Covid-19 pandemic had thrust the idea of online learning into the spotlight more than ever, with many non-traditional students – meaning those over the age of 24 – choosing to take up online courses to upskill themselves.

“Businesses have changed since Covid-19. They want a more long-term, holistic approach to talent,” she said.

“They need a scope of people joining their businesses including graduates and apprentices but they also need more opportunities to upskill their current workforce.

“The online platform offers this and is a great way to get people back into education and learn in this ever changing world.”

Gillian Murray, deputy principal for business and enterprise at Heriot-Watt University, speaks at Expo 2020 Dubai. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Operating as one university, Heriot-Watt is spread across five locations globally, including the UK, the UAE and Malaysia.

It was the first international university to open its doors in Dubai 16 years ago.

For the September 2021 intake in Dubai, 39 per cent of students enrolled in business programmes, 23 per cent in engineering, architecture and energy programmes and 44 per cent in Artificial Intelligence, cybersecurity and data sciences programmes.

Over the past few years, the university has launched several new courses in response to the changing market requirements in the UAE, including data sciences, Artificial Intelligence, autonomous and interactive systems, and global sustainable engineering.

The decision to launch Heriot-Watt Online was in response to a change in the profile of learners today.

“Digital is the key moving forward. Robotics and AI are strong themes for the future workforce and almost every job will be touched by digital," said Ms Murray.

“There is a huge focus on supporting a more sustainable, green economy too, so even traditional jobs like farming and agriculture will be digital in some shape or form."

Updated: December 10, 2021, 7:06 AM