The UAE is to overhaul its education system to produce bright young graduates that are ready for the age of artificial intelligence and the next industrial revolution.
That was the message from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, as the World Government Summit in Dubai came to a close on Tuesday.
Sheikh Abdullah spoke of developing science and technical degrees, identifying pupils talented in computing at an early age and proving more opportunities for students to study PhDs.
In the summit's closing speech, Sheikh Abdullah, who is also chairman of the Education and Human Resource Council, said there was a need to “break old moulds”, to urge Emiratis look away from government jobs and equip young people for the realities of the future.
He said that popular degrees like business management “won’t make an information-based economy,” and that “our children must know they’re not only competing with each other but with students around the world too”.
“We should rethink education in an unprecedented manner and to break old moulds,” he said, adding that there will be the need for flexible contracts where people will be able to work more than one job at a time.
“We need a new system of education that looks into the future, competitiveness and the country’s economic requirements. Educational institutes need to have new models to follow, that are constantly evolving and adaptable to changes around them."
Sheikh Abdullah said there needs to be a focus on critical thinking, and that the way in which some subjects are taught at present will not prepare young people for complex jobs.
“That means the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics won’t be sufficient at all,” Sheikh Abdullah said.
“Knowledge of technology, engineering and finance are far more important and human capital is the main factor in this revolution.
“Students are looking for degrees in economics and business management, but unfortunately, this won’t make an information-based economy.”
Last year, at an education summit in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Abdullah also told young people to look beyond "comfortable" government jobs.
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He also highlighted the need to move young people’s focus from government jobs to the private sector.
A survey conducted by the council of 1,200 young Emiratis aged between 17 and 25 found that only 10 per cent aspire to work in the private sector and just 14 per cent wanted to be entrepreneurs or run their own business.
It found more than 70 per cent wanted to work for the government.
Other findings revealed that 66 per cent spent their summer internship at government departments in 2016.
“Eighty per cent of our citizens work in the public sector because they know these jobs give them stability,” he said.
“We need to teach new skills, to be competitive in an open market. All parents need to inspire children to know and understand the challenges we have [as] we unfortunately have low rates in the local workforce compared to other countries.”
Emiratis are also found to retire early compared to other countries, causing a burden on the UAE in long run, he said.
“So we need to make educational programmes that are lifelong to teach them about the post-oil economy,” he said.
“We have to teach our citizens to earn new skills, challenge ourselves and widen our horizons and not settle with skills currently required in the job market that won’t equip us for the future market.
“We are now discussing an education system that will allow us to be competitive globally.”
The UAE has come a long way in education from 20 schools and one university in 1976 to 1,600 schools and 70 higher education institutes today.
“But according to most indicators, UAE pupils in primary and secondary school are still [performing] less than in other countries,” Sheikh Abdullah said.
“We want to narrow the gap between us and advanced counties – our children must know they’re not competing with each other only but with students around the world too.”
The council’s survey also found that 39 per cent of respondents from the same survey expect their jobs to be in management in 10 years. More than 55 per cent think they will remain in same sector.
“This is not good,” Sheikh Abdullah said.
“It’s insufficient so we will have partnerships with the private sector to have courses at the university level to increase the focus on new skills required on the private sector job market.”
He told an audience of delegates and world leaders of a huge leap that will transform the way in which students are taught in schools and universities while adapting the private sector to those changes.
Although the UAE ranks first in school education systems in the Arab world, it is still behind other countries worldwide, ranking 45th.
“We are at a juncture so we are focusing our efforts on emphasising early childhood education,” he said.
“We are studying a federal law to tackle the first six years of children’s education and we are working on a framework of standards for nurseries and pre-school.
“We, at the council, will also recognise students with the highest computing scores and set up a new national strategy to support changes in higher education to meet the requirements and targets of the UAE in both the private and public sectors.”
The country will look to attract high-level scientists and experts to help raise the standard of teaching and research.
“This leap will change the way our children are being taught, their concepts, the teachers, schools and of the governments in the future as well as the relationship between education and employment,” he said.
“This leap will go to horizons never seen before. We have to keep diversifying the educational aspects of science, technology and mathematics so that people will be able to be equipped with more skills for the coming future.”
He also said AI has a "huge role to play" in future education.
“Don’t forget that once upon a time, the pearl trade was the vein of our ancestors’ economy," he said.
"When that disappeared, the region went into social and economic crisis. So change is always a concern but it also provides opportunity. It is now the time for the next leap.”