The head of the Middle East's largest law firm has delivered a withering assessment of the abilities of graduates and the universities educating them today, claiming he is unable to find young people that are ready for the workplace.
Speaking to a roomful of higher education and business leaders, Essam Al Tamimi, senior partner of Al Tamimi & Company, claimed universities were not up to standards seen in other parts of the world.
Mr Al Tamimi asked the audience gathered for the Arab Knowledge Forum in Dubai on Tuesday to name two leading universities in the region with a wide reputation for graduating top doctors, lawyers or engineers.
“I bet you, you have difficulty,” said Mr Al Tamimi.
“Then that means that we have a difficulty in our education system.”
Then, he challenged the forum to name 20 top lawyers, doctors and engineers from the UAE.
“Why after 46 years of pride in the UAE – we are extremely proud and I know that the UAE has been a leader in the Middle East - but we still do not have those quality in the private sector or even sometimes in the government sector.”
Mr Al Tamimi, who presented his insights as part of the forum organised by the University Leadership Council, which is made up of representatives of the country’s top universities and businesses, lamented having to retrain recent domestic graduates hired by his company because they often don’t meet the standards expected of his clients.
“It is challenging for me and my law firm to hire from the local universities, extremely difficult,” said Mr Al Tamimi.
“I have to work on them again and again to be able to build them to the level that I can put them across the table with my international clients. I can do this sometimes and I can do this with a few, but my international clients who walk into my conference room will not hire those people. That’s a major problem, in my opinion.”
Speaking more broadly of the Middle East, Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Holding, also said the quality of the regional education does not match what is needed in the workplace.
“There is a mismatch as a result of this weak education system between the skills that are developed and actually what the workforce needs,” said Mr Bejjani.
“We continue to prepare our youth for tomorrow with the mindset of yesterday.”
Mr Bejjani also said there are “too few” world-class universities in this region.
He said the burden of addressing these shortcomings doesn’t just fall on academia or the government, but that the private sector also has an obligation to play a role in helping to prepare the younger generation for the challenges of the future.
“If we do not do that we are actually defaulting on our obligation in terms of contribution in our society,” said Mr Bejjani.
Mr Al Tamimi acknowledged he is “very proud” of the UAE and what it has accomplished in such a short time. The UAE-born, American-educated lawyer credited the efforts of the Government, including the Minister of State for Higher Education and Advanced Skills, Dr Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, for addressing the challenges.
“He is working exactly on what I’m saying,” said Mr Al Tamimi.
“I’m not pessimistic, I’m optimistic. I know the future is going to basically eliminate my entire talk today because the UAE is not in denial. They know what’s the illness and they are slowly working toward the cure.”
The Ministry of Education recently announced a new national higher education strategy to tackle challenges faced by post-secondary institutions across the country.
The first four pillars of the new strategy include rating universities, tripling the number of PhD candidates to improve research, establishing stronger links between industry and academia to address skills and funding gaps, and using big data to inform policies.
“We want to align with our partners and increase collaborations with the private sector, Dr Al Falasi said in December when the strategy was launched.
"In the long-run, we will drive economic development with a focus on strengthening university programs, and align specialisations and research studies with the demands of the job market.”
Dr Nada Mourtada-Sabbah, secretary-general of the University Leadership Council, which was launched in 2012 to encourage universities to collaborate in areas of common interests, said UAE deserves credit for the academic strides it has made in its short existence.
“Of course the minister himself, both ministers, have said there is a lot to be accomplished, but look, what we are accomplishing and what we have accomplished in such little time, and the focused efforts that we are putting into this,” said Dr Mourtada-Sabbah, noting many graduates of UAE’s universities go on to pursue their post-graduate degrees at leading universities around the world.
“They couldn’t have gone to those places – the University of Michigan, to Harvard, to Institut d'études politiques de Paris, to Cambridge, Oxford - if they did not have the preparedness, the well-educated background that was provided here in homegrown universities."
Professor Alfred Bloom, vice chancellor New York University Abu Dhabi, who participated in the forum, also disagreed with the criticism of graduates.
“When you see the Emirati kids that we’re recruiting, you could see as they go through the university, how superbly they perform but also the kinds of skills that they graduate with which would empower any organisation and lead it to become distinctive.”