For emiratisation to succeed, education must suit the market

In a country grappling with diverse demographic challenges, it is natural to see emiratisation emerging as an outstanding issue on the UAE national agenda. The UAE’s quest for offsetting as many imbalances as possible in the composition of its population and workforce has always inspired the country’s socio-economic development strategies. In order to empower Emiratis to contribute effectively to their country’s national development, higher education holds the greatest promise.
The UAE’s huge investments in higher education in private and public sectors attest to the country’s determination to prepare new generations of young men and women to serve as the backbone for a robust private-sector economy. But as recent media debates have revealed, Emirati job-seekers are told by international private businesses based in their country that not only do they need further training to cope with market challenges, but their study subjects are less relevant to market needs. The apparent schism between the classroom and the market, a stumbling block before emiratisation programs, can be addressed by having colleges demonstrate more conformity to accreditation standards and make their programme offerings more aligned with evolving market priorities.

Emiratisation has been a central feature of successive development strategies launched at UAE federal and local levels. In 2002, the UAE Cabinet approved a master plan for job Emiratisation in various ministries and federal departments as outlined in a report submitted by the Ministry of Finance and Industry and Ministry of State for Cabinet Affairs.

In the past two years, the launch of more local players like Tawteen, Tanmia and the Department for Human Resources Development in Sharjah have proven to be quite effective in enabling more Emiratis to gain access to an expatriate-dominated private sector. Some local organisations like Sharjah Islamic Bank (SIB), for example, are taking an aggressive emiratisation strategy aimed at training future employees and helping them to establish long and successful careers. The SIB program, carried out in partnership with Tanmia and Tawteen, aims to recruit and train Emiratis at the entry level to ultimately develop a team of professional bankers highly proficient in all areas of Islamic banking practice. The Abu Dhabi Emiratisation Council has entered into similar agreements with local organisations like the Abu Dhabi Education Council to create hundreds of new vacancies for Emiratis. The Tawteen programme, of the Emirates Foundation, is another initiative that aims to bring together four major players with an impact on the process of Emiratisation: government, private sector, civil society and academia. Tanmia, the National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority, has recently enabled large numbers of Emirati job seekers to find jobs in different UAE-based private businesses.

For its part, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has been a key player in realising the country’s emiratisation targets. A central goal of the Ministry’s strategic plan for the next three years is to create closer alignment between higher education and market and community needs in the UAE. Since 2000, the Ministry’s Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) has licensed 55 institutions and accredited 356 programs under its internationally-recognised standards. As part of its quality assurance practices in higher education, the CAA requires universities and colleges applying for academic accreditation to furnish evidence that the programs they are seeking accreditation for are relevant for UAE society and their launch would contribute to the country’s development. The CAA also applies some of the finest international standards in higher education to ensure quality in learning outcomes as proven by concrete assessment procedures.

Accreditation standards encourage extensive networking with surrounding communities and prescribe the establishment of advisory boards comprised of representatives of leading private and public sector agencies to assist in academic programme development. The commission’s elaborate accreditation scheme also calls for the implementation of advanced teaching and learning practices conducive to quality outcomes that would stand real-life tests peculiar to UAE social and economic contexts.

The role of institutions of higher education in promoting the UAE Emiratisation drive is likely to generate further debates as accelerating market realities continue to reveal a growing divide between the classroom and the market. This development brings with it a new set of challenges that need to be addressed by the higher education sector as it remains the prime driver of federal and local emiratisation programs. Bringing evolving market realities and community needs to bear on academic program offerings in institutions of higher education is one of those challenges. The experience of the past decade suggests that both universities and market players should go beyond the mere establishment of advisory bodies to address an issue of this caliber. Only a convergence between university and market visions will give sustainability to the country’s emiratisation endeavors. Originally published by Muhammad Ayish, a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah.

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