Professor Tadhg O’Donovan, Deputy Vice Principal and Academic Leadership, Heriot-Watt University

WETEX and Dubai Solar Show organised by Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), are in line with Dubai’s vision to build a sustainable future for the Emirate and are held annually under the directive of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai and under the patronage of HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy. They provide an ideal opportunity for local and international companies and organizations to share and showcase their products and services, along with offering a forum to share best practices and experiences with exhibitors from around the world. Heriot-Watt University will be hosting a 2-hour session on Day 3 (29 September) in the Education & Innovation Zone at WETEX 2022. “WETEX and Dubai Solar Show are the perfect platforms for us to discuss the latest trends related to energy, water conservation, saving natural resources and building a sustainable environment and we look forward to being there,” says Professor Tadhg O’Donovan, Deputy Vice Principal and Academic Leadership, Heriot-Watt University, in a conversation with the Higher Education Digest. Below are the excerpts from the interview.

Why are you participating in WETEX?

With the event’s core focus on the latest trends relating to energy, saving natural resources and building a sustainable environment, WETEX is an ideal platform for our University to highlight the role of the education sector in the road to Net Zero. Universities have a responsibility to provide the future skills required for sustainable development. According to a report by GEO-6 for Youth, transformation to a greener system could create 15 to 60 million jobs in the next two decades. The WEF Future of Jobs Report released in 2020 also shows that clean energy investment could create 10 million green jobs. Since these jobs will require new skills, we have a great responsibility to prepare our students for the future job market. 

Cleantech will assume a pivotal role in furthering the sustainability agenda. Therefore, the use of technology will need to be guided and supported to maximize its positive aspects for sustainable development. At Heriot-Watt University, we offer degrees that cater to this blend between tech and engineering, such as the undergraduate degree in Robotics, Autonomous and Interactive Systems.  Degrees such as these offer graduates a considerable advantage as they provide majors aligned with the demands of today’s market, which is one of our main missions at HWU.

Finally, cultivating purpose in students and commitment to sustainability is a critical matter, and one of underestimated importance in the education system. Research by Davos Lab in which 2.3 million young people from 187 countries participated, showed that “societal impact” ranked among third in 15% of the participants in aspects young people think are important in a job. However, almost half of the respondents were unsure of the skills to contribute to these changes in a work setting. This shows that many young people seek positive change towards sustainability but are unsure of the actions they should take to fulfil this purpose. Through purpose-driven education, we believe universities can play an indispensable role in guiding students to participate in sustainable change. 

How do you think the curriculum and teaching style can be adapted to meet future industry, market, and societal needs – especially within the overarching demand for a more sustainable future? 

Education establishments, through their world class research and innovation activities are at the forefront of disruptive technologies and ideally placed to anticipate the skills of the future. As such, universities such as ours are constantly analysing and examining the requirements of the markets as well as prospective employers in a bid to tailor our curriculum accordingly to suit these needs. For example, the University newly launched the Engineering Doctorate (EngD), an alternative to the traditional PhD to help students continue their career in industry. The EngD is equivalent to a PhD in its intellectual challenge, but as a research engineer (EngD) student, the research will be industry-led, and the project will involve the company of employment as an industrial sponsor. This was launched in recognition of the fact that many working professionals want to pick academic degrees while continuing their careers. 

It is important that universities adapt their curriculums and teaching style to be flexible and aligned to the needs of non-traditional students as well as conventional graduates. Creating opportunities for lifelong learning is critical to ensure the young generation is equipped and confident in their contribution to advancing sustainable change. 

In addition, some universities are already partnering with industries to co-create offers that consider trends in the job market, skills that employers are looking for, with a focus on work-based learning such as apprenticeships and internships. At HWUD, we have a full careers service that links in with industry and academic colleagues to support students on their journey throughout university, their transition into employment and development of employability skills. Our range of services include career consultancy, mock interviews, workshops on many topics including employability and soft skills, career fairs, recruitment fairs, internal job listing portal and more.

How can universities work with the government to build a more sustainable future?

It is crucial that universities bridge the gap between education and Industry through facilitating cooperative partnerships across local and government agencies, employer and corporates to better link secondary and postsecondary education and training. Universities are uniquely placed to lead cross-sectoral innovative climate action initiatives. The UK’s Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC), a world-leading, high-impact research and innovation centre that our University works closely with, is a great example of working alongside the government to build a more sustainable future. The Centre acts as the national focal point and international gateway for industrial decarbonisation research and innovation. In addition, we have an ongoing partnership with Dubai Future Foundation (DFF) as part of the Government of Dubai’s University Entrepreneurship Programme (UEP). The partnership aims to transform universities into incubators to empower student entrepreneurship. Encouraging innovation among students and equipping them with the required resource is indispensable to building a more sustainable future. Research by leading market research entities such as McKinsey suggests that start-ups and innovation are strongly linked to furthering sustainability. Therefore, through facilitating dialogue, an advantage that universities are uniquely equipped to drive, and fostering partnerships with diverse entities, Universities can play a key role in sustainable development. 

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