Dan Adkins is the CEO of Transnational Academic Group – Education Management Services Provider of Curtin University Dubai. He joined the Group in 2009, prior to which he was in the information technology industry providing services for companies including IBM, Dell, Clorox, Philips, Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, Merck, and VISA.
The Middle East has really developed into the premier hub for higher education. Nowhere else can one find so many excellent universities from all over the world within such close proximity. In the UAE, a student can pick from some of the top institutions from Australia, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, not to mention the excellent UAE based universities. With Dubai as a world-leading hub for passenger transport, cargo logistics, tourism, and finance, it is not only easy for students and their families to get to the UAE but also to enjoy their time here and find employment.
Recent developments such as the UAE’s Council for Academic Accreditation signing mutual recognition agreements with both the Australian and UK accreditation agencies and UAE universities moving into the top 400 in the world on the Times Higher Education Rankings show that the UAE is becoming an educational force worthy of worldwide notice. The UAE is one of the most innovative places in the world as evidenced by the incredible architecture like the Burj Khalifa, the incredible feats of engineering like the Palm, the incredible business successes like Emirates Airlines, and the embrace of the future like Expo 2020 and the UAE spaceport. This level of innovation and success is well represented in education within the UAE. Whether it be the great research that is being done at UAE, Abu Dhabi, and Khalifa Universities, the innovate methods of education delivery at Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, or the robust and welcoming higher education regulatory environment provided by the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific research and the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the UAE demonstrates innovation in all aspects of higher education.
As we look towards the future, it is clear that we can expect great things in the field of higher education in the UAE. Given the rapid rise in the league tables of UAE and Khalifa Universities, it is quite likely that within a generation, we will see a UAE based university in the Top 100 and many in the Top 400. The great research that is already coming from UAE universities will, given the UAE’s appetite for innovation and risk-taking, fuel a disruptive revolution in many industries over the next few decades resulting in the UAE being a leading technology hub, not unlike Silicon Valley is today. As success begets success, more highly ranked universities will choose to either locate a campus in the UAE or to enter into a deep partnership with universities in the UAE. This, combined with the other great attributes of the UAE, will lead to students from around the world travelling to the UAE in great numbers to pursue their tertiary education.
The models of higher education will also be changing rapidly over the short and medium-term. The need to move to fully online delivery brought about by the COVID19 pandemic has accelerated the recognition of the need for change in tertiary education. While there will always be careers which rightfully require a university education such as medicine, law, engineering, and the sciences, there will be many more careers that will realise that specific certification is a better value than a full degree such as most careers in IT and business. Over the next few years, we will see universities adding specific certifications, likely in partnership with industry, that will address the needs of those students and businesses that are best served by that type of education. Universities will also evolve away from being a place primarily for secondary school leavers completing their first degree to being a place where mid-career professionals will go to upskill through intensive courses. Most universities will liberalise their degree structures to allow for stackable credentials leading to a degree, with credit being given for work done at other educational institutes, credit for industry certifications, and even credit for learning gained on the job or through other life experiences. Students will be able to craft their own degrees specific to their own desires and industry needs without being locked into a small set of pre-defined majors.
Similarly, there will always be students who really want to get a broad liberal arts education and who value learning for learning’s sake. These students will continue to go to universities to immerse themselves in an academic environment, and many will likely become researchers of faculty. The demand for degrees that don’t have a highly certain, positive return on investment will likely decrease significantly as many people will come out of this pandemic induced global economic downturn with a strong focus on saving for future crises and maximising their return on their personal investment. This decrease in demand will likely result in a similar decrease in supply with the supply being concentrated at older universities that are already deeply engaged in research in these disciplines.
While the experiences during this pandemic have certainly opened people’s eyes to both the good and the bad of online or distance education, it has also fundamentally changed many people’s level of acceptance of online and distance education. While there have always been auto-didacts who would learn regardless of the method of teaching or even without anyone teaching them, this has been and always will be a fairly small proportion of the population, likely not more than about twenty per cent. About sixty per cent of students can be successful in a blended learning model where some of the delivery is online or self-study. However, there remains a teacher that ensures that students are progressing through the learning outcomes in accordance with a schedule, to overcome the procrastination that is such a part of human nature. The remaining twenty per cent very strongly need a teacher who is teaching them face-to-face and ensuring that they remain engaged and progressing. Given that these three types of learners will always exist, universities will, over the next few years, develop streamed programs, likely with differential pricing, for these groups of students. Those who are autodidactic can be provided with the materials in a pre-recorded form or in other asynchronous ways and will simply study on their own and complete the required assessments. Those who are suited to blended learning will study through face-to-face classes supported with various forms of asynchronous delivery such as pre-recorded lessons and textbooks. For those students who will only be successful with face-to-face instructor lead learning, those options will be made available, but possibly not at all universities.
While teaching the next generation is hugely important to the advancement of humankind, it is only one half of the mandate of universities. The research done in universities has significantly advanced the knowledge of humankind and has made possible the world in which we now live. Over the coming decades, university research will focus on three equally important areas. Universities, unlike any other type of organisation in the world, are ideally suited to do the basic research that has no known practical application. It is that type of basic research that led to the technology and medical revolutions that we now enjoy. Governments, through taxation, will need to continue to fund this type of research and then enforce mandatory licensing to ensure that the public benefits from these uses of public funds. Universities will also serve as resource hubs for industry-linked research that is directed towards immediate application and problem-solving. The cost of leading-edge research in many fields is getting so prohibitively expensive that industry groups will have to cooperatively fund the research to the benefit of all of the members of that group instead of individual companies duplicating efforts by attempting to do or fund the research individually. Individual academics will also continue to have their personal research focus and will generally conduct smaller pieces of research that will fill in gaps in the literature or slowly push the boundaries of their discipline. However, it must never be forgotten that some of the most revolutionary research in history has been done by individual researchers such as Newton, Einstein, and Hawking.
The future of higher education will be more evolutionary than revolutionary, and the changes that will come about in the next decade will largely set the direction for many generations to come. Given the drive, innovation, and fearlessness demonstrated by the leaders of the UAE, the UAE will become a world-renowned centre for higher education, research, and the application of lead edge research.