Professor Ammar Kaka is the Provost of Heriot Watt University Dubai Campus. Within Heriot Watt University, he holds the position of Vice-Principal and the Professor of Construction Economics and Management. In 2008, he was also allocated the title the William Watson Chair of Building Engineering. Professor Kaka’s contribution to transnational education in general and to Dubai’s education hub, in particular, has been immense. With a student population of 4000 and a growing research culture, the Dubai campus is currently recognised as one of the UK’s leading providers of transnational education. Professor Kaka has an international reputation for research on the assessment, planning and control of construction projects. Author of more than a hundred research papers, he has held numerous funded research grants with impact demonstrated by the extent of citation and direct industrial application. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and a member of the editorial boards of a number of international academic journals. He has supervised more than 25 PhD students to completion, many of which have developed into senior roles in governments, industry and academia.
Education remains a top priority in the Middle East, with Vision 2021 emphasizing the development of a first-rate education system. This sector is growing rapidly, and its value is expected to grow from $4.4 billion in 2017 to $7.1 billion by 2023.
When COVID-19 struck, it dramatically reshaped the way education was being delivered. Worldwide, millions of learners were affected as educational institutions shut, resulting in the largest online shift in the history of education. Now, however, with the success of vaccine rollouts and a gradual reduction in the number of cases in many parts of the world, universities are preparing for a post-COVID world. Indeed, many universities in the UAE have already welcomed students back to campus. But the new order is a far cry from how things used to be pre-pandemic. The last couple of years have prompted fresh thinking about the traditional structure of education, and how it can be altered to put health and safety at the heart of all that we do.
In this backdrop, let’s discuss some of the trends we are currently witnessing post-Covid in the education sector, and if they are here to stay.
- Increased focus on health and wellbeing – We now live in a world where sanitizers, masks and handwashing are part of our daily routines. In the near future, this is unlikely to disappear. More importantly, lifestyle changes imposed upon us by the pandemic have put the focus squarely on mental health. Both children and adults have found living through the pandemic stressful and overwhelming. For example, safety protocols such as social distancing are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but can make students feel isolated and lonely. Similarly, seeing larger groups of people can increase stress and anxiety after days of staying at home. In general, young people and students are already recognized as a particularly vulnerable population, with studies showing they suffer higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders compared to the general population. And with the pandemic, the burden on the mental health of this population has been amplified. More than ever before, educational institutions need to put the wellbeing of students above all else, and ensure the University experience is pleasant, and sets them up for academic success.
- The need for lifelong learning – Post-pandemic, we are seeing that the need for lifelong learning is here to stay. There is an upswing in the demand for upskilling, and re-skilling with soft skills gaining greater importance. When the pandemic hit, many businesses were forced to downsize or shut down altogether. Several impacted workers chose to use this time to learn new skills and further their education. Doing so could result in helping them find even more lucrative jobs in the future, as well as staying relevant in accordance with the demands of a dynamic marketplace. This will be further exacerbated by advancements in technology. At the same time, emotional, social and soft skills will prove to be critical for future employers, as these are skills that no machine can emulate. The onus therefore is on higher education providers to think about how they can develop these skills in students.
- Increasing use of technology – More than ever before, the use of technology in education has become prevalent. With strict Covid-19 protocols in place, many educational institutions had moved some or all of their classes to online. Post-pandemic, some areas of education continue to stay online, such as digital resources in the place of physical textbooks, as it is more convenient, not to mention environmentally friendly. Similarly, assessments are another aspect of higher education that have changed. The pandemic made it obvious that alternative and practical modes of assessment such as online examinations, laboratory work, presentations and group projects can often be just as valid as a traditional pen and paper examination conducted physically for masses of students. In the next few years, technology will continue to make deeper inroads into education systems in new and diverse ways. We will also see big corporates investing more and more heavily in education tech, as they view the industry as an untapped opportunity – with Universities being at the heart of it.
- The changing student demographic – In general, the regular University student of today is no longer an 18-year-old. The student demographic today includes a large proportion of working adults who attend college part time, are lifelong learners, who may seek reskilling or upskilling and may even be juggling childcare. With job losses and changes to personal circumstances, this change has been accelerated post-pandemic. In response to this, higher educational institutes must strive to offer a holistic yet flexible education experience that fits a multitude of student profiles rather than a stereotype. Curriculum must also be tailored in a way that it equips them with real-life skills. For example, Heriot-Watt University Dubai’s Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in Construction is an alternative to the traditional PhD that offers working professionals the flexibility to continue working, is sponsored by the student’s employer, and allows them to tailor it to the business needs of their employer.
- Shift in demand for programmes – Post-pandemic, it is clear that the workplace of the future will call for a multitude of new skills. With growing awareness of the need to develop these skills, educational institutes are seeing a clear shift in demand for certain programmes. Additionally, the increased adoption of technology will mean in-demand skills across jobs change over the next five years, and skills gaps will continue to be high. We are therefore seeing the growth of programmes that support this shift. Some examples are degrees in Cybersecurity, Data Science, Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability Engineering and Robotics.
There is no doubt that the changes wrought by the pandemic are far-reaching. And whilst the new landscape can be challenging at times, it also makes studying and working in higher education right now interesting and exciting!