Education: The best way to cope with change

  • 6 March 2018

During his speech at the 2015 World Government Summit in Dubai, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, stressed that, “Our best bet at this period of time…is to invest all our resources in education.” In these words, His Highness [Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed] was reflecting his deep understanding of the sweeping changes that the world has been going through across all fields, that education is the best path for the UAE to follow, and that all other Arab countries should also handle change and confidently engage in it, both now and in the future.

At the conclusion of the proceedings of the Mohammad Bin Zayed Majlis for Future Generations on March 8, 2017, Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed addressed the UAE youth, emphasising that, “We have no choice but to rely on quality. Our real weapon is knowledge.”

The whole world considers education as the key to the future, and investing in it is highly valuable and rewarding, because those who occupy leading positions in the field of education have the upper hand in the process of worldwide change. No country, however, can understand change, benefit from its achievements, become involved in it, or avoid its perils without relying on education. It is not possible to discuss the expected shifts in fields of technology, labour markets, wealth, income, development, security, economy, conflicts, and wars without resorting to education.

Wealth no longer refers to material assets, but rather to knowledge resources, because knowledge has become wealth in the context of the knowledge-based economy. Studies indicate that education is the major contributor to the gross national income (GNI) of countries, compared to the other elements of the production process, such as capital, labour, etc. Moreover, economic growth, since the second half of the 20th century, has become more closely related to the technological advances, which are based on education instead of the accumulation of capital, as was the case before. Forty years ago, tangible (real or physical) assets represented about 80 per cent of the overall assets of top 500 corporations in the world. Intangible assets, including research studies and scientific inventions, now represent more than 80 per cent of the overall assets of the same corporations.

Regarding employment, specialised international institutions predict that the jobs of the future will be vastly different from those of the present, adding that education will be the primary tool to prepare people for these new jobs. In this context, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology,” published in Davos, introduced a set of skills that the jobs of the future in the 21st century will require. The report underlined that education institutions should consolidate these skills in their students, or they will have no chance of finding employment in the future. The World Economic Forum published another report during its annual meeting in Davos titled “The Future of Jobs,” which indicated that by 2020, 21 per cent of the basic skills in the GCC countries, and 41 per cent in Turkey will be different from those required in 2015.

Educational evolution

In the field of technology, it is expected that the world will witness vast technological changes in the coming years, and life on earth will undergo a transformational process at the economic, military, and security levels, among others. It will be especially evident in terms of artificial intelligence, which, as world experts and specialists will confirm, is witnessing a phenomenal evolution. Education is undoubtedly the way to achieve such transformations and cope with their consequences.

The question that arises here is: how can education be best utilised to deal with change in both the Arab world and the UAE? The Arab region fully acknowledges the paramount importance of education to keep up with present and future challenges. However, only a few would be able to answer these questions: what kind of education do we mean? Which educational areas need our attention? How would educational evolution take shape in the future? What is the best way to promote education? And which approach has been adopted by those who have preceded us in this field, so that we can learn from their experience? In this article, I will try to briefly answer these questions as follows:

n Predictions included in Dubai Future Academy’s “The State of the Future” report indicate numerous elements that shed light on aspects of education in the future, in terms of curricula, instruction mechanisms, and evaluation methods among others. This includes: classrooms gradually disappearing by 2025 in favour of distance learning; chemistry possibly being used in 2030 to alter and improve students’ brains; artificial intelligence replacing teachers in 2031; exams being replaced in 2036 by other evaluation methods; and the memorisation of information not being necessary by 2059. There are additional predictions that the reader can check in detail in the above mentioned report. My point in this context is that education in the future will be fundamentally different to that of the present. This means we must prepare for a future situation that is different from today. We must find ways to address it in terms of curricula, training, infrastructure, teachers, and students. The future will bring about innovations that are beyond imagination, and it is predicted that computers, in the coming years, will outperform humans in terms of intelligence. Computers “are teaching themselves more than they are programming themselves. And this would make the determined and committed students look like apathetic dunces in comparison,” as the French futurologist Laurent Alexandre stated in his book La Guerre des Intelligences (The War of Intelligences), reported by the specialist science writer Benoit Georges in an article in Gulf News on January 2, 2018.

n Since technology is the basis for development and the mainstay of change around the world, then the aspired-for education system is one that prioritises and focuses on the modern sciences, mainly in the fields of technology and innovation. Also, it has been predicted that jobs of the future will be destined for those with “skills” rather than “knowledge.” Therefore, our education systems should focus more on the consolidation of skills especially through vocational and occupational education. The European Union expects that half of the available jobs in 2020 will require intermediate academic qualifications, which highlights the paramount importance of according further interest to technical and vocational education.

n The teacher is the most important factor in the success of any educational development process, both at present and in the future. If we do not have modern teachers who possesses the necessary tools to cope with big developments in the field of education, then all plans to build a developed educational system will end in failure. This requires us to start right now in reconsidering the adopted programmes and policies regarding teacher training at different educational stages. We should put forth plans to train and rehabilitate the current teachers who benefited from traditional training and who carry out their jobs in the framework of traditional systems of education because these are no longer suitable for the present time, let alone for the future.

n The experiences of other countries show that they achieved progress when they gave the utmost priority to allocating financial funds for education and scientific research. Statistics from the year 2000 show that the annual spending per student then was $12,000 (Dh44,040) in Switzerland, $6,500 in the USA, $5,000 in Europe, and $3,500 in Israel. According to the 2016 World Talent Report, published by the Lausanne-based Institute for Management Development in November 2016, Iceland and Denmark spent 7.6 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on education, followed by South Africa (7.3 per cent), Ukraine (7.2 per cent), Portugal (6.8 per cent), Israel (6.3 per cent), Malaysia (5.12 per cent), South Korea (4.93 per cent), Australia (5.26 per cent), and Japan (3.53 per cent). Furthermore, countries that pursue progress and supremacy place a significant importance on scientific research, on grounds that it is the way toward major scientific inventions. For example, the World Bank statistics of 2014 show that South Korea spent 3.74 per cent of its GDP on scientific research, Germany 2.87 per cent, and the United Kingdom 1.68 per cent, while the Arab world only spent 0.2 per cent, which was below the global average (2.28 per cent), and even lower than the global minimum expenditure line (0.73 per cent).

Singapore reaps dividend

n Countries that have placed an emphasis on education are enjoying the dividends of their efforts, because investing in education brings about certain outcomes. Thanks to education, the average annual per capita income in Singapore increased from $500 in 1965, when the country gained independence from Malaysia, to more than $70,000 now. This is despite the country’s small size (around 700 square kilometres) and scarce resources. Also, education is the major factor underlying the decline in poverty rates in Malaysia, which fell from 70 per cent to 5 per cent between 1970 and 2000; and the country’s increase in its average annual income per capita from $350 in 1970 to about $18,000 in 1993.

So, what about the UAE? The wise leadership undoubtedly places great importance on education as it is fully aware of its pivotal role in achieving sustainable development in the post-oil era. Yet, there is still a long and tough road ahead to lay the foundations of a modern educational system that is capable of effectively handling the change processes the world is undergoing. This also requires greater efforts and new plans and strategies. When I say the road ahead is long and tough, I refer to precise data and statistics. For example, the UAE expenditure on scientific research is still less than 1 per cent of GDP, and the country’s expenditure on education does not exceed 1.10 per cent of GDP. These rates are far lower than the rates of the developed countries of both the East and West, as previously detailed. In these circumstances that require greater emphasis on modern sciences and technologies, statistics from the Ministry of Education in 2014 reveal that 65 per cent of UAE students enrolled in the arts stream, compared to only 25 per cent in the science stream. Moreover, statistics indicate that Abu Dhabi alone will need 40,000 skilled workers, but the educational system’s output does not exceed 3,000, which can largely be attributed to the stigma attached to this type of education.

When I stress the importance of placing further emphasis on teaching modern sciences, especially in the field of technology, I do not mean neglecting social sciences, but rather ensuring a balance between experimental and social sciences in education. The experimental sciences — such as engineering, medicine, and computing — are definitely important to create wealth and achieve development. Likewise, social sciences are important to build an open-minded generation that possesses critical thinking and is capable of determining good from evil and wrong from right. This is mainly because relevant studies show that science graduates will be more exposed to the misleading thoughts of extremist and terrorist organisations, compared to social science graduates, because their purely scientific studies leave behind spiritual emptiness, which might be exploited by extremist forces. Therefore, I call for the integration of certain basics of social sciences — including history, sociology, political science, and the like — in the teaching programme for students at scientific colleges.

In a presentation I made in 1998 on the sidelines of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research’s (ECSSR) fourth annual conference titled “Challenges of the Next Millennium: Education and Development of Human Resources,” I said that it was high time we put our resources in the right place by investing in the educational process, adding that education is the basis through which we may win or lose a generation. I stressed that if we do not lay strong foundations to address the 21st century’s challenges, by investing in education, we will certainly lose the future generation. After almost 20 years, this speech is still relevant in describing the necessities of the present time as well as the future, as world developments have proved that education has become the principal standard through which to achieve progress, differentiate between countries, create wealth, and build power in the international arena.