Graduates of universities in the UAE are missing out on vocational training, according to education experts at a recent Higher Education Forum which questioned whether students were being adequately prepared for the world of work.

Speakers reported that students wanted a 'better student experience', 'stronger industry links', and a 'fully digital environment'. The number of young people enrolling in higher education has jumped to 35 per cent in the UAE, from just 10 per cent in 1990.

Dr Sethu Madhavan Puravangara, an HR and business management specialist, said university graduates are often taught to compete and win alone. “In the workplace, it is not a race, but more of a soccer game, and you need to have the soft skills and team skills to work with others and win together,” he said.

Vocational courses are increasingly being demanded by students. Dr Puravangara said the growing expectations of students were reshaping universities globally, not just in the UAE. “Students today tend to shop around and look for bargains in the market. They want a positive experience, better value, shorter course durations and more job-oriented courses. This demand will lead universities to become more efficient, adopt more digitisation and align with students’ needs,” he added.

Some universities are already responding to these changes. Although most offer structured courses in traditional subjects, such as medicine, the arts and engineering, several have begun to restructure their courses to meet the demands of the market, said Dr Puravangara. “The UAE has made significant progress with the establishment of the National Qualifications Framework and associated vocational qualifications,” he said.

The Framework was established to prioritise the development of skills and qualifications in order to keep up with emerging technologies, materials, systems and workplace environments, including new jobs, with the aim of helping to develop the nation’s social capital and improve its wellbeing, according to the National Qualifications Authority.

In 2015, Dubai set up the regulatory body Qualifications and Awards in Dubai (Qad), to encourage students to take up a vocational education.

Universities should focus more on aligning with the needs of the job market, as well as fostering students’ soft skills, said Dr Puravangara. “Education should include on-the-job training, and work-based projects. Universities should use proven methods such as internships, industry-university joint committees and task forces, work-based case studies and industry-sponsored courses more effectively. Another area where universities could improve is to increase practical exposure and cut down on theoretical orientation,” he said.

“They should also upgrade the curriculum every year in fast-moving fields such as computer science, medicine and engineering, to keep pace with latest developments,” he added.

The importance of modernising the UAE’s education system was also under discussion this month at WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017, which saw an international team of experts from HR, education and industry evaluate how education systems can successfully identify and nurture the skills required by today’s constantly evolving job market.

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