BALANCED LEARNING

Abu Dhabi's technical institutes are growing in popularity among young Emiratis; however, finding a balance with more traditional academic programs is paramount to ensure the development of a truly knowledge-based economy.

As the UAE seeks to diversify its economy, there is natural requirement for a competent and innovative workforce that will be responsive to these future demands. As such, maintaining a healthy balance between learning academic skills versus technical skills is an ongoing challenge for educational institutions and employers.

On the one hand, technical programs offer hard skills so that best practices can be directly implemented right at the very moment. On the other hand, academic programs are modeled to build critical thinking and problem solving to enable individuals to flexibly apply skills. One prepares students for known challenges, in the case of technical training, or unknown ones, in the case of academic teaching.

Technical and vocational and education and training (TVET) has started to grow in relevance as a result of a clear direction from the country's leadership. Both the UAE Vision 2021 and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 place particular emphasis on a few strategic industries that have been identified as pillars and drivers of economic growth of the country. Among them healthcare, aviation, highly specialized technology, and energy all require technical professionals to service current demands.
The government estimates that it needs 10 people with vocational skills for every university graduate. To meet this need, the UAE has built a national system to ensure quality TVET one that prioritizes building relevant skills to coincide with new and emerging technologies, materials, and systems. With technology and automation playing an increasingly more direct role in society, there is great impetus for TVET. Khalifa University, Higher Colleges of Technology, ADNOC Technical Institute, and the Emirates Aviation University are just some examples of institutes that offer an array of vocational courses.
TBY spoke with Mubarak Saeed Al Shamsi Director General of the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical Vocation and Training (ACTVET), who affirmed that vocational programs “will contribute to the achievements of Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, which seeks to create a sustainable knowledge-based economy and ensure the availability of a stable supply of high-quality labor to staff the economy."

Understanding the requirements and implications of knowledge-based economies, thus, offers the key to strike a balance between technical and academic programs. Knowledge-based societies are surely driven by innovation but require a highly educated, flexible, and adaptive workforce that can be realized through competency-based learning and heavy emphasis on critical thinking skills. Preparing students for the job market should remain a priority, but such a goal must be inserted in today's job market dynamism. According to Ed Surge, a LinkedIn executive, people will change careers 15 times over their lifetimes. Whether that is true for Emiratis or not, Surge's statement nonetheless sheds light on a propensity not to know the job an individual will have a few years down the line from his current one. In order to be prepared for its eventual “unknown challenge," an academic system based on a more holistic educational approach proves to be a compelling solution.
The focus on a traditional university system in the UAE is unlikely to fade away. The Emirates, and Abu Dhabi in particular, offers a number of high-level secondary academic institutions that have produced many of the country's current leaders, which notably come from humanities, business, and engineering educational backgrounds. Although there is a shift within academia to reflect the future needs of the UAE, Professor Waqar Ahmad, Chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, stressed, “The university's task is to create programs that reflect the current and future needs of the country and the region; skills rather than disciplines will win the day in the future." Moreover, there is an accepted opinion that students require more basic mathematics and sciences competences.

Establishing a balance and ensuring equilibrium between both will ensure a supply of technical and academically competent individuals.