TBY talks to Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, Chairman of the Board of Directors-Director General, Dubai Knowledge & Human Development Authority (KHDA), on preparing the groundwork for a smarter and more entrepreneurial future.

Dr. Abdulla Al Karam
Dr. Abdulla Al Karam is responsible for the quality and growth of Dubai’s private education sector, including early learning centers, schools, and universities and training institutes. Dr. Al Karam is a board member of the National Qualifications Authority of the UAE Federal Government, as well as United Arab Emirates University. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Dubai Future Foundation and the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences. He began his career as a software engineer in the US and France. Dr. Abdulla holds a PhD in computer engineering from the University of South Carolina.

What are KHDA's current plans, and how you are leading your strategy?

Currently, the KHDA is placing a real emphasis on thinking ahead and making sure we are ready for the future challenges that will affect the education sector. Over the last 10 years, we have experienced rapid change. It is a challenging landscape, but one marked with opportunities. World Economic Forum data from 2017 suggests that 65% of children currently in primary education will eventually end up in professions that do not currently exist. To tackle the void of uncertainty that is coming, the education system needs to focus on teaching how to learn. In the future, students will have far more autonomy and flexibility over their preferred methods of learning. This shift in the traditional teacher-student power balance is inevitable, and it is something that we have to start focusing on now. Readdressing traditional methodologies is the way to do it.

What can be done to attract and retain teachers in the UAE?

The lack of teachers is a global phenomenon. Many governments try to fight it by stopping their teachers going abroad, or by pushing more and more people into the industry. This is not the case in the UAE. Here, the solution lies in rethinking the way we teach, harnessing new methodologies, such as digital or experiential learning and involving the whole community. If we are short of teachers, we should encourage the wider community to play a larger part in educating the younger generations. That said, Dubai is rated as one of the most attractive destinations for teachers, with an increasing number of British professionals, from various stages of their career, being drawn here because of the good reputation for educational excellence, as well as its high standard of living.

Will the Teacher Licensing Program help achieve a higher quality of education?

The recent Teacher Licensing Program will benefit qualified teachers who are already in the system, making them feel properly valued as well as offering some more tangible advantages, such as higher wages. It will therefore act as an incentive for non-licensed professionals to obtain their qualifications. The cabinet's target to have every teacher registered by 2021 will be a real boon for the education sector in this respect.

How has the investment environment in the education sector developed over the past few years?

The education sector has been consistently expanding. For example, in the past 10 years we have seen an average growth of around 5-7%. In 2017 alone, we have 15 new schools opening. Furthermore, the bulk of these new schools fit within the middle-segment, these offer an economy of scale for investors. Investors have realized that this is a safe investment, and because of this safety in investment we have started seeing a shift in the instruments of financing, with companies and pension funds channeling funds into the education sector. People are also placing Dubai within an international context and seeing how, compared to other cities, the regulations are more transparent.

What are your predictions for 2017 in the education sector?

With the Expo 2020 imminent, our pace of growth can only increase going forward. We hope 2017 will match or preform even better than 2016, and by 2018 and 2019, we will see exponential growth. We are about four years into the preparations for Expo 2020, and have already seen rapid improvements in both physical and pedagogical infrastructure in schools and universities. In addition, the education sector has been highlighted by the government as an area of importance for the Dubai Future Accelerator, an initiative designed to help ensure our future generations are the innovators of the future. Five key areas were identified: mobility, the environment, safety and security, health, and education. The emphasis on the fifth point is crucial if we want to create the next generation of entrepreneurs here in Dubai.