BIGGER, BOLDER, AND BETTER

Oman 2020 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

NUST's goal is to keep growing, venture into areas that have been ignored by other higher education institutions in Oman, and improve the quality of online learning.

Simon Jones
BIOGRAPHY

Simon Jones is an innovative senior leader. He possesses unique global perspective leading people, consortia and institutions in the UK, Europe, US, Middle East, and Asia. Before his appointment in 2018 as Vice-Chancellor of the National University in Oman, Jones was the pro vice-chancellor at Cranfield University between 2016 and 2018. Before that, he was provost at Nazarbayev University, in Astana, Kazakhstan from 2012 to 2016, a role he took following experience as president/director of Abu Dhabi Men's College, Higher Colleges of Technology in the UAE.

What were the main drivers behind the creation of NUST?
Higher education is one of the key elements for a stable and prosperous society. The three colleges that merged to form the NUST date back to the mid-1990s and have a long track record of delivering education that fits Oman. The first driver behind the merger was the rise of interdisciplinary teaching, while the second was the reduction in the high fixed costs of each university. In 2019, we witnessed double-digit growth in terms of the number of students, 80% of which are Omanis. The strategy of the school can be summed up in three words: bigger, bolder, and better. We will keep growing and venture into areas not touched by higher education in Oman, and we will improve the quality of online learning.

What are the most effective teaching practices in digitally blended education environments?
The outbreak of COVID-19 will lead to a different era once the pandemic is contained and managed. Suddenly, everyone had to move to online learning overnight, and it is hard to see a return from this. While elements of e-learning have always been there, in the future, it will not be seen any more as a substitute, but rather a different way of learning; universities that adapt fast to this process will be successful. The human element is also bound to play a different role, since education has not changed to a large extent in the past 200 years. Today, there is no reason to be in the same place at the same time to get factual information, which can be acquired online everywhere. The teacher adds value by teaching students how to absorb and utilize information. Academic faculty is thus moving away from being experts to becoming coaches.

How will the growth of the entrepreneurial culture impact Oman's higher education system?
Aside from funding and developing a risk-taking culture, universities can contribute by incorporating entrepreneurial studies in their programs, such as NUST, and by offering facilities which entrepreneurs can use to develop and launch their ideas. The growth of entrepreneurship requires a fundamental change in the way higher education is structured. Historically, higher education has been used to train people to get jobs; now, it needs to teach people how to create jobs. Recent statistics for the US and UK show that in the last 10 years most of the jobs have been created by the SME segment. Oman has all the elements to develop the same pattern as these two advanced economies. The Sultanate has a trading culture, a young population, and a government that is committed to the future. The younger generation, with the support of technology, will take up the challenge, whether by spurring innovation or by helping existing industries.

What is the key to bridge the gap between the developments in R&D and the commercialization of those developments?
In terms of research, efforts should be made to address direct social and economic needs of the country. Fundamental research carried out by universities in more advanced economies is too long term, especially given the pressing challenges that need to be solved in emerging countries such as Oman. The relationship between fundamental and applied is not always as linear and direct, just like the one from innovation to exploitation. It also produces an ecosystem of skilled and knowledgeable people who can develop their own field of research ancillary to the core program. Since more than 75% of our student body is local, and the stakeholders we engaged with are Omanis, it makes sense to focus on national problems; however, Oman shares many of its issues with other countries in the region, so it would be natural, at a later stage, to apply a solution across borders, whether it is in the health or engineering field. Relevance is at the core of any research efforts, and adopting a national focus is crucial to ensure that the relevance element is met.