SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

Saudi Arabia 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mohanad A. Dahlan, CEO of UBT Company, on a long family history and plans for expansion.

Given your family's long history in education, how is the current period different, and how has your business grown?

UBT Company is focused on investments, consultation, and operations for higher education, professional training, and knowledge transfer beyond high school. The company holds all of its endeavors as an investment firm, including the eponymous university. We focus on undergraduate, graduate, and executive education. We have a vision, but we need to understand where we come from as well. I come from a family that has chosen education as a career for hundreds of years. My brothers, sister, father, uncle, grandfather, and his brothers are educators, and my ancestors have pursued this profession for many generations. Education is in our blood, so we continue on the same path. However, today we are operating the first for-profit business model that the family has ever used. We believe in sustainability, and a business model must underpin any sustainable operation.

Aside from UBT, what are your key investments today?

We are proud to have executive training programs for three of the main companies in the western part of the country, and provide executive education in multiple countries through our partner certification bodies. We also cater to the changes that have happened in the education market. Today, there is a greater mix of higher education, training, and vocational education. In line with that, we have invested in new sectors through our UBT Academy brand, encompassing English Institutes and the Higher Training Institute. The latter will provide the knowledge and skills required for jobs and will be completely focused on the job market.. In May, we will announce these new schools after getting curriculums developed and approved by the Ministry of Education and the TVTC respectively. We will operate the English Institute on a franchise basis throughout the GCC. We have already had initial talks with interested parties in the Gulf region, while we plan to have 12 branches established and serving the different parts of the country eventually. We are keen to find investors who would like to promote quality English language education. We will operate those centers with partners investing capital.

Vision 2030 has a clear vocational and training component, as well as a clear intention to increase private participation in the sector. Are these investments a reaction to those plans?

They want to see proportionally fewer students in universities because current universities simply do not meet the needs of the market. Today the country needs to quickly and efficiently equip large numbers of young people with the right skills to do specific jobs. Right now, vocational and training schools are seen as the most effective way to provide careers for the Saudi youth. That is why we are investing in the vocational business and training and leveraging our existing resources in line with Vision 2030's goals and objectives. There are more than 85,000 teachers in the region qualified to receive teacher training and self-development, and we aim to serve them. We want to produce the best teachers we can, and that is a specialized training endeavor.

Is it a challenge to meet the demands and requirements of the private sector, and how do you deduce which skills are in demand?

We review the course content of our programs every year to ensure each is in line with international programs and processes. For example, we have recently been approved to deliver 26 new minor programs for the engineering college that cater to tomorrow's engineering and technology needs, as well as today's. We have an engineering school, a business school, and an advertising school. We are the only university in the Middle East that has an advertising school, and yet advertising is a USD24 billion market in which 94% of it is a macro outflow of cash outside the country, because the advertisers and agencies are not Saudi. So we want to change that, and our innovation in this area speaks to our awareness of the needs of the market. Our first batch of around 60 students just graduated, and they are all either employed or self-employed, every single one of them. That is the highest employment rate for a graduating class we have reached in 16 years. The Jeddah College of Advertising was created in partnership with Bucks New University in the UK. We did not have an advertising agency ourselves, so we had to learn to create that industry here. We learned for six months in the UK, going from one agency to another, and then we applied our findings here. So for every one of our programs, we tailor our operations to address market and employment needs, and in September 2017 we will have a set of newly reviewed programs that ensure our graduates become better equipped for the market than they have ever been.

Are there any plans to expand your operations in other Muslim countries outside of the Gulf and the Middle East, places like Malaysia or Indonesia, and what is your vision for the evolution of the UBT business?

Ultimately we want to be a global institution, yes. We do not just consider this a business. It is something we believe in. We believe everybody should have access to the best education possible. We have done our best to create a model for everyone, regardless of country, culture, or region. We also believe in private education, and that every single company or investor can do it through a for-profit business model. Furthermore, I urge the ministries of education and finance and investments to allow for companies that own universities and schools to go to IPO. The more transparency there is for the public, the better governed these businesses can be. Today's global business model allows for IPOs and public sharing, which was not the case hundreds of years ago, of course. We need to focus on the possibility of companies invested in education going to IPO. There is no reason they should not, not from either a business standpoint, or a religious standpoint, or a legal standpoint. It is important for the sustainability and transparency of the education sector.