We met with Dr. Baniyas for an insight into Abu Dhabi’s Education Agenda.
During his extensive career he held senior leadership positions including Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, Director of Graduate Studies, Vice Dean and Dean at the College of Medicine and Vice Provost for Health Sciences, as well as Provost and Chief Academic Officer at UAE University. He has also served as Vice Chancellor at Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE) and Higher Education Advisor to ADEC.
Dr Baniyas was involved in the accreditation of Medicine and Pharmacy Colleges in the UAE and has served as External Examiner and Evaluator for Universities at an international level. Notably he is founding Chair of the Emirates Board of Medical Specialties.
As Provost at UAEU he formalized the College of Graduate Studies and guided the implementation of strategic initiatives including the introduction of employability skills into the curriculum and the enhancement of e-resources.
The Abu Dhabi Education Council seeks to develop education and educational institutions in the Emirate, implement innovative educational policies, plans and programs that aim to improve education, and support educational institutions and staff to achieve the objectives of national development in accordance with the highest international standards.
The Abu Dhabi Education Council was established in 2005. Tell us a little bit about the history behind its establishment and what are the main responsibilities of this institution?
The Abu Dhabi Education Council is a great milestone in putting the Abu Dhabi agenda forward. If we look at the future of the country, whether you are talking about development in healthcare, in engineering and technology, development in leadership, development in every field, it starts with education. So it was advisable to have an education council that will be guiding the future development of the country. Building a plan right from the beginning on how to prepare this generation for the future, the plan for intermediate school and how to focus on what is developing in the world, whether it is the technological developments, social changes, the values of the country as well as higher education and research. For that reason I think it is biased to have higher education and P12 under one umbrella because there is a connection and alignment between how you prepare the children in their earliest stage and what they become in the future and how much they can contribute to the country.
Now if you look at the strategy of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, it focuses on a couple of very important points. It focuses on looking at the science and engineering technology as becoming the real elements of education. Not because social science isn’t important, but because engineering and technology is becoming incorporated in social sciences. Nowadays you don’t learn geography without IT, you don’t learn music without physics, and you don’t even learn economics without modeling. Another important concept we have in the higher education council is building the capacities. Building the capacities across the board, depending on the internal capacities in all fields, building the specialized capacities for different industries, nationalization and also having key positions and key technology expertise from the nationals, the engagement and the partnership in education in developing the country because the strength of one sector or council comes when partnering with the other sectors. So this is another strategic vision of the Abu Dhabi Education Council.
H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan said that we have to be prepared for the era after the oil and if we invest in education, if we invest in the people and if we are well prepared, we will be celebrating. If we don’t invest in education we will face hard times. So the Abu Dhabi Education Council is established to fulfill that mission.
You have indeed put a lot of emphasis on education and the youth. The youth are a very important element in this equation for the government going forward. Do you agree?
Indeed! Education starts with youth but it also starts with early ages. Talking about the human development, what happens in early ages in terms of gaining knowledge, behavior, in learning the skills, having the life long learning attributes is very important for their future and for that reason there is a huge investment in this. That’s why, if you see the education reform, the new school models, the education agenda you will see how it focuses a lot on both elements. On the content where you will see the children learning math and science because that is the essence of it, yet at the same time they have to learn how to learn. They have to learn how to engage themselves in learning; they have to learn how to take charge, to be interactive and to know how to use new technology, which is what we call the support academic learning strategy. So it is important to focus on youth at a very early stage.
The private sector has also shown a lot of interest in taking part of building the education system by setting up universities and schools. How would you describe the reaction of the private sector in investing in education in the country?
I think the Abu Dhabi Education Council as such has three areas of core business. One is the government schools, which includes operation of all schools. The other one is supporting private schools in terms of helping setting up the strategies, providing them the platforms for students data and also working with private schools for conducting quality assurance and self regulation that will help them improve. It’s not for the purpose of policing the private schools. That is also true with higher education and universities. The mandate of the Abu Dhabi Education Council is not only P12, it’s also with higher education and universities. Universities are even more important to work in partnership with because across the world the universities are the think-tank for the country, the industry, and they will build these patent and innovative ideas, which the industry will later commercialize. Innovation originally comes from universities. It is very important for higher education, the government sector, to support the universities particularly those universities that are involved in research and innovation and quality education. If there is no innovation in universities, then no matter how much we talk about preparing for the future, there is going to be difficulty. Copying industries will only help you survive in the short term but only by producing your own product, by designing, by innovating, by putting something in the market that no one has seen, that’s where you’ll find the edge and can survive.
No one wants universities to prepare graduates that are not finding jobs in the market and this is where the industry, government and universities should work together. Just like they do in research for innovation in products, for preparing manpower and human capital development there should be this collaboration as well between the government, industry and higher education institutes to see what are the future needs of the country.
How would you say the UAE is standing when it comes to this interaction between the job market and the students coming out of universities? Do you feel that there is a harmony between these two elements?
I think UAE is a small but complex country because we have many universities and nationalities in the country. Sometimes it is challenging to monitor the data. We conducted a survey here and as part of our results we can say that the country is in need for technical education, vocational education, and engineering, for sub-specialties of medicine, even planners and finance and to some degree I think most universities have started including that. The concept of following gradates is not well known in the country but there has been some massive rise in the past couple of years with the universities. Now the universities are approaching the government asking if they need such and such specialty and they are planning accordingly. This is also another dimension that as a government we will try to help universities and work with them on quality assurance and tell them that it’s very important to design courses that have theoretical elements plus the practical elements and internship for the (industry). You have to position and train them. Even for some of the specialties that in the past didn’t require any training. If someone is studying languages, linguistics, I think there is a big chance for them to train as part of their study. They can intern in media, journalism, writing articles, teach, and they can even work in a strategic center as part of their training for a short period of time to get a feel of the job market, even the pure sciences and humanities where they don’t have internship. I think it’s crucial for universities to include that sort of internship so that they are prepared for the market.
There seems to be a disparity between what schools and universities are teaching in class to the reality of what’s out there, when it comes to the level of preparation that people need to join the labor market. Would you agree?
Exactly, this is a very important key to work on. Part of our quality improvement and quality assurance departments here in the higher education is to make sure that they are aligned with Abu Dhabi’s vision and mission. They are adding value and their curriculum is relevant to the labor market and they are also aligned in terms of what is needed in the industries and universities. We don’t want to dilute the scientific knowledge, we don’t want to dilute the content, but the content could be to attain an applied basis.
Dr. Mohamed, how optimistic are you about the future of Abu Dhabi’s education sector. What are the challenges that you see going forward?
I think there are some very good opportunities that are happening here in Abu Dhabi and I’ll mention a couple of reasons for the good opportunities and some of the challenges. In terms of opportunities, one great aspect is that we have clear direction and we have the leadership, which is investing in education and putting priority in education. Every now and then we are guided by the principle that education is the future and we have to focus on that. This is one positive aspect of the council. We also have the Emarati society that is quite engaged in education. If we compare the literacy 40 to 50 years ago before the Union we will see a big difference. For example, you can see more women in higher education than men. You can also see the positive results in what we have. Abu Dhabi and the Emirates is very good in dealing with international communities and the fact that we have international universities, international schools as well as international colleagues who are building the country with us, this is a big plus to be optimistic about the future and the fact that the leadership has decided to start the year of focus. So last year the focus was on innovation. That created a major impact and awareness within the society. This year is on reading, to read for the purpose of development. There is some momentum through this. The Abu Dhabi Education Council also has taken some initiatives in terms of stem-education. The initiative of education and reform as well as the collaboration with other entities is also very good. So these are some of the wonderful steps that are contributing to Abu Dhabi.
Some of the challenges I think are that we have to face it. We have started some industries in the country but the industry is not very developed to become innovative industries to develop new products and to have patents. If you don’t have that industry in the country you will not have many people graduating for science and having that opportunity. I call this the vicious cycle. If you have people who are prepared for a future that is dependent on innovation and technology, you will have to have an industry that is producing the knowledge. You have to be building, producing and making the knowledge. To be part of that cycle and because the UAE is a young country we have to work on that portion. This is not only on the shoulder of the government but it’s also the responsibility of the philanthropist and the industry. So this concept needs to be developed further, for industries to be innovative. We also have to create this science and engineering education right from the beginning. I think the country has taken steps toward that but we need some time to achieve the results. Nowadays you cannot live without technology. You cannot live without critical thinking and scientific thinking. This dichotomy between science and literature should not be there anymore. Sometimes it is very challenging to convince the students to take the scientific path because they are used to taking the easier and shorter route. We need to have a change in setting where there is no border between science and humanities. This concept is still a challenge although we are taking the effort I think we need more time. Another challenge is the concept of how to go around and create this culture of becoming a self-learner. Now I think it started moving but we have to empower people to learn on their own. We need to push students at different levels to become independent learners. It will help a lot if families, government and schools all work together to push this issue towards the self-learning concept. We need to create this culture among education entities.