The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is currently striving to “enhance its pivotal role as a regional business hub whose essential infrastructure and institutions provide a gateway linking our neighbourhood to the world, serving as a model for the region.” This goal is stated in the ambitious strategy Vision 2021 that was launched between 2010 and 2014, and describes the targets which should be met by the nation’s Golden Jubilee. Higher education and academic research by universities and institutes have been acknowledged as playing a crucial role in achieving this goal and helping the country prepare for its transition to a knowledge economy that promotes innovation, research, and development. This is why the link between higher education and becoming a business hub currently receives a lot of attention and increased involvement from the business, philanthropy, and government sectors in many of the individual emirates, as well as across the UAE as a whole.
In the realms of policy making and the governance of higher education systems in the UAE, the realization of becoming a regional business hub through higher education and research is predominantly translated into two main procedures: First, through attracting foreign higher education and research partners. Second, at least in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, through building the physical infrastructure to host these partners in so-called economic or educational zones, such as Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ) or Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). Policymakers, but also universities, funders, businesses, free zones, and others, wish to align higher education and academic research with the economy better by implementing these procedures, making the UAE an international destination for higher education and research by virtue of importing foreign partners. However, these procedures concentrate on the physical and geographical elements of a Hub strategy, but the conceptual elements, such as how what specific type of education might lead to what type of desired social and economic progress over time, are currently underdeveloped.
Comparing the UAE’s strategy to that of another Education Hub, Singapore (where the Education Hub phenomenon originated) has spent decades developing such conceptual elements. This has made it one of the most desirable and effective international destination for higher education and research. For instance, the city state has multiple strategies that elaborate how education is essential to economic and social progress, and how Singaporean society has been the enabler of its economic success over the last decades. Such strategies commonly denote perseverance, hard work, and a curiosity for learning throughout life as desired character traits of individuals in Singaporean society, allowing them to stay competitive in the global economy in the long term as they link this back to education and research opportunities and structures. By virtue of developing this conceptual part sufficiently, Singapore aims at cultivating academic research of the highest caliber, though mainly in the sciences, and aspires to leverage research produced into new products and services catering to pockets of excellence in industries and services it has built over time.
For realizing the vision of the UAE as an Education Hub, which is an international destination for higher education and research by virtue of academic vigor with a positive impact on the country, current education and social policy should move beyond a narrow focus on geographical and physical elements of an Education Hub. It should instead attempt to create an accessible cultural space that complements these elements. To create this cultural space through developing the conceptual components of its Hub vision further, the development of a coherent strategy for achieving social and economic progress might be favorable. Such a strategy should at least include, first, an assessment of existing gaps in the present higher education and research systems; second, a definition of the Hub’s purpose for the country; and, third, should elaborate how to find a reasonable balance between local needs and international agendas that businesses, universities, and policy makers pursue.
Because such a cultural space might take two to three decades to create, current policy choices in higher education should be reviewed now. They determine the future success of decisions that have been made already (such as in Vision 2021), which is why considering the development of a coherent strategy for achieving social and economic progress for the UAE, with higher education as a crucial component, is important.
To learn more about Education Hub strategies and policy in the UAE, check out the Al Qasimi Foundation’s open-access policy paper “Education Hub Strategy and Policy in the United Arab Emirates: Creating a Cultural Space for Higher Education and Research” by Marvin Erfurth.
Marvin Erfurth is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative and International Education at the University of Muenster, Germany who studies Education Policy and Economics of Education in particular. He was a Research Associate at University of Muenster, Germany, a Visiting Scholar at the Al Qasimi Foundation, UAE, and at the University of Oslo, Norway, in the past, and has a professional background in secondary and higher education, research, and consultancy.