Economic advancement depends on universities’ humanitarian values

The embrace of those values by the UAE’s higher education institutions has been key to the nation’s success, says Zaki Nusseibeh 

November 13, 2021
Skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Source: iStock

This year the United Arab Emirates celebrates its 50th anniversary. It was born in 1971 through the union of seven emirates. At the time, most international observers thought the UAE would not survive. They thought it lacked every aspect of the infrastructure required for statehood and would succumb to a region riven with conflict.

They were wrong. Despite the turbulent conditions into which the UAE was born, it is now a highly developed, modern, and knowledge-based society. We are a global centre of trade and finance, and a vibrant hub for the creative and cultural industries. By bringing the best of the world to our shores, we have improved the lives of our people beyond measure and play an essential role in regional stability.

Two elements have been essential to this success: education and diversity. These will also determine our national development in the next 50 years. Our founding president, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, understood that higher education is a key part of nation-building. Universities are necessary to the creation of institutions and infrastructure, essential for our economic success and vital to cultivating and preserving our heritage and culture.

That focus on education is perhaps best illustrated by the decision to establish the United Arab Emirates University in 1976, just five years after the country’s foundation. The UAE University was conceived as a place of unity formed of diversity. It brought together young people from each of the seven emirates, requiring them to live and study together and to overcome their differences to support each other. It hired faculty from across the globe to create a comprehensive, teaching- and research-intensive university. It identified and adopted the most effective international practices and formed a multicultural academic community. This global orientation served the interests of the country.

The UAE is now home to many universities with roots in all corners of the globe. The diversity of our higher education system mirrors the international, multicultural fabric of the country, our cultural openness, and our tolerance. The UAE, like our higher education system, has always prioritised multilateral, international networks and placed importance on our global integration.

The values of good neighbourliness, openness and tolerance are essential to the global orientation. They allow and require us to advocate for the value of diversity, peace, negotiation and dialogue as a source of conflict resolution. These values have been essential to the economic and social development of the UAE. They are also the hallmark of the academic and educational process. It is essential for all universities to remind their communities and societies that economic advancement depends on the practice of humanitarian values – the values that are enshrined in the university.

Moreover, the health of a higher education system depends on its diversification. Each country needs institutions with a range of roles, sizes, missions, programmes, purposes, funding sources and approaches to access. Diversification ensures a higher education system’s relevance and flexibility, according to variations in need and changes over time. This point seems simple, but it is an urgent one when considering the immense, ancient, culturally rich and highly populous countries, in all corners of the world, that are brought together under the banner of “emerging economies”.

We must assess the success of our higher education systems using metrics that are appropriate to institutional diversity and highlight the relevance of each institution. Each one serves different aspects of national development. And although all institutions should be accountable for serving their purpose with the highest quality, each must keep in sight its individual attributes and their relevance. We should always guard against mimicry, isomorphism and the pressure to be the same. Indeed, it is in our differences that we have value. Our differences motivate and enrich our partnerships: we each have something different to offer the exchange.

As the UAE looks forward to the next 50 years, the shape of our higher education system is central to our considerations. We will have a range of technical, specialist, vocational, liberal arts and research-intensive institutions. Some will be public, some private, some big and some small. Many will be the result of international partnerships and inward international investments.

The UAE University has its distinctive place in this system, prioritising the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will innovate advanced and digital technologies that contribute to sustainable development. It will prepare young people to take the lead in creating their futures. In addition, it will form partnerships within academia and industry, in the public and private sectors, across all regions of the world. Yet our mission remains rooted in humanitarian values – of service to society, social conscience, diversity, community and collaboration.

Tomorrow, as in history, the UAE will employ the values of diversity, collaboration, tolerance, and good neighbourliness to guide our methods of social and economic development. Yet such goals and methods are set in a context of global dynamics. Societal and economic resilience and sustainability require that the humanitarian values of the university are practised on a global scale.

The ambitions of students, researchers and nation states cannot be realised without securing this global well-being. Sustainability is an essential condition of economic growth and social development. The humanitarian values expressed in the academic, educational and university environment are key to both.

Zaki Nusseibeh is chancellor of United Arab Emirates University and adviser for cultural affairs to His Highness, President of the UAE. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at Times Higher Education's Emerging Economies Summit, held in Dubai in October in association with United Arab Emirates University.

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