Heavy-handed Gulf regulation ‘holds back student employability’

Zayed University provost Michael Allen says lack of course flexibility regarding microcredentials is hurting graduates’ chances in the labour market

November 30, 2022
Locals try opening a shut gate to illustrate Heavy-handed Gulf regulation ‘holds back student employability’
Source: Getty

Undergraduates studying in Gulf states are being denied vital educational and employment opportunities because regulators are strongly opposed to recognising microcredentials within traditional degree programmes.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s MENA Universities Summit, Michael Allen, acting provost and chief academic officer at Zayed University, in Dubai, said restrictive regulations regarding course design in the United Arab Emirates and the wider Arab region had stopped students from pursuing credits in subjects that might complement their main degree.

Addressing an audience at the American University of the Middle East in Kuwait, Professor Allen said the roll-out of microcredentials within traditional undergraduate degrees required “some regulatory flexibility, but not much”.

Undergraduates studying IT or public health might be encouraged to take a microcredential in innovation, which might lead them to consider founding a start-up, he explained, arguing that there should be “room in their eight semesters of study” for such an opportunity.

“If we can get students to explore these kinds of skills, it will not only increase their employability but their sense of themselves in the workplace,” said Professor Allen.

“The more we create these opportunities in our universities, the more they will come back to see what else we have to offer.”

However, Arab universities are often stifled by heavy-handed government regulation, meaning that they had “no flexibility at all” to reform curricula to address graduate employability – a major challenge within the region given the prevalence of youth unemployment in many countries, he said.

Likening university curricula to the flight plans used by airline pilots, Professor Allen explained that pilot friends of his had explained how “on any flight that we fly on, the plane is off course for 90 per cent of the time” but passengers always reached their destination.

“If the destination is worthwhile and reached, are we worried if [students] are sometimes off course semester to semester?” asked Professor Allen.

His call echoed similar points made by Francisco Marmolejo, a former World Bank education chief who is now president of higher education for the Qatar Foundation, which supports an ecosystem of eight universities in Education City in Doha.

Speaking at the THE summit, Dr Marmolejo said more course flexibility was required for students in the Middle East who “did not have a very clear idea of what they wanted to study” but could not branch out into other disciplines because “there are some bureaucracies which are very protective of courses”.

That prescriptive approach to university degrees extended to quality assurance, which mean strict rules on “how many students can be accepted or how many books are in the library” were used to uphold quality but often had the opposite effect.

“What if no one is reading those books in the library because they are obsolete?” said Dr Marmolejo, who argued that institutions should be freed to move from “quality control to quality assurance and then quality improvement”.

“I’m a strong believer in going beyond quality by itself – unless we bring elements of relevance [into university degrees], then [judgements of] quality are not meaningful,” he said.


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