‘65% of school students don’t know what they want to do when they leave education’ – an instantly familiar statistic as for the last few years UK news reports have been saying exactly this. Articles bemoan the lack of clear careers advice for young people and the fact that the education system is not adequately preparing people for work. However, this wasn’t quoted by a UK newspaper but by Kamal ben Selama from the UAE’s National Qualifications Authority (NQA).
In November, I travelled to Dubai to host a panel of education and skills experts discussing the future skills needs of the UAE. During our morning together I was struck time and again by the similarities of the issues that the UAE and the UK are facing. On the surface, our economies and the makeup of our workforces are very different yet scratch beneath and you will find themes and issues that are common to both countries.
Similarities and differences
Dr Naji also said that the number of different curricula offered in the UAE is quite staggering. This plethora of qualifications is also something common to us in the UK and we see it most acutely in the vocational sector which has hundreds of different qualifications and many pathways unlike academic education which largely follows one path from GCSEs through to A Levels and higher education. In Dubai there are 17 curricula and many new schools are opening every year. This has led to a number of issues around finding enough qualified teachers to support the growth of the education sector in Dubai.
Vocational education reform is happening in both the UK and the UAE but panellists at the event agreed with education experts in the UK that I speak to; reform takes time to bed in and vocational education needs to be given support and consistency for students and their parents to see it as an attractive option.
During the event, we also took a step back and looked at some of the global trends that are shaping skills and jobs today. The City & Guilds Group published some research in June 2016 looking at the skills confidence of leaders, managers and employees around the world. We asked our audience in Dubai some of the same questions and found that three quarters of them were confident in their current skills levels, reporting the same level of confidence when asked to look five years into the future.
The audience, an international mixture of employers, educators and education and government stakeholders, also responded positively to some of the workplace trends I highlighted in my presentation. We asked whether automation and globalisation would have a positive or negative effect on respondents’ businesses in the next five years and almost four fifths of the audience said that there would be a positive impact compared with just a tenth who thought there would be a negative impact.
This chimes with the results from our main survey and while encouraging to see a positive response, we felt that maybe some people had a false sense of security about the future. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney said in a speech given at Liverpool John Moores University in December 2016, the technological revolution we are now experiencing will ‘destroy jobs and livelihoods well before new ones emerge.’ He was referencing automation among other things and despite the confidence felt by our audience and wider survey respondents, it’s clear that automation is set to replace many different jobs and we need to focus on helping people acquire the skills that are valued by economies now and in the future.
Another topic that we focused on during our discussions, and that is common among employers in every country I travel to, is that of the skills valued by employers. Contrary to what we are taught in education, it is not normally qualifications and academic achievement that are valued by employers but rather attitude and experience. Kamal ben Selama said that some of the skills most valued by employers are problem solving and critical thinking.
'Learning to be Employable'
As City & Guilds highlighted in a report, ‘Learning to be Employable’, these and other employability skills are teachable but are not always focused on in education where the emphasis is often on teaching to the test. The issue of gaining experience during education is made harder by the lack of collaboration between education and employment. In the UK I’ve often talked about the need to mend the broken bridge between education and employment and it seems that this issue is common to many countries across the world, including the UAE.
So how should we respond? What needs to happen to reduce the skills gaps that are prevalent across the world and how can we stop the oxymoron of people without jobs and jobs without people? The more I travel and meet with employers and educators, the more I see similar issues and solutions being discussed. At our conference, the speakers were optimistic about the future of vocational education in Dubai but also recognised that we all need to work collectively to help people see the value of skills education.
There is also a need to create more choices for young people so that everyone can benefit from a learning style that suits them and that crucially the skills that will actually be needed by employers in the future are being taught. As panellist Professor Barry O'Mahony commented, the UN Charter contains a human right to education but this does not mean everyone should be striving for higher education, rather that there should be a real education choice for everyone that helps people to fulfil their potential and develop the right skills and behaviours to support current and future workforces. This is something that is needed whether you are in Dubai or Durham, Delhi or Durban.