UAE: Festival of Thinkers explores new models

Current education models around the world are not meeting the challenge of inspiring and developing innovators, higher education leaders and other opinion-formers heard at the Festival of Thinkers conference in the United Arab Emirates last week.

Organised by the higher colleges of technology, the event brought together Nobel laureates and more than 300 international students, business leaders, politicians and academics.

Experts discussed the theme 'reframing education', which included the restructuring of academic institutions, curricula, programmes and assessments to ensure that future leaders are better prepared.

"In an era of global financial crises, stimulating and interesting jobs are not available to graduates," Sung Ki Baik, president of Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea said.

Sung acknowledged the key role universities have played in providing expertise to industries and their effectiveness in giving students support to find jobs, but said that students were not being equipped with the tools to create their own jobs and shape their futures.

"Universities are a breeding ground and a hope for the future but we are grossly inadequate to meet the new challenges," he said.

One-dimensional thinking also plagues universities throughout the world.

"We haven't moved beyond one-dimensional thinking. We put students in a box and we expect them to think in a box. We don't give them the opportunity to understand the relevance of what they are learning," Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo in Canada, said.

In his view, it was the responsibility of universities to move beyond disciplinary thinking and show students the bigger picture. To do this, undergraduate degrees required a rethink, said Hamdullahpur.

"We put boundaries between undergraduate and postgraduate study and we never thought about exposing students to fantastic research."

He said research had to be integrated into undergraduate education.

On the issue of encouraging students to pursue careers in science Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, said it was important for universities to show students how fundamental ideas have an impact on everyday life.

"I see students using cell phones, iPads and digital cameras," he said "How many of them realise that all those devices rely on discoveries in quantum physics?"

When science is taught, faculty tend to focus on details but students are not interested in learning those details if they do not understand the overarching picture, Greene said.

Students at the event expressed frustration with the overemphasis in universities on content and regurgitation. Broader concepts were as important as the detail taught in classrooms, they said.

While 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams acknowledged the importance of science and creating professionals for various careers, she stressed the need for teaching humanity in classrooms too. She also suggested that all universities have departments in peace studies.

"We can produce doctors or mechanics...but we need to start focusing on the whole human being."

Ensuring that students become world citizens should be a goal for universities, said higher college technology vice-chancellor Tayeb Kamali during the panel discussion.

"We have to remember that we are one world and that we are already integrated. In a world of universities, we are keen to reach out and integrate with different cultures. This is the only way we could be productive and world citizens," Kamali said.

Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, minister of higher education and scientific research in the UAE, urged academics to foster "free and creative" thinking at their institutions.

He said mankind was challenged by the achievements of great thinkers "but they have not told us what to do or how to respond. They have not revealed how we should live. For that we must turn inward and cultivate special attributes."