Can universities rise to the challenges of the 21st century?

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universities rise to the challenges
Prof Riyad Hamzah

Prof Riyad Hamzah takes the helm at the University of Bahrain with an ambitious reform agenda. He tells John O’Leary that others will need to follow the same route if they are to survive.

When Riyad Hamzah became president of the University of Bahrain (UoB) at the beginning of 2016, by royal decree, his appointment was construed by some in  the local media as one to “save” the national university.

After a decade overseeing the growing Bahraini higher education system, he was thought to have the authority to make the sweeping changes required to restore a flagging reputation. A year into the job, he is certainly making changes, but they are ones he believes will be necessary for universities across the globe.

Speaking at the 6th QS-MAPLE conference in Al Ain, his first international engagement as president, Professor Hamzah asked: “Are our universities ready for the digital age? What does the future university look like? If you look at some of the technologies and the international brands around us, where are they now? We can’t just swim with the waves. We have to really be ahead, otherwise we will be thrown out by the competition.”

Professor Hamzah is convinced that UoB is in a position to adapt. “It is a very solid, good university,” he says. “What we need to do is to work on integrating the disciplines and the way we operate to make things easier. The focus will be on research with industry.

“We have been working on a transformation plan. We think we will have a critical mass of good faculty that will enable us to make real progress.”

UoB moved up encouragingly in the latest QS Arab ranking, from 42nd to 33rd, but is still outside the top 700 in the QS World University Ranking. “You can’t ignore international rankings – people’s perceptions are very important,” he says. “But professional bodies are looking at what we are doing and we are accredited internationally in business and engineering.”

As secretary general of the Higher Education Council (HEC), Professor Hamzah was instrumental in drawing up a ten-year strategy for higher education in Bahrain. Before leaving the council, he launched a national accreditation system for universities, one of the six main recommendations designed to enable the kingdom to become a centre of higher education for the Gulf states.

It was some of the 11 private universities, rather than UoB, that caused concerns then. A paper produced for the HEC strategy admitted that concerns over the quality of some universities had led to a reduction in the number of inbound international students, particularly from key markets like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the sources of the majority of international students.

Professor Hamzah says: “I want Bahrain to be a hub for quality higher education. We have 10% international students and are aiming for 20%. We have the GCC and a lot of expats working in the region, so we should be able to do it.

“There is a lot of competition among the Gulf states but at UoB we believe we can have our model in terms of quality and excellence. We are setting our strategy for that and launching a lot of initiatives.”

The university now has 26,000 students, two-thirds of whom are female, making it one of the largest universities in the region, with a campus that matches its status as Bahrain’s flagship university. Over the next four years, Professor Hamzah hopes to establish UoB globally through knowledge creation and developing the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem to play a leading role in the national economy.

“I will focus on developing the human capital of this university, which means giving our staff the training, skills and technology needed to deliver a world-class education to our students,” he says. “Our graduates should go on to become leaders of industry and society through the experience at UoB and our graduates be sought after throughout the region.”

Bahrain’s Economic Vision for 2030 is candid about the importance of this mission. It notes that 4,000 Bahrainis a year are entering the labour market with at least a first degree, but the quality and number of jobs available will not satisfy demand unless there are changes.

“For many years, Bahrain has been able to address these issues by redistributing oil revenues and offering citizens jobs in the public sector,” the strategy document says. “This has left us with an oversised public sector – a situation that will be unsustainable in the future, given the gradual decline in oil reserves. The most sustainable way of resolving the imbalance and raising the quality of employment is a transformation to an economy driven by a thriving private sector, where productive enterprises engaged in high value-added activities offer attractive career opportunities to suitably skilled Bahrainis. Bahrain will use its resources to invest for the future, improving its human capital through education and training, particularly in the field of applied sciences.”

Professor Hamza is fully signed up to this agenda. He points to surveys of skills in the Middle East that have found graduates lacking collaborative skills and leadership. “They also lack creative skills and problem-solving abilities,” he says. “Universities are still doing business as usual. The world is changing, technologies are changing and we have to ask universities: are you ready for such changes?

“In the fourth industrial revolution, we are living in an age where knowledge is being produced exponentially. For a few thousand years, the knowledge we have accumulated is nothing like what we produce on a daily basis now. New technologies like artificial intelligence, 3D printing, big data, robotics and the cloud are shaping our world.

“Deloitte integrated gamification into its online leadership academy in 2016. Within three months, the number of users returning to the site increased by almost 46%. In education, 50% expect moderate or massive disruption, with extreme personalisation of learning.”

The Higher Education Council is carrying out its own survey into the skills gap. It said in launching the project: “The current higher education to employment system needs continuous improvement for employers and graduates in order to match expectations with real situation. Data from various surveys make it clear that the expectations of employers in Bahrain are not being met by graduates and, similarly, graduates feel that the higher education sector has not prepared them for the labour market.”

Professor Hamza believes that universities will need to equip their graduates with new literacies, including financial and cultural, as well as instilling critical thinking and character qualities such as leadership. “We have to stop just improving the system we have,” he says. “We need a new mindset to innovate the system we need. Transforming colleges and departments needs a lot of work and a lot of thinking. Each university will have to find something unique as its unique selling point.”

He says UoB has already improved connectivity and integration. “We are looking at applied knowledge through links with industry and bringing in professors. We are concentrating on teaching skills with a curriculum that gives students softer skills. We want a university with its own brand, focusing on business innovation. We are adding postgraduate programmes and enhancing research, with units for its commercialisation.

“I am comfortable with the overall number of students, but curriculum is going to be more specialist and the number of postgraduate programmes is going to grow – we are aiming for 20% from around 8%. In terms of the curriculum, there will be more technology and engineering – things that are important for the economy of Bahrain at this stage.”

Professor Hamzah says: “Bahrain has an economy that has been based on natural resources and now has to find alternatives. They are research technologies and innovation. Add to that entrepreneurship.

“We are looking at the opportunity for the university to change, to become a smart university, a paperless environment with a platform so that communication and functionality is at its best. We are reviewing the number of programmes and want to focus on postgraduate education, specialising in digitisation and cyber security, perhaps, so that we are predicting rather than following.

High-performance engineering is another example, reflecting Bahrain’s involvement with Formula 1. The university recently signed an agreement with the University of Bolton, in the UK, which has a strong record in motorsport and other branches of high-performance engineering.

He believes some of the initiatives of the Higher Education Council are beginning to bear fruit. “We worked on different projects, closing the gap between industry and higher education, and made a lot of improvements. We made agreements with different sectors on employability skills.

“We produced toolkits for self-evaluation in universities on research and entrepreneurial education, strategic planning. It was about raising standards in the private universities. Bahrain has jumped 30 places in the World Economic Forum innovation rankings, going up in six out of seven indicators.”

Professor Riyad Hamzah was secretary general of Bahrain’s Higher Education Council until moving to become president of the University of Bahrain early in 2016. He is a professor of biotechnology, who played a leading role in the establishment of Arabian Gulf University, where he served as vice president and dean of the College of Applied Sciences. He holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Houston and was editor-in-chief of the Arab Gulf Journal of Scientific Research, as well as a founder member of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, where he is a trustee. In 2011, he was awarded the Distinctive Medal, First Degree, from His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain.