How has the pandemic changed university course offerings in the Gulf?

GCC universities are adapting their offerings to the post-pandemic economy
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With the current semester coming to an end, many higher education institutions in the Gulf are already planning an expanded course offering for the coming academic year, with a focus on supporting the needs of the region's post-pandemic economy.

As OBG detailed earlier this year, the economic consequences of COVID-19 have encouraged higher education institutions in the Gulf to adapt their course offerings to help boost the economic recovery of their respective countries.

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted and accentuated the importance of digital systems in many areas of life. As a result, there has been an increase in digitally oriented courses across the Middle East.

For example, in the autumn semester, which starts at the end of August, Canadian University Dubai will launch a number of new courses in the fields of cybersecurity, software design and computer science.

Meanwhile, in addition to its existing courses in areas such as information technology, robotics, data science and network management and cloud computing, Middlesex University Dubai will launch new courses in both electronic engineering and cybersecurity and penetration testing, which train students in the field of network security.

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Apart from the new courses, several educational institutions have strengthened or expanded their existing offerings in the digital sphere.

"To ensure that graduates are prepared for the upcoming digital revolution and can work in multidisciplinary environments in various industries, academic programmes must provide a digital foundation, as well as options to specialise further in a specific domain," Muhammad al-Saggaf, president of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, told OBG.

"This will allow future employers to fill particular roles, in cybersecurity or data analytics, for example, with graduates who are already well versed in the subject matter, be it engineering or finance, and in digital skills, without the need for extensive in-house work or training."

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Another area that is experiencing increased interest among universities is financial technology.

In the immediate aftermath of the virus outbreak, online and digital payment systems were seen as crucial, helping consumers pay for essential goods while adhering to social distancing patterns. As a result, online payments have increased in both importance and frequency over the past 18 months.

"In the financial sector, technology is rewriting the rules of the game, and competition is driven by the emergence of disruptive companies. This needs to be reflected in academic programmes," Anis Moosa al-Lawati, dean of the College of Banking and Financial Studies (CBFS) in Oman, told OBG.

"CBFS used to focus its programmes and research on the banking sector, but we are now expanding our activities to cater to the needs of non-bank financial players as well, ensuring that our graduates have the necessary skills."

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Apart from the strictly technological and IT-focused areas, educational institutions have given increased importance to a number of other issues as a result of pandemic-related developments.

For example, among its new courses, Gulf Medical University, located in Ajman in the United Arab Emirates, offers a dual PhD programme in Precision Medicine, along with a Master of Science in Drug Discovery and Development. Meanwhile, given the pressure that the various global blockades put on the movement of goods and resources, the University of Sharjah is offering for the first time courses in chemical engineering and water desalination, as well as supply chain management.

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Meeting national objectives

In many cases, these field-specific shifts complement long-term government development strategies.

This is a particularly urgent issue for the Gulf, where several countries have already launched long-term plans to alleviate their dependence on hydrocarbons. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the government launched its Vision 2030 economic development plan in 2016, which outlined a plan to boost the non-oil economy and increase private sector participation.

"At Prince Muqrin University, the focus on the country's development priorities has resulted in universities and programmes specialising in tourism, IT and cybersecurity and engineering, which are fields with strong investment potential," Ahmad Hawalah, vice chancellor for business development at Prince Muqrin University, told OBG in March.

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Elsewhere, some educational institutions have established specialised academies in partnership with leading private sector companies to help address labour market needs.

One such example is Bahrain, where Bahrain Polytechnic launched its Artificial Intelligence Academy, in partnership with Microsoft and the government organisation Tamkeen, in September last year.

The academy, the first of its kind in the region, will offer a specialised programme designed to enhance innovation and creativity skills in the field of artificial intelligence.