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The University Leadership Consortium: Enabling the UAE vision through human-capital development

By 2117, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) aims to have established the first inhabitable human settlement on Mars. Yes, Mars. This vision is a typical depiction of the country’s ambition for innovation and technology.

But let’s look instead at the country’s aspirations for just the near future. Within the next 10 years, the UAE will be home to the tallest building in the world (are you thinking Burj Khalifa? Well, think again!). Twenty-five percent of its buildings will be 3-D printed, 25 percent of its transportation driverless, and 25 percent of its energy clean.

Reaching such ambitions, however, requires significant investment in human capital. The UAE has set human-capital targets as part of its 2021 vision, including reaching the top ten in the global entrepreneurship and development index, reaching the top ten in the global innovation index, having a 40.0 percent share of “knowledge workers” in the labor force, and investing 1.5 percent of its GDP in research and development.

Despite moving upward in global rankings, the UAE’s human-capital index still lags behind global benchmarks, partly driven by a lower-performing higher-education age group (90th position).

The University Leadership Consortium, a leading organization focused on the development of human capital in the UAE—with prominent members across higher-education institutes, the private sector, and the public sector—partnered with McKinsey to identify five key challenges holding back the UAE from achieving its ambitious national human-capital targets.

First, there is a mismatch between industry needs and the capabilities taught in university programs. Second, undergraduate students’ performance indicators are lagging, with low enrollment and on-time graduation, and high dropout rates. Third, there is significant overlap among course offerings in higher-education institutions, with no differentiation or centers of excellence. Fourth, R&D is suboptimal across the ecosystem, with insufficient funding and a low number of researchers and doctorate throughput. Fifth, it is increasingly difficult to attract top faculty talent.

The University Leadership Consortium has defined its vision to meaningfully enhance the human-capital ecosystem in the UAE by addressing these identified challenges.

A one-on-one interview with Dr. Nada Mourtada, the secretary general of the University Leadership Consortium, sheds some light on the consortium’s plan of action and on her experience working with McKinsey.

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