In an interview for INSEAD Knowledge, UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan talks to INSEAD Professor Stephen Mezias about the challenges facing education in the Gulf and about INSEAD's role in the region
Q: The prosperity, harmony and modern development that today characterises the UAE is largely ascribed to the visionary role played by Sheikh Zayed, the father of the nation. Do you believe that his visionary leadership and his insistence on the values of hard work and education still influence Emirati adults? How can you ensure these values are passed on?
Definitely, Sheikh Zayed's vision and values continue to influence us today. He believed in the human being, that we live in a world where we all help each other for the common good. For instance, when he took over the reign of the government and became president, he started work on environmental protection: forbidding the cutting of trees and bushes; putting limits on hunting and fishing companies who wanted to fish in our waters. So that shows that he was keen on protecting the environment and wildlife, and therefore goes without saying that he cared about the human being.
He also believed in education very much and used to visit many schools and institutions of learning. In the old days, families used to look at their children as a source of investment to help them in their farm, in their fishing, etc. So what Sheikh Zayed, God bless his soul, did to make families, particularly in the rural areas, send their children to school was to give incentives, such as salary, clothes, food, to get their children to school until people started to realise the importance of education.
I remember from my own personal experience, I used to keep telling him I want go with him places. I was very young and he used to say 'when you learn how to read the Koran (the way one learnt to read back then) you can come with me.' So I completed reading the Koran and then I told him 'now I want to go with you.' Then he said, 'when you write me a letter, then you can join me.' This gives you a feel how important education was to him. He did this not only with me but everybody around him to encourage them to get an education. He used to say the best investment for a nation is in human capital, the only investment that does not depreciate.
For all of us, he was a school. He led by integrity, dignity, and care of others. Whenever he heard about a disaster, he was always the first to try to help and send aid, wherever that might be. He never differentiated between gender. Next to him was always Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, and together they championed the cause of women. We are proud that the UAE does not have rules or regulations that differentiate between gender, and all opportunities are open for males and females.
So he still lives with us, in the sense that we still try to continue doing what we know he likes. To us he was a mentor, a father of the nation, teacher, and a caring person. He also had strong leadership that made things happen, in addition to being a visionary.
A small example comes to my mind. When Sheikh Zayed took over, Abu Dhabi was a small town and the major streets of today only had two lanes. He made sure that although two lanes were built, there was space from the lanes to the buildings, keeping some 200 metres on either side. I remember we used to walk on the sand to get to buildings far way. Now we realise how far sighted he was. If it weren't for that, Abu Dhabi would not have been able to widen the roads. His far sightedness extended to many other areas, including politics and economics. For example, he used to go to banks to give guarantees for people to build.
If you recall, during the great recession, the capital was there, the industry was there, but nothing moved. Roosevelt at the time, with his New Deal, started to make people move earth from one place to another just to create activity. Zayed tried to do the same. He wanted people to go on their own, do farm work and claim lands, buy their own cars and that got us to where we are now. So it’s a great leap for generations.
I think in education as well, we still live by his standards and principles and pass these all to our children. When you build a strong foundation, these values stay and get passed to a new generation.
Q. In going forward, what do you think are the most important priorities and challenges for the education system to allow for UAE citizens to participate in the new UAE and global economy?
Now education has to change. From the time of Aristotle, we have been used to a method of teaching where the professor tells you about a topic and you have to memorise it to pass an exam. Now with the rapid changes in technology and globalisation, the world is getting smaller and there are different needs. You cannot teach students one subject. The best system, in my opinion, is inter-disciplinary, where students learn combined disciplines, all together, to give the basis from which they can continue their education if they want to specialise.
We also need to instil independent learning, make them feel that it’s their own responsibility, and we should not spoon-feed them. Actually, if you look at the Latin meaning of education, it means to draw out. No need to stuff their brains with facts and figures. Let them discuss, debate, and learn through methods such as case studies. There should be no monopoly of thought on anything. The past is good and of course we have to learn about the past, but no two events are the same. Circumstances are different.Â As Einstein once said, 'one plus one is not two, but two plus time.'
One of the worst things about any education is to put the fear of God into making a mistake. This only serves to block vision and creativity, and helps to produce robots who memorise but are not creative innovators with the confidence and ability to work as a team and lead.
Also today we have to instil the thinking that no matter how strong your belief, you should listen to others because others also have the right to have different viewpoints. It is good to have beliefs and principles, but it's also important to respect each others’ different opinions.
Q. As a global business school with an expanding presence in Abu Dhabi and the region, INSEAD is committed to the values of diversity and multi-culturalism. How do you see our role and contribution to the growth and strategy of the UAE and the region?
We are fortunate to have INSEAD and other reputable institutions with proven track records based in the UAE. This provides us with vast human resources in different fields who, with their experience, can contribute to the advancement of knowledge, not only for the UAE but for the region. UAE will become the hub for education and eventually of research. That is one of the main drives of HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, who strongly believes in research.
It is to everybody's benefit to create a knowledge-based society because that's the only way to barely compete in the world. You cannot compete on wealth and natural resources alone. Knowledge allows you to preserve, protect and utilise your resources, moving forward in a globalised and changing world.
I also think it is important to work together with local universities. Creating cooperation between institutions, so that we work together, would allow us to avoid duplication. There are currently efforts to facilitate this exchange of information. This new form of collaboration is healthy and very good, allowing us to utilise the resources better and the result will be much stronger. That will, in turn, advance the course of knowledge.
His Highness Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan is the United Arab Emirates Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. He is also Chancellor of two of the UAE's three government-sponsored institutions of higher learning: United Arab Emirates University, established in 1976, and the Higher Colleges of Technology, established in 1988; and president of the third, Zayed University, established in 1998.
The interview took place at Al Bateen Palace on October 28, 2009.