GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Missing Links from Higher Education to Knowledge Economies in the GCC
Paper Proposal Text :
The GCC states have outlined plans for future knowledge-based economies. The large investment in higher education, and in science and technology in particular, is an important element in realizing those plans. A number of new universities have been established (including King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Khalifa University of Science and Technology), existing ones are being reformed (such as Qatar University and King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran), branch campuses of foreign universities have been established (for instance Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University – Doha, NYU – Abu Dhabi), and technology parks have been created in close vicinity to research universities. These extensive investments are part of efforts to kindle local scientific research and development, innovation, and ultimately economic diversification in the region.

The local scientific output (as measured by peer-reviewed publications) shows a dramatic increase in the past decade in the GCC. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE have posted double-digit growth rates in scientific publications since 2005. The regional conferences in science and engineering have also risen. A number of outreach programs for high schools have been created to nurture student interest in science and engineering at an early stage. While these are encouraging indicators, there are some critical factors that if left unaddressed can undermine efforts for economic diversification. In this paper, we discuss these factors in detail, study their critical linkages with higher education, and examine their role in building a strong foundation for knowledge-based economies in the region.

In a knowledge-based economy, it is not only sufficient to import and impart knowledge, but to also consistently generate new knowledge such that local industries can maintain a competitive advantage. The engine of growth in a knowledge-based economy is research and innovation. These two elements have not taken hold for establishing an enduring shift away from dependence on the oil and gas sector in the GCC. Some barriers include inadequate research funding, low incentives for GCC nationals to pursue advanced degrees in science and engineering, and weak or non-existing links with local industries. For instance, there is no encouragement of consulting - an avenue that allows professors to lend their expertise to local industry to improve their processes or product and to also learn about prevalent problems that could be solved through university-based research. Funding opportunities that link industry partner with a university partner are also not common, and most local industries do not perceive local academics to be of any use in improving their operations or products. The local industries often do not have internal research and development units, and thus are poorly positioned to absorb new knowledge or inventions from universities. The link from university-level research to the point where the invention can be commercialized and used by the company is largely missing.

The state-owned companies, ranging from oil and gas to telecommunication, are present in all sectors of the economy in the GCC states. These enterprises have played an important role in the economic development in the region. Their continued presence and ownership of majority or full market share, however, will impede innovation, growth of new private industries, and sustainable economic diversification. Small and medium enterprises – based on technology innovation – will at best be able to only sell their inventions to the large state-owned companies.

The comparatively smaller participation of GCC nationals in the new technology sectors is also a critical issue. The mature and lucrative oil and gas sector is the largest draw for GCC nationals with engineering and science training. The emerging sectors in defense, aerospace, and ICT are in nascent stages – and the perceived uncertainty and lack of clarity in career growth in these industries are barriers to greater participation by local citizens.

The analysis in this paper will be based on country-level quantitative data of economic and scientific activities and qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with senior university administrators, researchers, and industry executives in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar. This study will contribute to our understanding of the key barriers to innovation, and the important missing elements that link higher education to the vision of knowledge-based economies.