Towards a New Generation of Engaged Universities:
The Need to Act, Adapt and Transform

16th – 18thApril, 2024 | Kempinski Central Avenue (Formerly the Address Dubai Mall), Dubai, UAE

MENA HELF 2015 Theme

Over the past few years, there have been a lot of discussions about the shifting role of higher education and the public perception about universities and colleges being social institutions playing a pivotal role in the stability, development and economic prosperity of society.

In the early years, higher education was more concerned with producing graduate students who are “perfect” citizens; later this objective was shifted to ensure that these citizens are ‘well- trained’ and developed as lifelong learners; more recently the focus has further shifted to ensure that institutions of learning produce graduate students who are: creative, innovative and entrepreneurial members of the society able to effectively contribute to the development of their communities.  Universities and Colleges are expected to act as creators, repositories and disseminators of knowledge, as hubs for research and innovation, and cultivators of entrepreneurial thinking. They need to ensure they can remain relevant to the needs of the society and engage with various stakeholders at multiple levels.

Educational institutions have created an imperative to develop members of the society with the 21st century skills, to enable them to address global challenges and prepare them to become leaders and innovators; as such many educational reforms and initiatives have taken place globally to encourage research, entrepreneurship and innovation in education generally and in higher education more specifically.

Research, innovation and entrepreneurship are seen today as a perquisite for the long-term economic growth of nations. The term ‘innovation’ is frequently used to describe the generation of new ideas, products, collaborations, services and solutions that can be implemented and used. It is often linked to sustainability, growth and competitiveness of organizations and nations as a whole. According to a study conducted by IBM’s Global Business Services (2006), innovation is vital to growth and sustainability in the current era of rapid change and globalization. Innovation has become essential to  both the success of individuals and to the economic growth of nations. Barak Obama in 2010 spoke about the importance of innovation saying “The key to our success…will be to compete by developing new products, by generating new industries, by maintaining our role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. It’s absolutely essential to our future.” Making innovation-driven growth happen requires action on a wide range of policy areas, from education and science and technology to product and labor markets and trade.

Furthermore, the impact of recent economic downturn, the rapidly changing economic environment, the emergence of knowledge and digital societies, globalization and internationalization, ICT developments, and the massification and expansion of the educational landscape have all forced leaders of higher education to question what the future of their institutions will be? How will they be able to sustain in a highly competitive and global world? What challenges they must be ready to face? And how are new trends and innovation impacting their core functions and enabling them to remain sustainable and competitive?

Similarly to other sectors of the economy, educational institutions are placed under pressure to constantly innovate and find creative ways to face the many challenges and continuously changing dynamics of education.

Over the past two decades higher education has witnessed the emergence of a number of innovation occurring at different macro and micro levels impacting the various key domains of higher education; to name one of the most significant and influencing innovation is the integration of technology in higher education which led to the emergence of new models for delivering learning, new pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning and new forms of community building.

Technology nowadays is not only extending the outreach of education but is also, at a very fundamental level transforming how institutions teach, how students learn and  how communication at all levels occur.

Technological advances will continue to grow at an exponential level; they are becoming critical to the survival of higher education in today’s digital world. Many universities and colleges across the globe are realizing both the benefits and challenges associated with keeping up with technological developments.

The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition recently published has highlighted six trends which are accelerating the adoption of technology in higher education and impacting policy, leadership and practices of HE. These trends were further classified into three time-related categories — fast-moving trends that will realize their impact in the next one to two years and which include social media and the integration of online, blended and collaborative learning, and two categories of slower trends that will realize their impact within three to five or more years; such as the use of data- driven learning and assessment and the shift of students from consumers to creators of knowledge.

Other innovations which had significant impact on Higher Education include, the  strengthening of international collaboration and cooperation through the establishment of networks, consortia, etc.; the appearance of new governance structures and financing models;  the increasing  mobility of faculty and students among others; the proliferation of new ways of community building among students and faculty members; the emergence of new models of excellence; etc. are all among the recent innovation witnessed by Higher Education.

As higher education systems grow and diversify, leaders of higher education are increasingly put under pressure to cultivate and encourage innovation and entrepreneurial thinking to enable their institutions to distinguish and position itself nationally and internationally as a ‘world-class’ university and ensure it contributes to the economic and social growth of their nations.

Universities and colleges are heavily investing in creating innovative environments for both their students’ and faculty and for the wider community. They are constantly striving to identify new ways for connecting with industries; as a result many institutions have set up University Technology Transfer Centers that act as hubs for innovators and business leaders to engage with commercializing innovations.

In a current report titled “The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus “, the US Department of Commerce (Office of Innovation  and Entrepreneurship )published a report showing how universities across the US are supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in order to strengthen the regional economy, create jobs and keep America competitive. Specifically, the report highlighted university efforts to support innovation and entrepreneurship in five key areas:

  • Promoting student innovation and entrepreneurship;
  • Encouraging faculty innovation and entrepreneurship;
  • Actively supporting university technology transfer;
  • Facilitating university-industry collaboration; and,
  • Engaging in regional and local economic development efforts.

Despite how much is being said and argued about the importance of innovation in higher education, innovation continues to be sometimes perceived as unnecessary or a distraction from the core activities of Institutions of Higher learning. Higher education institutions tend to have different levels of readiness and maturity to integrate innovation and different stakeholders may have varying views on the significance of innovation.

University leadership and strategy are considered the key drivers for establishing a culture of innovation. The leadership of a university plays a significant role in the proactive promotion of innovation within the institutions and shall be characterized by openness to ‘thinking out of the box”. Entrepreneurial leaders with a strong ability to look to the future, and a holistic approach to innovation and change, are needed to help foster a culture of innovation across the institution. HEIs must put in place clear strategies for integrating innovation, along with deploying adequate resources, structures, processes, policies, procedures and values that foster adoption of innovations.

The facilitation and support of research, innovation and entrepreneurship are recognized as essential areas. In fact, they are closely governed by the rules and regulations of the University itself, which are in turn influenced and determined by national and regional policies and educational agenda. They also form a cornerstone of university strategy and their importance must be reflected by the university’s own internal structures and processes.

Higher Education Institution with a strong commitment to innovation should have a unique vision as well as a unique innovation strategy.  Innovation strategy should match the culture the institution (Davila, Epstein & Shelton, 2006).  Leaders must work to integrate innovation into the very function and aspect of the institution (Skarzynski & Gibson, 2008) and understand that innovation often involves risk taking and a constant process (Schramm, 2006), which requires knowledge, focus, persistence and purpose (Drucker, 1985).  Specifically related to higher education, various leaders and stakeholders must be involved and shall consider integrating innovation into the programs, courses, student support services, financing models, etc. to enable the achievement of institutional strategic goals, the healthy growth of the university and the ability to position itself  and compete nationally, regionally and internationally.

Students are also not to be forgotten from the equation and must be encouraged to foster creativity and originality.

In the MENA Region, many countries tend to lag behind other countries around the world in terms of innovation and competitiveness. The importance of research, innovation and entrepreneurship for the MENA region has been addressed through a number of platforms and reports in the recent years.  In 2010, in Marrakech, Morocco and at the occasion of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, the Steering Board of the World Economic Forum’s Global Education Initiative, the MENA Advisory Group and other leaders from business, government, academia, international organizations and civil society gathered for a private high-level roundtable meeting on entrepreneurship education. The roundtable outcomes included a series of recommendations and the Manifesto for Creating Jobs and Economic Growth in MENA through Entrepreneurship and 21st Century Skills. The manifesto proposed was built around four important pillars:

  1. Transform the Education System by Integrating 21st Century Skills and Entrepreneurship
  2. Build Policy Commitment to Facilitate the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
  3. Leverage and Scale Good Practices through Multistakeholder Partnerships
  4. Ensure the Appropriate Metrics and Incentives Are in Place

The role of educational institutions thus has become central to encouraging and cultivating creativity and innovation. The region is in need to invest in developing entrepreneurial and innovative skills to build sustainable economic development, create jobs and generate renewed economic growth. Governments across the region must act now to address the growing skills gap. This requires a clear and coherent commitment at the highest political levels. Policies should send a strong signal of support for entrepreneurship and also set the strategic framework in which universities can work to implement programs and activities within their institutions. To do so, greater coordination is necessary and actions are needed at the national, regional and local levels.

Throughout the two days of the Forum participants will discuss various models and strategic frameworks for integrating innovation and entrepreneurship within higher education in the region, and how these will support institutions in achieving excellence and competitiveness.  Participants will discuss the characteristics for the successful implementation of an ‘innovative culture’ with special emphasis on the role of leadership and how the management of innovation shall be undertaken to achieve optimum benefit.

Internal and external key factors influencing  the creation of an innovation culture across the institution including: organizational strategy, the involvement of different stakeholders, the external business environment and regulatory system, the financial support provided, etc. will all be tackled through various activities within the Forum. The Forum will build on the outcomes of the 2013 MENA Higher Education Leadership Forum.

  • Innovation in Research and Knowledge Transfer
  • Innovation in Student Support and Supporting Learning Experience
  • Innovation in the Digital Age and the Exploitation of Ubiquitous Technology
  • Innovation in Quality and Continuous Improvement
  • Entrepreneurial Approaches to Leading and Managing Higher Education


  • Davila, T, Epstein, M.J., and Shelton, R.  (2006). Making innovation work:  How to manage it, measure it, and profit from it. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Wharton School Publishing.
  • Drucker, P.F.  (1985).  Innovation & entrepreneurship. New York, NY:  HarperCollins.
  • IBM Global Business Services. (2006). Expanding the innovation horizon:  The global CEO study 2006.Somers, NY:  IBM Corporation.
  • Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
  • C.J.  (2006).  The entrepreneurial imperative:  How America’s economic miracle will reshape the world (and change your life). New York, NY:  HarperCollins.