Nihel Chabrak... builds new institutions


How Nihel Chabrak from Tunisia reinvented University in the Emirates

Nihel’s vision is to transform the educational model by placing entrepreneurship at its core.

Nihel Chabrak cannot focus on just one thing. The multi-lingual Tunisian is a Professor; she is also a CEO. A chairperson who does in-depth research. A business consultant and a teacher. Nihel moves from industrial psychology to Islamic accounting as if it’s nothing. In her own words: “I need to do many things in life.”

But there is one thing she has focused on, with a passion, in recent years, and it’s nothing if not ambitious: to break open the crusty old structures of academia, turn the landscape of learning upside down, and change the future of young people for good.

Nihel’s vision is to transform the educational model — by placing entrepreneurship at its core. The creation of a new ecosystem built around the formation of value-driven start-ups. A re-writing of the rules.

And she’s starting in the United Arab Emirates.

In Al-Ain, to be precise, a small town in the desert, a 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi, where Nihel has made her base at the hyper-modern building of the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU).

For years now, Nihel has been plagued by the same concern: In the Arab world, a generation is growing up in unemployment. Already, one-third of the population under 24 has no work. So why do we keep educating young people for jobs that no longer exist?

Faced with this, Nihel could have retreated, falling back into research or teaching (in the same old way). But instead, she has turned herself from an academic into an activator of a new kind of approach.

Equip young people
with a mindset of acting

Her idea is the creation of a “University of the Future”. It is a place that takes teaching entrepreneurship as seriously as it takes teaching traditional subjects. To equip young people with a mindset of acting, rather than relying on. To “educate job creators, not job seekers”.

Nihel is overflowing with eloquent enthusiasm. She gets the university to fund her, goes on to secure additional money, brings on board internationally renowned collaborators.

She decides that the Expo 2020 Dubai is the perfect place to launch: Her project brings together students from around the world, both virtual and in-person, to learn, around a carefully curated curriculum, by focusing on the real and most pressing challenges facing their region.

“Pathfinders”, she calls them. It’s an incubator that produces an exceptional global network of practitioners and experts in a brief period. It’s the “University of the Future” in action. The Pathfinder program is ‘green-lit’ by the UAEU and is piloted throughout the Spring and Summer months of 2021. Adjustments were made to ready the program and welcome a new cohort of Pathfinders at Expo 2020.

But then the dreaded news arrives: her funding is cut for the program, and the Expo 2020 launch is canceled. Nihel can’t hide the intense sadness that runs through her, especially knowing that those students, who saved money and made professional and personal sacrifices to attend the 6-month program, will be devastated. Although the funding for the full-fledged program was lost, the Pathfinders program approach and the journey were also digitized into an immersive experience within the walls of the UAEU’s Pavilion at Expo 2020.

But Nihel knows she needs to keep going because she knows what continues to lurk beneath inaction, what Nihel wants young people to feel empowered to find — to create! — is the kind of purpose that produces lifelong, intentional learners: real change-makers.

And she won’t be discouraged. If she says that we need to build new institutions “as an example for others to be courageous,” you can hear the hope in knowing that the more of these examples we share, the more courageous we’ll get.

Written by Daniel Kramb

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