Why studying in the UAE is becoming more attractive

In the course of two generations, the Emirates has moved from an informal education model to one in which world-class universities set up campuses here

Students take photos before the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence's first graduation ceremony, in Abu Dhabi. The UAE’s development of a competitive education system is a continuing process. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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When the UAE’s Founding Father the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan said “the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education”, he was not making a mere observation. Education has been at the heart of the national project since the Emirati state was founded in 1971.

Education in the years shortly before and after the union was not all that it could have been, given that the nation had just begun its national development. According to official figures, in 1975, the rate of adult literacy was 58 per cent among men and 38 per cent among women. Today, however, literacy rates for Emiratis of both genders are close to 95 per cent. Providing land and funds for new schools that would cater for the children of the many foreign workers who came to the Emirates and contributed to its success was also a priority for the country’s leadership.

Elementary schooling was just the beginning of the story. In the space of two generations, the country has transitioned from having an informal, didactic education model to one where world-class universities such as the Sorbonne and New York University have set up campuses here. Accomplished and experienced academics abound in the country’s higher education system, and pioneering institutions, such as the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, continue to break new ground. This, and the fact that there are more accredited degree programmes on offer here than ever before, makes this week’s news that fewer young Emirati are choosing to travel to the US for their studies understandable.

According to the Institute of International Education's Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, over the past eight years there has been a significant drop in the number of Emiratis studying at American colleges and universities. Concerns about safety, gun control and tuition fees in the US have played their part, and although prestigious foreign universities will always remain a draw for many young people in the UAE, an increasing number are choosing to avail themselves of opportunities closer to home.

The UAE’s development of a competitive education system that is geared towards the needs of the 21st century is an ongoing process that has relied as much on partnership – that is, getting the best from foreign universities and academics – as it has on the country’s long term planning and abundant resources. This has led to some fruitful collaborations with locally based researchers that have also helped the Emirates develop further and reflect critically on its own trajectory. To take one example, in February The National reported on a two-year collaboration between researchers at Abu Dhabi University and the London School of Economics that examined transport in the capital and changes that could help to make the city more connected.

The years of investment, partnership and strategic thought that have gone into higher education in the UAE are paying off. In September last year, Abu Dhabi University became the first in the UAE to be ranked in the global top 250 by Times Higher Education, and six universities in the Emirates have been included in the World University Rankings for this year.

It is not just the world of academia that is recognising these accomplishments; young people in the Middle East do, too. According to the Arab Youth Survey 2023, nearly a quarter of young Arabs surveyed across the 18 states said that the UAE was the country they most wanted to live in. When added to the UAE’s reputation for stability and safety, it is not surprising that more young people – Emirati and foreign alike – are choosing the country as a place to study.

There is still some way to go before UAE institutions are competing on an equal footing with the likes of the centuries-old colleges. But Emirati universities are going in the right direction and continue to attract top global talent; yesterday it was announced that Prof Timothy Baldwin, a distinguished figure in the field of natural language processing, has been appointed as provost of Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence.

Offering an attractive and accessible world-class education will be vital for the country to succeed in the 21st century and beyond, as UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed had initially envisioned.

Published: April 02, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: April 03, 2024, 5:07 AM