College choices in the UAE

An increasing number of universities are setting up in the UAE, but many still have not attracted local students due to a lack of trust and knowledge about their programmes. Now, a new guide is hoping to change that...

Sarah Kowash, 16, with her mother Imal Dou. Sarah has received provisional acceptance to New York University Abu Dhabi, and while she says her opinions on the colleges here are based mainly on word of mouth, one of the main factors in choosing NYU was its international focus. "At NYU it's really multicultural and that's a good thing, I think," she says. Christopher Pike / The National
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It is one of the most difficult and important decisions for parents and children - where to study when school days are over.

With British and North American universities setting up in the increasing numbers in the UAE, it might seem opportunities for higher education close to home are better than ever.

But a new research paper suggests these institutions, most of them in Dubai, still have a long way to go before they can successfully attract and gain the trust of young expatriates from certain countries.

The author is Stephen Wilkins, a lecturer in international management learning at Plymouth University in the UK.

Mr Wilkins says one reason students tend to be wary of local campuses is that they are often given too little information about the university's academic strengths.

"When the branch campuses were being established in places like the UAE, the expectation was they were catering for large expatriate populations but the western expatriates don't seem to be interested at the moment," he says.

"These institutions are very young and they haven't had very much time to establish their reputations. Broad curriculum and programmes are the types of things that build reputation.

"When doing the research it was quite clear that getting into a well recognised university was [important] for sixth formers. You look at the [schools'] marketing and they have messages like 'all our students are going to universities in the US and UK'."

Mr Wilkins, who worked at the University of Dubai between 1998 and 2001, interviewed pupils in the emirate to get a better understanding of what influenced their higher education choices.

He found that despite the best efforts of the universities to promote themselves, there was still a serious lack of trust, forcing people to look elsewhere.

"The students might have had difficulty assessing local institutions because there exists no published ranking of universities in the UAE," Mr Wilkins says in the study, called Home or Away? The Higher Education Choices of Expatriate Children in the United Arab Emirates.

In an effort to better educate students and their parents about the options in Dubai, which has the largest number of international campuses in the world, the leading education body in the emirate has produced the first guide to private universities.

These institutions witnessed an 8 per cent rise in the number of academic programmes and an 11 per cent increase in student enrolment last year, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority says.

The Study in Dubai: International Campuses handbook has details of private international university branch campuses from 10 countries including India, the US and the UK.

But the document does not include any information about the institutions' academic results.

In his research, Mr Wilkins interviewed 19 students in Dubai studying at international schools. Although the survey sample was small, the results reflected existing statistics.

At branch campuses, for example, pupils already in the country account for at least three quarters of total enrolments. The rest are UAE citizens and a handful of people travelling to the country specifically to study.

During his study Mr Wilkins found a noticeable difference between Arab expatriate youths and those from western countries. He also found that the lack of transparency was a major hurdle for the branch campuses.

"For students, the lack of trustworthy information is a problem. There are no rankings, no independent sources of information about which branch campus is better than the other, or are any of them as good as their foreign counterparts.

"Speaking to different people they say some are as good, it's about how the universities can prove that to the parents and potential students. That's a very difficult task for them to do.

"If there were rankings where you could compare across the country, it would help in decision making. If you look at the portion of staff with a doctorate, I would not be surprised if it was higher in Dubai than elsewhere."

Hassan Oneissi, 30, an engineer, moved to the UAE from Lebanon when he was a baby. He studied at a private school in Sharjah following an American curriculum, and went on to get his bachelor's from the American University of Sharjah (AUS).

"I consider the UAE my home because I've been here for so long," he says.

"Whenever I go back to Lebanon for a long time I start to miss the UAE, my home.

"I wanted to leave to study but then come back to work here. It was more of a family decision. I had applied to Canada and the American University of Beirut, but my father was worried I wouldn't do well by myself."

Academic results only played a minor role in Mr Oneissi's decision about where to study. But at AUS, he says, life wasn't easy. "Academically it was very hard, it was as good as it is elsewhere."

Now, he says, there are too many branch campuses in the country, and many of them don't compare with their international peers.

"I heard stories about how some places are really easy, but American University of Sharjah was hard, you had to put a lot of work in," Mr Oneissi says.

Mariana Soraggi moved to Ras Al Khaimah from Brazil when she 14, and studied at an English curriculum school.

When she was choosing a university in 2002 her options in the UAE were limited.

"Things were a lot different for international students in UAE. I was under the impression that most of the universities there were for locals or GCC or Middle Eastern students only," Ms Soraggi says.

"Also, there was always rumours that the level of education was not as good as outside the UAE. And if our intention was to work outside the UAE, then it was just better to study somewhere else."

Now, however, things are different."I have a lot of friends who ended up returning to the UAE after graduating, for work, so I'm pretty sure some of them would have just stayed if the universities in the UAE marketed more towards them," Ms Soraggi says.

Bobbi Hartshorne, head of educational partnerships at, which has just launched a one-stop shop for all of the courses offered in the UAE (, agrees that although this higher education landscape is changing, it has a long way to go.

The universities, Ms Hartshorne says, "would love to attract a broader spectrum of students" but it may never be an option because of the calibre of higher education offered elsewhere.

"What I see is a lot of Indian and Pakistani students go back home and do their bachelors, and yet it's probably far superior product here than over there. This is a trust issue.

"The choice of subjects makes a big difference too. They are focused on the cash cows, the business degrees and the engineering subjects.

"These campuses are here to generate money. Their whole end game is centrally different. They're not going to introduce a biology degree if there's only a few students to do it."

Mr Wilkins' report says of the 139 pupils who graduated from the American School of Dubai in 2010 and 2011, only three remained in the UAE for their higher education.

One of the students he spoke to also said they didn't know anyone who planned to study in the UAE.

Bucking the trend is Sarah Kowash, 16, who will leave the Al Ain English Speaking School in the summer and join New York University Abu Dhabi in September.

Sarah grew up in Leeds, England, and moved to the UAE at the age of 12 with her mother and father, Imal Dou and Mawlood, and older brother Ahmed. Her older sister Hajar is doing her masters at the Imperial College London.

"If I hadn't got into NYU Abu Dhabi I think I would have finished year 13 and gone to study in the UK," she says.

"Some of the campuses here are a lot better than others." Her opinions about the quality, she admits, are based solely on word of mouth.

"I know that NYU is good but I'm not sure about the others."

Sarah did attend open days for Dubai-based branch campuses but says she wasn't overly impressed.

"They weren't very multicultural. They seem to focus on one group and that's it," she says. "At NYU it's really multicultural and that's a good thing, I think.

"But I think one of the reasons people come to university here is usually because their parents won't let them leave. It's not really because of the education. So they say, 'let me get a western education in a branch campus then'."

Sarah's mother says having Sarah close to home is the ideal scenario and the decision for her to remain here was "a family one".

Her son Ahmed, 20, also chose to stay close to home and study at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

"He still has some independence but is close to us," Mrs Kowash says.

"He is not so caring about the academic side of it so he was happy to stay here. There is more choice than there used to be so it works for us as a family. This is what is important to us."