ABU DHABI // The Ministry of Education will support students planning to study abroad by connecting them with postgraduates already outside the country.
Each year, the ministry offers 200 to 300 scholarships to Emiratis travelling to countries such as Australia, Great Britain, Japan and the United States. Now the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Ahmad Belhoul, said he wanted to make sure the right decisions were made before teenagers left home.
“As might be the case elsewhere around the world, many high-school graduates have not chosen their discipline or may not be aware of the nuances that differentiate studying in the UK vis-a-vis the US, for example,” he said.
“Many find they can’t continue their studies because when they get there they struggle, academically, socially, or have a difficult time adapting to their new environment.”
Many students also change their major well into their first year, another factor Dr Belhoul would like to change. “Beyond the first couple of months, switching majors can be detrimental [to a student’s studies] and the students lose time.”
Dr Belhoul, who was appointed in February, said the initiative, called Shorik – Arabic for “to advise”, is shaped by his own experiences in Australia.
“I studied for my PhD in Australia and of the five of us who started only I made it. It wasn’t because they weren’t smart, instead that it required a lot of independent work and that wasn’t part of the culture back then in the UAE, so many people struggled.”
Dr Belhoul said 20 mentors would work as part of a pilot scheme.
The postgraduates will have lived around the world, having studied everything from special-needs education to law, and will help students make better choices on the location of potential universities and disciplines. Currently there are more than 1,000 Emirati scholars overseas.
Dr Belhoul said no one was better qualified to offer support to the students than those who have lived the experience,
“They cover aspects our counsellors aren’t able to,” he said.
Students needed to be better informed about the processes involved in applying to university, when to apply, how to apply and the criteria they must prepare for their applications.
For those leaving the UAE, considering the environmental and social factors as well is vital.
Peter Davos, whose counselling consultancy Hale Education specialises in US institutions, agreed.
“Cornell, for example, is very geographically isolated and very big, which is not the environment for a lot of people, especially kids coming from Dubai,” he said.
“Dartmouth is in rural New Hampshire and is very much based around fraternities, which, again, isn’t always a good fit for kids from Dubai.”
Not every school in the UAE has dedicated, qualified counsellors to advise students headed abroad, and those in place are usually overloaded and not equipped to advise on the countries students want to go to.
“Typically counsellors don’t engage with the students until the senior year [of high school] when it’s too late,” Mr Davos said. His team usually meets a student one-on-one about 24 times during the application process, revising essays, checking on progress of courses taken, activities being undertaken.
“Usually there are 10 to 12 revisions. It’s a long process over months and months. Too many kids wait until October, two months before the deadline and you’re competing against kids who’ve been groomed for this, some of them for years.”
Priya Babel, head of counselling at education consultancy Intelligent Partners, deals with students travelling all over the world.
She stressed the importance of social aspects of the destination. “It’s very important for students to be happy in the environment you’re sending them to,” she said.
“You can push a student to get the grades and make it into an Ivy League school, but will they survive? You see a lot of drop-outs. You have to see where the student would fit in best.”