RAS AL KHAIMAH // The Hajar mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the American University of Ras al Khaimah (Aurak). Looming through the haze, they suggest a rural idyll in keeping with the sight of goats wandering past the campus.
But it is more than the setting that makes this campus tranquil. There are only 80 students, a tiny number by university standards but by no means unique in the UAE. With about 100 universities vying for enrolment, campuses with just a few dozen students are not unusual. So, does an undergraduate at a university with fewer than 100 students miss out on the intellectual and social stimulation that comes with being immersed in an academic melting pot with perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 others?
Malick Adam, 19, who was born and brought up in RAK but holds Malian citizenship, chose to live at the university even though his family home is not far away. He shares a twin room with another student. "I thought it would be a good experience to stay here. I decided to be independent," the electronics engineering student said. "It's actually fun here. There's so much social interaction in the university. We chat with each other, we use the gym, there are lots of activities."
The corridors and pathways of the low-rise campus are quiet and often empty, although this could change in the next academic year when the university hopes to add 200 students. The student centre typically has a dozen or so youngsters at lunchtime, some playing table football, others chatting at tables beside the food court. The contrast to the throngs of hundreds at some university dining areas could hardly be greater.
Officials at the college, which the RAK Government launched last year after George Mason University pulled out of the UAE, stress the benefits of being at a small university. "Classes are small, which is an advantage," said Sharon Siverts, the university president, who has held senior management positions at universities in the United States and Africa. Aurak has about 20 full-time and part-time academic staff.
"We don't want them too small, where you only have one or two students, because then you don't get the interaction and debate and dialogue," Prof Siverts said. "If you have five or six, that's fine. Our largest class is 20. That's still small." Zahid Abul Kalam, 19, a Bangladeshi student who was born and raised in RAK, said he did not mind that his biotechnology course had just a handful of students.
"You get to interact more with the doctors and professors," he said. "You get more of the benefits of the class." The major plus point, Prof Siverts said, was that small campuses were friendly. Everybody knows everybody else. "When they see me, they stop and chat," she said. "'Oh, Prof, do you mind if I ask you a question?' There's not a separation between faculty, staff, administration and students."
Sarah Askari, 21, a Palestinian in the fourth year of an electronics and communications engineering course, said "it would be harder to pick friends" at a larger campus. "There would be small groups and other small groups," said Ms Askari, who was born and brought up in RAK and lives with her family rather than on campus. "But here, we are all together. Everyone knows everyone. But it's nice to see new people."
Being exposed to a wide variety of people is often considered to be an important part of the university experience, and according to Lorraina Pinnell, the assistant vice president for academic and student affairs, this can happen even at a small campus. "Aurak is a microcosm. We have 23 nationalities and we have very diverse faculty," she said. "We are very much part of the world." About 85 per cent of the students were UAE residents before they enrolled, and about a quarter are Emirati. At least 60 per cent are Arabs and, as a result of many of them being Muslim, they do not seek the party lifestyle that many students overseas look for. The lack of nightlife in the northern emirates is not an issue for them. In any case, they must be home by 1am each night.
It was the same at other universities in the emirate, said Zubair Hanslot, the academic director of the RAK branch of the University of Bolton. Students in the UAE looked for a slightly different experience, he said. "If you go to England there are different cultural expectations," he said. "For some, the priority would be to have a bar [in the university], but here that's not a priority." Indeed, Bello Abubakar, 19, an electronics and communications engineering student who went to Aurak from his native Nigeria because he wanted "new experiences", said the demands of his studies were such that there was often little time to do other things.
"We have homework every day and sometimes I don't have much time to do it all," he said. "I have four homeworks on different courses each day. We're loaded with work." But students still want to have fun. Aurak's recreation centre has pool, table tennis, table football, games computers and a flat-screen television set for movies. The recently completed accommodation blocks, which have space for 300 students, have recreation rooms with chairs, sofas and a television set, although so far these hardly appear lived in. A new student centre is almost complete and will open next month.
There is also a gym, football pitches and a sports hall. A running track is near completion, tennis courts are due to be built and there are yoga and dance classes. The university tries to further enliven the experience for students by organising trips to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the beaches and the mountains. Mr Abubakar acknowledged that he had found RAK "a bit boring" when he arrived last year, particularly as the emirate was "very different" from Dubai, where he had briefly stayed.
"I have adapted now," he said. "I have friends and I know places to go. Sometimes we go hiking, we go to the beach, we go to malls." In any case, sometimes students like to spend time on their own and value the quiet of a small campus, especially one in RAK. "RAK is a silent environment," Mr Adam said. "You can come and sleep, and to some extent that's good. It's nice to be here because you can have peace."