Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman have been named in a global list of the cities that offer the best student experience.
The trio ranked 61st together in a list by QS Best Student Cities, which was topped by London, Tokyo and Melbourne.
The UAE cities would have ranked higher but student feedback suggested they were held back by high cost of living and a lack of extra-curricular activities.
Istanbul was 67th on the list, which ranked 100 destinations worldwide, followed by Riyadh in 72nd place and Ankara, which came in 82nd place.
Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman scored particularly highly in the index in terms of student mix, at 33rd place worldwide, thanks to the cities’ diverse populations.
They were ranked 41st worldwide in terms of desirability, and also rated highly by students, whose opinions placed the cities in 46th place in terms of the student experience.
Abu Dhabi did not feature in the top 100.
Students agreed with many of the positive findings – but some said there is still room for improvement.
Rama Hodefa, a journalism student at the American University in Dubai, called for more research centres in the country.
“The curriculum is fine here, there are good courses and internships so you get a glimpse of the work place even when you are studying. However, there is a need to focus on research,” said Ms Hodefa, who is also studying politics.
“We do learn a lot but universities need to add research centres. If you excel at what you do, you want to study and learn more then you have to leave.”
Michaela Lobo, a recent graduate of the American University of Sharjah, said while the academic experience was good, it lacked the all-round university experience which students in other countries receive.
“What we don’t get is the university experience like students would get in the US or UK. That is something that is missing,” said Ms Lobo, who secured a job with a cosmetics company in Dubai soon after she graduated.
“People who go to Ivy League colleges like Harvard buy merchandise and wear it when there are football games, rallies or fairs. We don’t really have that in colleges here and that could be developed more. In terms of academics, colleges here are doing a great job, but there could be more in terms of extra-curricular activities.”
Mahmoud Abutaqiya, a student of UAE University in Al Ain, also called for more extracurricular activities.
“The universities should focus on the practical as well as theory. What we need are extra activities not always related to education,” said the electrical engineering student who lives in a college dorm and visits family in Abu Dhabi every weekend.
Universities, including the American University in Dubai, say they already provide extracurricular activities and placement opportunities to help ready students for the workforce.
"AUD has a wide network of partners in the corporate sector and facilitates students' placement as interns in partner companies while they are completing their studies, making them well-prepared for employment and for building successful careers as soon as they graduate," said Jihad Nader, AUD's vice president for Institutional Advancement and Development.
The cities’ overall score was dragged down as a result of factors including employer activity, where it came in 109th place. Employer activity seeks to provide an indication of which cities are most highly sought-after as recruiting grounds among graduate employers, according to the QS Best Student Cities website.
Another area where the cities scored lower was for affordability, where they were ranked in 77th place globally.
However, over the past couple of years, student accommodation projects have sprung up in Dubai, in an effort to cater to the growing number of students, and make the cost of living here more affordable for people studying in the city.
Uninest Dubailand became the UAE’s first purpose-built student accommodation block when it opened in 2016.
“At Uninest Dubailand, as well as having all utility bills included in the price, we offer 24-hour security, a shuttle bus, maintenance, front desk services, and social and wellbeing programs, alongside guest lecturers and key influencers speaking to students,” said Tim Klitscher, managing director, Middle East at GSA Group, the company behind Uninest Dubailand,
“We are also able to makes our students’ lives easier by providing flexible payment options, such as bi-monthly, quarterly or full contract, as well as creating an environment where they can drop of their bags and immediately begin their studies without the worries of setting up a new home away from home.
The Abu Dhabi market is much smaller by comparison, but students were still surprised it did not make the shortlist.
Abda Kazemi, a social research and public policy student at NYU Abu Dhabi, was offered places at top universities in the UK, but turned them down to study in Abu Dhabi because she liked the liberal arts approach at NYU Abu Dhabi. The Brit said she was happy with her decision and said it is a good place to study.
“It’s no more expensive than living in London, Hong Kong, or New York City and the Social life here is really great,” added the 22 year-old.
But she also said the capital could be more student-friendly.
“There are no established research institutions aside from the university and it is very difficult to engage yourself in the city as a student,” she said.
Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman are home to three universities ranked by QS in the QS World University Rankings – the highest-ranked institution of which is American University of Sharjah in 411-420th place. Average fees in the cities are $21,200 (Dh77,900), according to QS.