UAE universities see huge boost as students shun foreign travel

One college saw its highest enrolment in seven years

Students speak to administration staff at University of Wollongong's new campus at Dubai Knowledge Park. Courtesy: UOWD
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More UAE students have enrolled in local branches of international colleges this year, shunning their US and the UK campuses, heads of admissions in universities in the Emirates said.

The drop in the number of students going overseas is largely a result of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Campuses of international universities in the UAE have reported an increase in domestic enrolment this year.

We had our highest summer intake in seven years

“We had our highest summer intake in seven years, in the midst of a global pandemic and recession," said Brendan Vyner, director of marketing and student recruitment at University of Wollongong in Dubai.

The university's summer enrolment numbers increased by 23 per cent when compared to the same time last year. Last year, 3,313 students were enrolled at the university.

Students choosing to study closer to home

The fear of being away from family if travel restrictions are imposed and impending lockdowns in countries such as the UK have affected students’ plans for international education.

“With major international education destinations such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia being closed or heavily restricted to international students, we are seeing increased demand from students who are interested in studying at an international university closer to home,” said Mr Vyner.

“The uncertainty caused by Covid-19 has made people wary of international travel, and in some cases removed the option completely.

“This has left many students who would have travelled abroad stranded and not willing to wait for one more year to decide on their future."

Recruitment officers at universities said they faced difficulties brought on by the pandemic but that that situation also provided the education sector in the UAE with opportunities.

Brendan Vyner, director of marketing and student recruitment at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.  Brendan Vyner

“The major boost we saw was increased demand from our domestic sector, where 60,000 students who regularly travel abroad are potentially stuck in Dubai and are unable to attend universities in the US, UK or Australia,” said Mr Vyner.

Carl Casey, recruitment counsellor at Rochester Institute of Technology Dubai (RITD), reported a 25 per cent increase in summer enrolment numbers compared with last year.

“More students have elected to stay within the UAE for further education due to the on-going impact of Covid-19," he said.

Last year, the university admitted 849 students.

Close to half of the university’s students, 46 per cent, come from the Mena region, and 15 per cent are Emiratis.

The University of Birmingham in Dubai also reported an increase in the number of applications.

“We had a noticeable number of increased applications in the UAE, which is demonstrating that a lot of UAE students are not looking to travel overseas,” said Chris Taylor, senior recruitment manager for the University of Birmingham Dubai.

"They are starting to recognise the options that they have here and are staying to study.

“Our largest increase is from within the UAE and we have seen a 20 per cent increase."

Mr Taylor said students felt they had lost out on the last few months of their education and did not want to lose more.

The University of Birmingham in Dubai has about 100 first year students and double that in their second year.

Studying abroad: Perspectives of UAE students

Some students were unable to go abroad for higher studies because of financial constraints and others stayed because of travel restrictions.

Kareem Hany, a 17-year-old Egyptian student in Dubai, wanted to study at the University of Manitoba in Canada but decided to look for options closer to home when the pandemic struck.

Mr Hany, a first-year electrical engineering student at RITD, spoke of his relief at staying in the Emirates.

Kareem Hany, 17, studies electrical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai. Kareem Hany

“With the coronavirus outbreak, I think the UAE handled it better than Canada," he said.

“Things were already going into lockdown at the time, so I decided to stay back here and study in the UAE."

Mr Hany spoke of his fear of being outside the country if travel restrictions were imposed.

“My family is in the UAE and staying far from home during such a time was not the best option,” he said.

“Many of my friends who wanted to study abroad also stayed back.”

Mr Hany was one of many students who won a scholarship.

The financial aid was an important factor in his decision.

He planned to study at one of RIT’s campuses in the US or China for a term.

“There were always good quality education offerings in the UAE but some students had dreams of studying abroad because they wanted to live independently,” he said.

“For me, the pandemic made the decision to stay in the UAE easier.”

Students still keen on exchange programmes

Students at UAE campuses of international universities will still have the option to go abroad for a term or a year.

At the University of Birmingham in Dubai, students can go to the UK for a time.

The academic requirements and fees at campuses in the UAE and the UK remain the same, but students have scholarships based on their academic achievements in the UAE.

"Students could also complete their first year in the UAE, and if they were always planning to go to the UK, we can help them go across to the UK campus in the second year," said Mr Taylor.

At the University of Wollongong in Dubai, the university can accept students in Dubai and then transfer them to Australia, Hong Kong or Malaysia next year once travel restrictions ease.