Dubai for higher education?

Originally written for: http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/06/dubai-for-higher-education.html

Dubai for higher education?

A friend in Karachi recently asked me if she should consider a university in Dubai for her son’s higher education, because Dubai was much closer to Pakistan than UK or USA and that many foreign universities had campuses there. I gave her an answer more appropriate on Facebook under the relationships column: “It’s complicated,” I said.

The city of Dubai, vibrant and wonderful as it is, is fast gaining a reputation as a study hub in the Middle East. With foreign universities such as Michigan, Rochester, Wollongong, Murdoch, Middlesex and others opening campuses in this dazzling desert in especially designated areas like Academic City and Knowledge Village , one wonders if the education provided by these universities is up to mark, and if one can actually get an education of Western standards in the Middle East.

To begin with, let us take a look at global university rankings. Now rankings can sometimes be misleading and confusing, because to measure all universities in every region by the same yardstick can have erroneous results. However, global ranking has now become a widely trusted tool for students and employers alike and annual rankings by Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS Rankings, Webometrics.info amongst other ranking systems are widely used and although data may be somewhat biased, we do get a rough idea of where a university stands.

To give you some idea of how much the higher education system in Dubai needs to develop before it can get any kind of global recognition, let me tell you that searches on the Times Higher Education (THE) website and the ARWU website showed no universities in the United Arab Emirates that were ranked well, or in fact ranked at all. On the QS University ranking, the best university in the UAE is the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain and it stands at a world ranking of 338. However, another website 4icu rates it number 766 in the world and Webometrics slips it many places below to 1389!

Furthermore the cost of studying in Dubai is almost equal to what one might pay in the West, and student loans and financial aid are far more difficult to get here than, say, in the United States. And when it comes to finding jobs, a degree acquired in the UAE has its drawbacks. Bhairvi Prakash, a recent graduate from Middlesex Dubai who now works in the local media feels that a student will get more exposure abroad and while an undergrad course in Dubai is a good idea, she feels that it is better to opt for a Masters abroad. As far as jobs are concerned, Prakash says: “It’s fine if you’re looking for jobs within United Arab Emirates but it may not be the case if you were looking to work in the West, as their educational base is much more established compared to something still relatively recent like the UAE.”

Charvi Bhatt, who is a student at the American University in Dubai (AUD), believes that education standards come into account when you want to transfer from the Middle East to a Western university and that sometimes, credits completed here are not accepted abroad. However, she also believes that education in Dubai has its perks. “Campus life is good, truly multi-cultural,” she says. “Besides, if you’re a Dubai resident you could save on costs like accommodation, phone bills, and other day to day expenses.”

Many Western universities have opened campuses in Dubai and are heavily advertised not only locally but also in countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Sadly though, the level of education offered by, say, Wollongong Dubai is very different from what one might experience in Australia. Consider the fact that Webometrics rates Wollongong Australia at 542, but Wollongong Dubai makes it to number 7494 in the world rankings.

Dr. Faiz Ishaq, Head of Campus at Szabist Dubai (a branch of Szabist Pakistan) feels that is because foreign universities in Dubai are not research based and rely on the research that has already been done. Universities abroad allocate more resources to research, hence furthering the frontiers of knowledge itself. According to Dr. Ishaq, in the UAE, institutions do not have the faculty required to promote research which he feels must be done at a cross-institutional level in order to make some kind of impact.

When one considers the fact that universities in UAE are ranked consistently low, Dr. Ishaq discusses a point which he also brought up in a QS University Rankings conference held earlier this year in Dubai. “QS Rankings are well-respected and we discussed the point that rankings are based on data given by employers. Since many of the world’s biggest financial and commercial companies have headquarters in the West, the feedback is generally about universities in the West. The universities in Asia are often ignored due to lack of data from employers.” The QS personnel agreed to that and offered to take feedback from employers in Asia as well to give fairer rankings.

Indian universities however, fare very well on any ranking system, with prestigious institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) occupying good positions. Dr. Ishaq believes that is because higher education in India is very well developed (unlike Pakistan or UAE) and that a solid base is given to students starting at the primary level.

Suffice it to say that in the field of higher education, Dubai, for once must understand that bigger is not necessarily better. Breathtakingly beautiful campuses with price tags to match do not ensure a good education. However, the effort on the part of the authorities to create something of a study hub must be commended as the UAE takes baby steps towards recognition in this sphere.

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9 thoughts on “Dubai for higher education?

  1. It’s definitely unfair but there is a very different perception here of people who have degrees from the UAE/Pakistan, etc. versus a degree from the UK or the USA.

    I had no idea it was just as expensive!

  2. I always believed that a beautiful campus anywhere in the world can never possess the soul of M.I.T. or Stanford. The research environment and tradition of centuries can never be transported (neither be developed overnight). But of course, big names can earn a fortune from rich Dubai.

    Rankings (well, mostly) are more like bluff game.

  3. very well written post and i think it might have answered the questions of many.
    having an international university in a place can never replace the standard of education. this myth can be understand better with the difference of standards of state uni of cardiff ad metropolitan uni of cardiff, uni of Manchester and metropol uni of Manchester etc.

      • Cardiff Uni rejected my admission application, and i never approached UWIC (Now Cardiff Metro Uni). there is a lot of difference it is like you fail to get admission in Cardiff uni come to UWIC. anyways in real world there is a lot difference in Uni of cardiff and Metropolitan Uni of Cardiff. it is not just fee rates difference there is difference in degree worth and education standard. in terms of fee, standards, and worth state Uni is un beatable and a lot batter.

  4. Mehmudah – The famous expression, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is very apt in explaining the “Rise and Halt” of Dubai’s progress. On December 2nd the UAE celebrated its 40th anniversary i.e., when the Trucial States formed this United Arab Emirates. My family came to Dubai in 1966 and we have seen how the country progressed. I don’t think there is any other country on the globe which has changed so much as the UAE. In the Arab world especially in Dubai, they always wanted to be number one, the best, the biggest, the tallest etc. They have made the tallest building in the world, they were making the biggest airport in the world (which I guess is stalled now?) and they have the best hotels or at least the most expensive hotels in the world, so on and so forth. The say, when you have money, you can buy everything – it is not true – for everything else you have Master Card and that’s not true either. 🙂

    The country has progressed in trading but, not in manufacturing, I know there are manufacturing units at the JAFZA but, that’s negligible for a country to boast about. The reason trading, distribution and re-export of goods has improved because, historically Arabs have been known as merchants and traders and they are pretty good in this field. Coming to the subject of your blog which is education or higher education in the UAE, you cannot boast about it and you cannot compare it with the West because they are established since a very long time and it takes time and that is why I used the metaphor of Rome.

    The names of the big universities that you have mentioned i.e., those who are opening their campuses in the UAE is more like, Giorgio Armani made in China, Christian Dior made in China. People are willing to pay a higher price if it is made in France or Italy. The perception of Dubai in the west is not about the standard of education but, about the luxurious lifestyle, the skyscrapers, the hotels, beaches, safaris and money! Therefore, they prefer a degree from McGill if it is obtained from Montreal rather than Middlesex Dubai or, even if it is a bigger and well known name than Middlesex or Cardiff.

    The cost of education at McGill and Concordia is much lower than any other university in Canada or the USA and a lot of foreign as well as out of province students come here to study. Also, the cost of living is also much, much cheaper than Dubai. These two well known universities especially McGill is almost 190 years old and the number of students are over 60,000 in each of these universities and most of them are foreign and out of province students. Perhaps you know that McGill was ranked 1st in Canada among all institutions offering medical and doctoral degrees, especially neurology and invitro-fertility and it is maintaining this ranking for the seventh year in a row. In this year i.e., 2011, McGill is ranked 1st in Canada and 17th in the world in the QS World University Rankings. One of the persons you interviewed mentioned the atmosphere at Dubai campuses is truly multi-cultural, she must visit McGill and see how many nationalities are there in the campus. Both McGill and Concordia are in the heart of downtown and McGill campus is in the most beautiful settings at the foot of Mont-Royal in the background (the name Montreal is derived from Mont Royal) with a breath taking view of the skyscrapers and river St. Lawrence in the foreground.

    I am not marketing McGill or Montreal but, simply stating the facts, whereas when I was in Dubai, as a corporate banker I have promoted Dubai especially the JAFZA at the World Economic Forum meetings in Geneva and Davos, Switzerland also in Turkey, Moscow and Beijing by distributing JAFZA brochures, showing videos and by talking about its scope and prospects in future that it will be bigger than Singapore and Hong-Kong. This was the time when the FZA was operating from a “Chabra” or a tin shed and there was hardly any staff besides the Chairman Mr. Sultan Bin Sulayem and his British secretary. I was the first one to organize USMLE prep courses in Dubai for doctors wanting to go to the USA and they have to write the step-1 and step-2 exams and without the prep courses the success rate was hardly 20% and after taking the course it was almost 80% and I organized these courses for two years by inviting Canadian and US doctors to conduct the courses. That gave a food for thought for some entrepreneurs to open the American University in Sharjah.

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