x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Downturn triggers university scramble

Universities see a sharp jump in applications as people turn to education to help their careers survive the economic downturn.

Houssein Jihad and Salman Anjum with other students of the French Fashion University in Dubai.
Houssein Jihad and Salman Anjum with other students of the French Fashion University in Dubai.

Universities have seen a sharp jump in applications as people turn to education to help their careers survive the economic downturn. Although some institutions have reported dips in application numbers, blaming the exodus of expatriates, many undergraduate and especially postgraduate courses have seen increases of up to 20 per cent.

Academics said the increase was to be expected in the current difficult employment climate, with people choosing to bolster their CVs in preparation for better times. In a recent YouGov poll for The National, one in 10 respondents reported having lost their job in the past six months. The UAE has 59 higher education institutions with courses accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, plus dozens of other universities in free zones in Dubai and Ras al Khaimah. More than 55,000 students attend university here.

Dr Raed Awamleh, the director of Middlesex University Dubai, the Knowledge Village branch of a British university, said applications were 10 per cent up on last year for many courses, and in some cases had risen by 20 per cent. The university specialises in business, computing and hospitality. "It's very good," he said. "When the economic situation slows down, university applications go up so people can re-skill and upgrade ready for when the economy improves. By the time [the economy] starts growing, you're ready with a degree."

He said the university expected between 400 and 500 new students in September. Dr John Grainger, the pro vice chancellor of the Dubai branch of Murdoch University, an Australian institution in Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) said that recently enrolled postgraduates had told him the economy had encouraged them to go back to university. "They're saying, 'I'm coming back, I'm getting the MBA [Master of Business Administration]. Because of the downturn, at the moment I'm not getting the hours I was. I want to be ready for the upswing,'" he said.

"This is traditional. People turn to education in a recession." According to Dr Grainger, the autumn intake is likely to see about 150 undergraduates and 100 postgraduates join Murdoch, which launched last year. Registrations at the French Fashion University Esmod, which is also at DIAC, have likewise increased, said the college's art director and associate dean, Denis Ravizza. "The level of interest has almost doubled," Mr Rivazza said, adding that this was partly because the college had developed a high profile in the local media.

However, some other institutions have seen a dip in applications compared with last year, among them Manipal University at DIAC. Among those students who have decided to continue in education is Tahir Ralamwala, 22, from Pakistan, who will begin a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the American University of Sharjah in August, straight after completing his bachelor's degree at the same institution.

When asked why he was staying in university, he replied simply: "The job market." He said companies were hiring few new graduates now, with firms that took part in the university's careers fair hiring just two or three people each. He hoped that by the time he completed his master's course, he would not only be better qualified, but entering a healthier job market. "I had discussions with my parents and my professors and they were all like, 'Right now, it's better to go for the master's,'" he said.

Dr Balasubramani Ramjee, the director of the Dubai branch of Manipal University, said the number of applications was "a little bit weak but nothing to be concerned about". Both undergraduate and postgraduate numbers were slightly down, he added. "We'll be very happy if we can touch the same numbers as last year," he said. "In developed countries, when there's a recession, they take the time to go back to school to educate themselves, but here in the UAE, where you need a [residence] visa, our target market is not much affected by this prospect."

Another university to see levels of interest fall below expectations is the Ras al Khaimah branch of the University of Bolton. Zubair Hanslot, academic director, said that the university, which opened last year, was expecting about 200 new students in October, down from the initial expectations of 250. The university currently has about 230 students. "We've not had the tremendous response we expected," he said. "In the past, people used to turn to education [in a recession] to retrain themselves, but only if there's the money available. The desire for a degree is there, but money is a factor."

At the University of Wollongong in Dubai, undergraduate applications have dropped slightly, but interest in postgraduate courses has remained strong, according to Sandra Lee, registrar and admissions manager. At a similar time last year, the university reported a 43 per cent increase in applications. "I would assume that at postgraduate level, people are getting that additional degree because they believe it is very beneficial for their career path," she said.

She said the reduction in undergraduate applications "could possibly be because families are leaving the country". @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae