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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Exhibiting countries vye for student attention at Najah in Abu Dhabi

The three-day fair began on Wednesday and will continue through to Friday at Adnec

Sean Steven, 16, poses for a photo on a replica Game of Thrones chair at the Northern Ireland booth at Najah education fair on Wednesday. Roberta Pennington / The National
Sean Steven, 16, poses for a photo on a replica Game of Thrones chair at the Northern Ireland booth at Najah education fair on Wednesday. Roberta Pennington / The National

How do universities from a small country like Northern Ireland compete with the likes of the United States and Canada for the attention of prospective students at an international fair?

They summon the King in the North.

As soon as actor Warren Eltringham stepped into the Northern Ireland exhibition booth at Najah higher education fair dressed as Jon Snow, the fearless hero in the fantasy drama Game of Thrones, packs of teenagers crowded around eager to learn more and submit their personal information to education recruiters.

Northern Ireland has sat in for Westeros in a number of key scenes in the wildly popular HBO series. While the country’s two local universities are relatively unknown beyond Europe, they are capitalizing on Northern Ireland’s star power to at least pique an interest among the thousands of students expected to attend the three-day fair, which began Wednesday and continues through Friday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

“We are relatively unknown right now, so that’s our biggest challenge getting our brand awareness out there,” said Teresa Purdy, head of international student marketing and recruitment for Ulster University in Belfast. “There are students worldwide who are fanatics about the Game of Thrones.”

Beyond offering a £2,000 (Dh9,728) scholarship to all international students – on top of an already reasonable £13,240 annual undergraduate tuition – Ulster University also takes its new foreign recruits on a tour of famous GOT settings as part of induction.

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“Ulster University has four campuses in Northern Ireland and some of our campuses are located very close to those famous filming locations,” said Mr Purdy.

The annual student fair, now in its 11th year, showcases more than 150 local and international universities representing about 20 countries. It is visited by busloads of public and private school pupils from across the country.

Down the hall from Northern Ireland, recruiters in the Japan booth showed off famous anime characters to catch the youngster’s eyes.

Representatives from Joshibi University of Art and Design, the oldest private art university in Japan, proudly displayed a poster of Hello Kitty and other popular Japanese cartoons.

“These are the work of our alumni,” said Takumi Sato, spokesman for the university, noting Hello Kitty designer Yuko Shimizu graduated from the university. “We are very good at designing these cute mascot characters.”

The university is an all-women’s campus, which Mr Sato said would likely appeal to many UAE families. Although most of the university’s foreign students are from China or Korea, Mr Sato said he hoped to attract Emiratis. The UAE government issues a number of higher education scholarships for Emiratis to study in Japan.

“UAE students are very keen to learn Japanese culture,” said Mr Sato. “They think Japanese culture is very cool.”

At the single Hungarian booth, representatives from the University of Debrecen highlighted the country’s safety and ease of visa for their success in attracting about 65 Emirati and expatriate students from the UAE last year.

Students from Al Khazna School enquire about universities at the US at the Najah Education Fair in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Students from Al Khazna School enquire about universities at the US at the Najah Education Fair in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

“We are in the Schengen area, if you have a visa to Hungary, you can travel anywhere,” said Dr Zsolt Tiba, head of the international office. “The two most important – high level degree and a very safe country, very, very safe. That is the most important.”

Most of the students recruited by University of Debrecen enter its medical program, said Jubel Thomas, assistant physics professor, because the university is accredited by the UAE Ministry of Education and graduates can enter the workforce directly after completing their studies.

“You don’t have to write the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi or MOH exam after finishing your studies,” said Mr Thomas. “It is accredited by the European Union, so it allows you to work anywhere in Europe.”

The United States, which offers the largest international exhibit at Najah with representatives from 32 American colleges and universities, continued to draw large crowds at the show.

“For a student who is really trying to make sense of education abroad, and specifically the US, this is a great fair to begin that journey,” said Barbara Leaf, US Ambassador to the UAE. “The US remains the top destination globally for higher education. There is nothing richer than the experience of living in the United States as a student and becoming part of the community and understanding the United States from the inside out.”

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