x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Men bucking the trend at Ajman University

Despite a national shortage of male Emirati social workers, one university has enrolled about 130 in just one year.

Ajman University became only the third university in the country to offer a social work degree when it launched a bachelors in sociology and social work last year.
Ajman University became only the third university in the country to offer a social work degree when it launched a bachelors in sociology and social work last year.

AJMAN // Despite a national shortage of male Emirati social workers, one university has enrolled 130 in just one year.

Ajman University became only the third university in the country to offer a social work degree when it launched a bachelors in sociology and social work last year.

Since then, the number of registered students on the course has rocketed from 35 to 320, with interest apparently fuelled by word of mouth as the university has not until now advertised the course.

But with 130 men among the 320 students, who are nearly all Emirati, it has found the course to be an unexpected success.

Dr Khalid Al Khaja, the dean of the department of mass communications and humanities, attributes part of this success to it being run in Arabic.

"Most of the students we have come from public high schools, so do not have a good grasp of English," he said, adding that this was especially so for males who were consistently outperformed by females in their final year of high school.

"This course is for them to work in Arabic in the local community so they must learn the terminology in Arabic or it will not help their career," said Dr Al Khaja.

The course fills a gap in the market, as social work studies are otherwise offered only at two government universities, UAE University in Al Ain and at Sharjah Women's College, which is part of the Higher Colleges of Technology. Both of these courses are free for Emiratis, but taught in English.

At UAEU just seven of the 300 students are male, while no males take the HCT course. Dr Al Khaja attributes this to the courses being delivered in English.

"We've already had calls from students in UAEU who want to transfer now," he said.

Anoud Al Kendi, 24, from Umm Al Quwain, was last year among the first batch of students to take Ajman University's social work degree. Despite fees of Dh120,000 for the four years, she decided to study at the private university, rather than at one of the federal, free, alternatives.

"My friend did social work at UAEU, but here we get to do field work every year, not just in the final year, so I decided this was better for me. Plus it's a double major with sociology which is more useful."

Her husband supported her choice of degree, telling her there would be many job opportunities awaiting her. "People still assume this job is about working in schools."

Ms Al Kendi said the course has already transformed her life. "This has totally changed our mindsets about so many things, about solving problems ourselves, in our personal lives and for our friends and family."

Most of the men enrolled on the Ajman University course are already working in professions such as the police, while some of the females have jobs in government departments including the Ministry of Social Affairs. It's hoped that when the males graduate they can fill gaps in careers as diverse as the prison service to special needs care.

The country's longest established social work degree is taught at UAE University. Since its launch 20 years ago the university's eight teaching staff, all qualified social workers, have developed the degree to appeal more to males, according to the department chairman Dr Robert Villa.

He said this was done by making it more relevant to male-dominated careers such as the police. He said when he came to the UAE five years ago all the graduates went on to work at schools, "so it's been a case of getting people out of the mindset that social workers only work in schools".

The social work degree at the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology, which launched in 2010, is also making progress, with enrolment increasing from 17 students in the first year to 24 this year. However, none of these are male.

Hassan Al Shazali, one of the course teachers and a qualified social worker, said: "There is a dearth of male social workers [here] and a real need for them to work with male clients such as those in the prison system, high schools, and family work.

"In the UAE, perhaps linking social work to traditional male professions such as work in the prisons, police force and military would encourage young men to join the social work profession."

Shurooq Al Sharhan, a 20-year-old student, said there was still much work to do to make society understand the role of social workers. "When I told my mum I wanted to study this, she didn't know what it really meant," she said.

But things are beginning to change, said Maryam Bintooq, 23, from Umm Al Quwain. "These days people understand social work better than they used to."

mswan@thenational.ae