x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Too few Emiratis in universities, experts say

The biggest problems are getting young students to buy into the value of higher education, they say.

DUBAI // Universities are struggling to fill their places because the message has still not got through to young Emiratis that a degree is the path to a better career, education experts say.

Some fear the problem is overprovision, rather than lack of demand, querying whether a country the UAE’s size needs all of its 90 higher education institutes.

University enrolment usually rises as countries get richer. That has not happened in the GCC, according Robert Lytle, an education consultant at Parthenon Group, because of the region’s relatively sudden rise to wealth.

“Wealth has gone up so rapidly but there is still a lack of demand and not the right access points [to higher education],” he said.

According to the National Admissions and Placements Office, only 27 per cent of Emirati men are in higher education, compared with 70 per cent of women.

Enrolment has remained stubbornly low despite the many branches of prestigious Western universities, said Mr Lytle.

Even the biggest universities in Dubai mostly have fewer than 2,000 students. Only the University of Wollongong is significantly bigger, with around 3,500 students.

“With numbers like that, it’s hard to sustain,” he said. “It relies very heavily on governmental or local partners’ support and external sources of income.”

With so few students, the cost of buying land, building facilities and then running an institute can be as high as US$10m per person per year.

Mr Lytle, who last year conducted a six-month study for the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), called for a broader range of universities, from vocational education to research institutions.

The region has a large number of high-profile international branch campuses. In Abu Dhabi alone, there are brands such as NYU, the Insead business school and the Sorbonne. Others in Dubai include Harvard Medical School and Duke University’s Fuqua Business School.

“For a country the size of the UAE... this concept of pursuing several elite institutions in one region is chronically flawed in some ways,” said Mr Lytle.

If it were possible to recruit thousands of students from abroad, four or five institutes would be sustainable, he said, “but in the meantime you have to have the right institutions that show students that’s the pathway to success.”

His study for Adec found that students needed to be instilled with realistic expectations. “Expectations of how hard they had to work in university and school to secure a good job were lacking,” he said.

They should be taught, too, what it means to be a productive citizen, learning about the skills the UAE economy will need in future decades and how a university education can provide them.

His point was echoed by Dr Naz Awan, a lecturer at the university’s faculty of education. “Expectations are not being managed of what kids can achieve and what they can expect to receive financially.

“The education system is playing catch-up, working out what jobs will be available in the future.

“It’s about providing them with this information of what’s going to be needed of them.”

Joe Kotarski, a research assistant at the British University of Dubai, carried out detailed research with 10 Emirati students last year.

He cautioned against any strategy of subsidising private sector jobs for Emiratis. “This concept undermines capitalism,” he said. “It takes away the responsibility away from individuals to work their way up the ladder, getting training, putting the time in.”

The lack of the concepts are behind the private sector’s struggle to attract young Emiratis, many of whom see the government sector as providing better pay and prospects. That sector, though, is reaching saturation point.

In December, Ingo Forstenlechner from UAE University found from a study of over 2,000 Emirati students that early counselling at school was needed to change this attitude.

Mr Kotarski said: “Now, the area for discussion is how can education steer those kids from an early age to know they can’t expect a Dh25,000 or Dh30,000 a month salary and that there are jobs their country needs them to do, like lawyers, doctors, economists, environmentalists.”

In an effort to address the problem, the Ministry of Education, is training counsellors to work with high school students and expose them to professions they might consider, said Ali Maihad al Suwaidi, acting director general.

mswan@thenational.ae