Retain the talent... The pandemic offers universities in the UAE the prospect to present their credentials. It can even be turned into long-term gains. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Every year, countless UAE students graduate and look to pursue higher education abroad. While destinations vary, a consistently popular choice is the US.

Boasting over 4,000 degree-granting institutions (including the Ivy League), a stint in the US appeals to students the world over. However, following the coronavirus outbreak, the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a directive banning international freshman from entering the if their chosen school operates entirely online.

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With many institutions remaining online, I was one of many overseas students faced with a dilemma. Which led me to question whether an online university was worth it? I am among the subset that believe it isn’t, instead choosing to defer enrolment.

In lieu of a higher education experience, the search is on for an alternative to remain occupied over coming months. Although the conventional decision may be to keep the possibilities confined to academics, such as free online Harvard courses, I opted to join my peers in attempting to foray into the workspace, channelling energies towards a vocational pursuit.

Even though there is a sense of disappointment at missing out on the uni experience, this could be an opportunity to obtain practical abilities that are directly transferrable once we permanently transition into the workforce. I know of some of my peers seeking internships, founding start-ups or offering tuition services, to name a few of the possibilities being explored.

These few months can be utilised to develop skills (such as networking and management) that enable us to be more acceptable to future employers.

Cultivate innovation

This is also the perfect time for the UAE to cultivate more of the innovative disposition that the country’s leaders have rated as integral to creating a better future. These came at the opening of the Youth Hub in 2017, commissioned as part of a Federal Youth Authority initiative to foster aspiring entrepreneurs.

The UAE can even venture beyond business, taking advantage of ICE’s policy to invite a new class of eager students to its institutions, as well as retain those looking to leave, thus preventing the country’s systemic issue of a brain drain.

However, the short-term prospects are tenuous at best. With many of the graduating crop set on departing, it seems unlikely that anything can persuade them to stay - but the medium and long term expectations being more optimistic.

Expand the scope

The country in tandem with its universities could expand the range of available academic resources. Our American counterparts have access to such opportunities as the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit research foundation that hosts lectures, gathering notable scholars (such as Joe Flower and Hyejin Youn) whose collective expertise spans an array of fields.

Perhaps the UAE could also benefit from such an institution, encouraging students to pursue the “young ideas” that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, credits for achievements like “peaceful nuclear energy” and space exploration.

To further enhance appeal, local institutes could invite distinguished academics on lecturing circuits, possibly offering some teaching positions to improve UAE schools’ reputations. For example, NYU Abu Dhabi could procure professors from their namesake, like acclaimed neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux, who has done lectures extensively in Europe.

Now that the UAE has opened a relationship with Israel, it may also be worth inviting prominent Israeli academics, such as Princeton’s Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, or mathematician and Tel Aviv University professor Isaac Ben-Israel. These esteemed thinkers would be an intriguing prospect, certainly to students looking to become acclaimed themselves.

Just as the US lost out on the benefits of an international incoming class, the UAE can exploit the doubt created by COVID-19. A greater field of auspicious talent is ripe for the picking, waiting for the UAE to cultivate into tomorrow’s leaders.

Will America’s loss be the UAE’s gain? It all depends on how far the UAE is willing to go to take advantage of the current climate of uncertainty.

- Omar Lakhani is a Dubai based undergrad.