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Vocational skills training is an avenue more campuses in the UAE should pursue. It will bring about marked improvement to the UAE's workforce as well. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

When you ask outgoing UAE students where they plan to go after completing their education, a general pattern crops up - the UK, the US, Canada and Australia tend to be recurring answers. Beyond the quality of education and opportunities available in those countries, there are some fundamental underlying factors driving this desire to leave.

One of these is affordability. The average student is looking to cut costs at every possible opportunity, which does not bode well for Dubai and Abu Dhabi as they both rank in the Top 50 most expensive cities to live in. The UAE tends to attract older expatriates who are more financially secure and well into their working years, but students are less likely to enjoy the same level of security in their finances and living situation.

Furthermore, the highly competitive job market means it is even more difficult for a student with little to no professional experience to gain employment. Coupled with the stringent conditions of student visas, and the UAE seems to lag some of its international competitors.

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Create new possibilities

All hope is not lost though. The UAE has continued to strive to improve its educational infrastructure, and that spirit is one that should not wane. Rather, perhaps it is time to broaden the scope of innovation to include new avenues for students to mitigate the above-mentioned barriers.

For inspiration, one need not look further than Finland, often hailed as a world leader in education by sources like The Economist magazine. A key element of the Finnish education model is their large-scale use of vocational institutions, like Careeria.

Focus on the vocational

It was formed by the merger of several smaller vocational training companies, and now has six campuses across Finland. They offer training programmes across almost the entire spectrum of professional fields, from beauty and wellness, to trade and sales, to cleaning and domestic services. The programmes are also offered at a range of levels, from upper secondary to further education.

Students have the opportunity to learn practical skills through hands-experiences in their field, and understanding what it takes to succeed in a given profession. In 2019, it was reported that 72 per cent of all Finnish upper secondary students were studying at vocational institutes like Careeria and others.

Create localised versions

The UAE can integrate vocational institutes into the existing educational framework. There are a number of ways to go about this. If local investors and entrepreneurs are hesitant, then foreign institutions can be invited to open campuses here.

The vocational schools could even partner with local academic schools, offering apprenticeships or training courses to UAE students once they leave school or concurrent with their ongoing education. Alternatively, they could partner local firms, providing them with a supply of skilled labour (from graduates of these programs) in return for allowing their students to gain work experience with them.

If properly executed, this can have far-reaching benefits. For one, it incentivises students to remain in the country rather than consistently choosing to go abroad. With apprenticeships, internships and other practical modes of learning becoming more popular, the UAE can expand its appeal beyond traditional academics.

Moreover, it can better enable the youth to enter the labour force, as vocational training and experience is more appealing to - most - employers than a command of theoretical knowledge. With improved access to employment, graduates of these programmes can more easily obtain a work visa, knocking down another barriers that was forcing the exodus of students every year.

Of course, vocational institutes are not the ultimate solution. However, they have the potential to begin to solve some of these systematic issues confronting new graduates each year.

- Umer Lakhani is a Dubai based undergrad.