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Educator and tour guide Eenas El Shaikh says education should be more affordable Image Credit:

Abu Dhabi: Is it the money? The courses? The campus appeal? What makes students from the UAE want to enrol in universities abroad when there are some of the best learning grounds right here? The answers are many, according to experts.

“The UAE offers tremendous choice in higher education, from world-class homegrown institutions like Abu Dhabi University, to leading institutions like New York University Abu Dhabi, to branch campuses of foreign universities in the Dubai free zones. This offers choice to students to pursue programmes of study that carry international quality kite marks, while living close to family and friends,” said Dr Waqar Ahmad, chancellor at Abu Dhabi University.

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Dr Waqar Ahmad

Yet, given this impressive choice, there is a steady stream of outbound student traffic aiming for the US, UK, and other study destinations. “Students may wish to study abroad for various reasons, including the greater diversity of programs available outside the UAE,” said Dr Waqar. “If we want to retain more of our students in the UAE, then we have to focus on a number of areas, including the range of programmes offered and their relevance to national and regional needs,” he said.

The Abu Dhabi university, for example, currently enrols 7,500 students from about 80 countries. The institution offers 25 undergraduate and 26 graduate degrees, including 20 introduced in the past five years.

“We have recently introduced new programmes in health sciences and in engineering, including molecular and genetic sciences, laboratory medicine, human nutrition and dietetics, cyber security…and biomedical engineering,” Dr Ahmad said. While the arc and sweep of academic subjects is a major asset to a university’s appeal as a choice alma mater, this alone is not enough. “Universities should also offer an attractive student experience,” said Dr Ahmad. “To that end, the Abu Dhabi university launched a new fitness centre in 2018, as well as an academic success centre that offers spaces and resources to help students learn more effectively.”

Growth in number of students

Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice Principal at Heriot-Watt University Dubai campus, says the UAE’s education market has grown over the past 15 years “but has the potential to grow significantly by attracting more international students. A number of education free zones were launched in Dubai, which makes Dubai the host of highest number of international branch campuses in the world,” he said.

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Ammar Kaka

“Additionally, the UAE Ministry of Education recently announced the launch of the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030, which sets out to build and achieve the highest scientific and professional education standards to serve the UAE’s future generations.”

To maximise these advantages, Kaka points to three factors that should come into play to further energise the domain.

“First, the market today offers good opportunities for employment across diverse industries. Second, the cost. Expat students with families living in the UAE incur minimum extra cost for accommodation and living expenses. Universities in the UAE generally try to offset this with a reasonable fee structure as well as arranging for reasonably priced student accommodation.” Add to this the extensive roster of excellent higher education universities in the UAE and “we are witnessing a growing number of students that choose to stay for their higher education and for employment after,” says Kaka.

Universities should offer the full spectrum of courses, he says, but equally, these courses should equip learners with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace. “At Heriot-Watt, we established our Dubai campus in 2005, with just two programmes; now we have 90 programmes that meet the needs of the local economy. Some programmes like Architecture and Cybersecurity are entirely home-grown as a result of local market requirements,” he adds.

On the matter of scholarships, which are great incentives for students to go abroad, Kaka said, “Scholarships are important, but they must be awarded with a purpose; not as a pure recruitment tool. Universities in the UAE offer a wide range of scholarships from merit-based to hardship ones to help with student recruitment shortfalls.

International education standards

Dr Ahmed Al Shoaibi, senior vice president for academic and student services at Khalifa University, says that institutions in the UAE should ensure education standards match those of international universities.

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Dr Ahmed Al Shoaibi

“We strive to offer students education that is on par with leading universities around the world. At the same time, [we help students] conduct regionally-relevant research that benefits the UAE,” Dr Al Shoaibi said.

He believes that universities should also provide students with opportunities to interact with professionals from across the world, and allow them to contribute to the UAE’s economic progress.

“At present, a total of 51 nationalities represent the Khalifa University student body. We believe this diversity of our student body itself is a strong indication of the world-class academic programs, research offerings, faculty expertise, cutting-edge laboratory facilities and the overall learning environment,” Dr Al Shoaibi said.


Eenas Al Sheakh, 44, educator and tour guide from Egypt

“My firstborn is set to head off to university later this year, and he will most likely go to Germany or Switzerland. He has lived here in the UAE since he turned three years old, and would love to study and work here. But education is very expensive, and this prevents many children from his generation from staying back. In contrast, we have to pay only 300 euros (Dh1,234) per semester to support his education in Germany.

In my opinion, the UAE now has a wide range of degrees on offer, but there is a need to make education [and the student experience] more affordable. This would encourage children who grew up here to stay on and build the country.”

 Jose Matthew, 55, general manager from India

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Jose Matthew

“I feel that the UAE is a good place for students pursuing certain degrees, especially as the social environment supports a wholesome education and the faculty is well-qualified. My eldest two children have pursued business degrees in Dubai, and we were very happy with the quality of education at the university and the level of employability of its graduates. The tuition was expensive, but starting salaries here are also high. Moreover, they were able to avoid concerns about adjusting to a new environment by staying at home.

“My younger two children want to study medicine, and we feel the quality of medical education is superior in India, mainly because of larger patient volumes. So they will go to India to study.”

Mohamad Kassab, Lebanese, Civil Engineer, Dubai

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Mohamad Kassab

“Two of my elder daughters studied in American University of Dubai and the third one is studying there. My son chose to study civil engineering in American University of Beirut in Lebanon. It was my dream too to study there. It is one of the best in the Middle East and it is approved across the world. He was born here and spent most of his life here. So, for him, it is a new experience to be outside the UAE. He will get to meet new people…new thinking…and new ways of looking at issues.”

Nawaf Echtay, Syrian, Campus Development Office, Zayed University

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Nawaf Echtay

“I have two daughters. My daughters are studying pharmacy course in University of Sharjah and communication and media in American University of Dubai. We cannot let them depend on themselves before they finish the university and get a job. By God’s grace, we have very good universities offering courses in all subjects here in the UAE. And good jobs are guaranteed if they study in these universities. They can work anywhere in the world as well.”