Former students and fathers speak about the UAE system, its highlights and pitfalls

T hey were young, the country was young - their dreams were young. The UAE had just been formed; the sands of change were swirling through its political landscape. They wanted to succeed both for themselves and their fledgling nation.

The young band of merry men travelled to faraway lands seeking degrees and higher education because that was the need of the hour. Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad… some went farther, crossing thousands of miles of land and sea to Europe and the US.

For many years they lived in foreign cultures to absorb what the world had to offer to return men of minds, leaders of society and become part of the nation's intelligentsia.

UAE national students who graduated in the mid-1970s from the Dubai Secondary School held their annual reunion recently. Today most of them are fathers and part of the academia in the country.

Evaluating education

They evaluated the UAE's education for Notes from the perspective of being former students in the country and parents of the new generation of pupils.

Zeid Al Sabouni, Head of the press office of the Commander General of Dubai Police, graduated from Dubai Secondary School in 1976. The batch that year had 90 students and they were all being instructed in the Kuwait education curriculum.

The father of two said: "The students today are very different from our generation. There appears to be a serious lack of respect for teachers and the teachers too do not seem to care as much about their students.

"In the old days, we would be terrified if we saw our teacher outside school … there was a high level of interaction, but we never took them for granted.

"But that also stems from the attitudes of the teachers. They used to care what we did with our lives beyond the four walls of the classroom."

Sabouni said education was a gift that teachers gave students - a person enlightened enough to teach a letter will rule the world.

"Teaching is a vocation, a calling, a passion. For example, the other day in the classroom my son raised his hand to ask a question. He was asked to shut up and sit down. How can such an individual expect to earn the respect of his pupils?"

He said perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the number of students is much higher than the teachers, who are also not very well paid.

"I studied in the public education system, but I am not happy to put my children through the same now, because they will not receive quality education. This to me is extremely ironical."

Many more choices

Sabouni said technology and developments in education meant that there were many more options available for students within the country, but they also offered distractions to impressionable minds.

"Some of the content in the curriculum is extremely outdated, not practical and relevant to a student in the UAE. There has to be a greater focus on vocational training, teach what the nation needs, especially at the school level. The Higher Colleges of Technology offer an excellent level of education," he said.

"When it comes to young UAE national graduates joining the workforce, I would say there has to be a strong sense of discipline and work ethic. Work hard and nobody will steal your opportunities. The private sector will hire those people who offer expertise and hard work."

He added the onus of encouraging students to work hard does not just rest with teachers and the schools at large but also on parents.

"The family unit has to stay more involved in what their children are doing, check their homework and have a greater level of communication."

Dr Faisal Al Sajwani, Director of the Damac group of companies, agreed. He also graduated from the Dubai Secondary School, studied medicine in Iraq, worked in paediatric surgery in the UAE, and followed it up with a management business administration degree from the US.

For the last nine years he has functioned as the Director of Damac and is a member of the business faculty at Dubai Men's College. He has three children.

"As an HCT teacher, I can say the education curriculum is excellent, but what the system appears to suffer from are budget constraints. Also there has to be greater involvement by parents," Sajwani said.

"The budget constraint prevents the curriculum from evolving as it needs to. It has stayed the same for the past four to five years."

He said one of the biggest issues UAE national students face is poor English language skills.

"We have students reaching university level without the ability to write their name fully in English. They have to learn the language, no matter how good you are, it all becomes ineffective if you cannot express yourself. Communication is the key to success."

Too much bureaucracy

Sajwani said there is now too much bureaucracy in how the public education system at the school level is handled.

"All government schools in the cities should be privatised and from the money saved, subsidise fees for national students. This will ensure better quality education. They can continue to run the schools in the rural areas."

Attitudes of the young - especially their sense of discipline - need more work, both by educators and parents.

Sajwani said: "And salaries of teachers have also to be commensurate to their efforts. If they teach with a cavalier attitude, that is going to filter to the pupils. The administration of a school has to ensure against this.

"I had a student from a good family who failed his year. And he was coming close to failing a second time around and if that happened he would be asked to leave the HCT. So, I spoke to his father.

"He told me, ‘I give my son everything a mobile, car … but he is still doing badly'. And that was the problem - there were too many distractions, I advised that he take his car and mobile away during exams, try and get his son to befriend other young kids with a sense of discipline, rather than just preaching to him or bossing him around."

Dr Ahmad A. Al Banna, Deputy Director General of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who also graduated in 1976, said the education system has changed dramatically over the last three decades.

"There are a lot more opportunities today in terms of schools and higher education. As a parent you can shop for your child much more. There is a lot more help and support for a student, as parents are more educated and there are better facilities.

"The negative side to that is maybe students do not have the urge to work as hard as we did, because we did not have much to fall back on. The motivation to succeed has to be created more now and that rests with parents and teachers."

Yet another way of ensuring that desire to succeed and work hard could be by giving students a reality check in their curriculum.

He said: "We saw a UAE that was very different from the country of today, a truly modern nation. But that means we have our feet grounded in reality, we remember the past.

"The younger generation today are not familiar with it, it should be taught in programmes around the country, so they graduate with a better sense of balance of what their nation has achieved and what they can achieve."

Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.