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Dr Cedwyn Fernandes of Middlesex University says staying close to family has become priority for students Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Universities in the UAE expect more applicants from within the country amid a growing reluctance to study aboard because of the pandemic.

Campuses closed in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak and lectures were forced to move online till summer break.

It is currently unknown if campuses will re-open in a regular manner in September when the new term begins. UAE education authorities are monitoring the situation and will announce guidelines related to how and when universities can resume campus learning.

Campus life, especially at universities in the West, is a big draw for applicants from the UAE. But the uncertainty surrounding the re-opening of colleges, travel restrictions and being far from home in the times of COVID-19, has put off some youth from applying overseas.

Some universities, such as University of Cambridge and University of Manchester in the UK, have already announced that lectures in Fall 2020 will be online only.

In the UAE, branch campuses of foreign universities in Dubai said they anticipate more applications from within the emirates.

Change of plan

Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice-Principal, Heriot-Watt University Dubai, said the university has already planned for the expected local influx.

Ammar Kaka

“We do expect that some students who may have originally been planning to go abroad may change their plans. We believe such students, particularly those that intended to travel to the UK for their studies, would find undertaking study at our Heriot Watt university Dubai campus appealing. In fact, in support of this decision, we recently launched an offer that would guarantee that British expats students who would initially join us here at our Dubai campus, home fees status when they travel to our UK campuses to continue their studies,” he added.

‘Close proximity’

Also, staying close to family has become a priority for many applicants, said Dr Cedwyn Fernandes, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Director, Middlesex University Dubai.

“Most students around the world are expected to stay back in their home country until the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 situation is resolved. Many students from the UAE are likely to postpone their international study plans and join an international university like Middlesex and transfer to London after completing a year. We are also expecting that international students from the GCC and the Indian sub-continent will prefer the UAE for higher education as they will benefit from the close proximity to their families,” Dr Fernandes added.

‘Secure environment’

Safety considerations “have become vital” for students, said Dr Vajahat Hussain, CEO of Amity Education Middle East in Dubai.

Dr Vajahat Hussain

“The UAE provides that, plus a secure environment with great connectivity and access. We are looking forward to welcoming more students from the UAE this September. UAE universities have excellent infrastructure, and have grown to become self-sufficient and well-equipped to meet global educational standards. Amity University Dubai is an excellent example of a branch university that offer students a complete university experience,” Dr Hussain added.

A year’s spell

The decision of many students to stay put in the UAE could last a year, said Ben Bailey, director of campus operations at University of Birmingham Dubai.

“Understandably, many students have hesitations about travelling overseas for study at the moment, and more students are thinking about staying in the UAE to study, at least for the coming year. The UAE’s progress in tackling COVID-19 means that the UAE could feel like a very safe and positive place to study if international travel is possible,” Bailey added. ‘Blended learning’

Ben Bailey

The university leaders don’t expect a return to full normalcy in Fall 2020, with classes expected as a “blended” mix of online classes and on-campus lectures under social distancing rules.

“At the University of Birmingham Dubai, we are currently making plans to deliver as much as we can from campus, operating under the Ministry of Education guidelines, and without compromising the safety of our community. While social distancing measures continue, it is likely that some element of online provision will be required alongside any campus delivery, and we are therefore investing further in ensuring the quality of our online provision,” Bailey said.

Dr Fernandes said, “it is expected that in September when universities re-open, there will either be classes on campus with social distancing and sanitisation measures, or some form of blended learning.”

There could be “a possibility of remote learning in Fall 2020, but we are seeing the world open up,” Dr Hussain said. “During this period of remote learning, we have successfully carried out virtual placement exercises, online competitions, conferences, career fairs, contests, webinars, lab sessions and more.”

Will fees fall?

With little or no access to campus lectures, practical learning, sports and extracurricular pursuits, a point of view calls for lower fees, on the ground that education over Zoom is not the same as learning and socialising on campus.

Some universities believe lower fees are unlikely to materialise in the short-term. Kaka said: “We do not anticipate a fee reduction in the Fall semester presently. This is for several reasons. First, contrary to popular belief, delivering online education on a temporary basis will not cost universities less. In fact, it may cost us more as we may have to make further investments in digital technologies and training in order to be able to continue offering an equivalent quality of education and experience.

“Secondly, we recognise the substantial investment students make towards their education, and to help ease this financial burden, we offer several kinds of scholarships to students who qualify for them. And finally, even in the backdrop of online learning, we will continue to provide one-to-one pastoral support and our Professional Services staff, such as the Careers and Wellbeing teams, will also continue to work to provide students with all the support they require via email and videoconferencing.”

However, others see a possibility of lower charges. Dr Fernandes said: “If, in the unlikely scenario of studies continuing only virtually, there is expected to be some reduced fees.”

Balancing expectations

Soraya Beheshti, managing director of Crimson Education–MENA, a US/UK university admissions support consultancy, suggests the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education application patterns and fees may not be as disruptive as initially thought, especially when it comes to the big names.

Soraya Beheshti

“I think that there is an argument to be made on either side. Brand name universities such as Oxford or Harvard will likely not want to lower fees because this could impact the perceived value of the educational experience at those universities. From the universities’ perspective, they still have to pay their tenured professors the same rate, regardless of whether they are teaching online or in-person. Similarly, these universities may still have hefty research and real-estate costs that they are also committed to pay. Even if students aren’t physically in the dorms or working in the labs, these facilities cannot be abandoned.

“From the student side, it’s absolutely understandable that they would want a reduction in fees. They may feel the ‘collision rate’ with other academic talents is reduced, as is the experience of being on campus. Nevertheless, their reputation is such that there will always be students willing to pay – no matter the price. Enrolment rates at the world’s top 20 universities have steadily increased even as fees have risen. The majority of students at Ivy League universities receive financial aid packages anyway. Outside of this elite tier of universities, where the non-tangible benefits such as the alumni community or prestige bring less value, institutions will have a harder time maintaining their current fees.”

Will universities in the UAE see more applications from students who will not be going abroad because of the pandemic concerns?

“Not particularly when looking at the population as a whole. Among Emirati students, this could be true. They constitute the largest portion of students enrolled in UAE universities by far and are much more willing to study in local universities than are expats. They may enrol in greater numbers than previously – however, this would likely be offset by a decrease in enrolments from students in other countries such as Egypt, which is the second largest source country for university students in the UAE.

“Amongst expats, few students consider both staying local or going abroad. In other words, there tends not to be many people who are sitting on the fence. These are the people who would otherwise be convinced to stay in the UAE rather than go abroad. Instead, we see that those who want to study in the US or UK are committed to doing so and those who stay local were never considering going abroad anyway. At Crimson Education we speak with hundreds of students and we haven’t noticed a decreased interest in studying abroad. People seem just as motivated as ever to get into the best universities.”