The UAE aspires to be the knowledge base in the Gulf. We talk to Professor Rob Whelan, president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai to determine how this is happening.
Where is the education market ‘at' in Dubai, and the UAE as a whole?
The ‘market' for higher education in private universities in the UAE is complex, comprising Emirati students, children of expats who are living in the UAE, and international students coming from a very wide range of countries. At the University of Wollongong in Dubai, we have students from over 108 countries.
Evidence for the first part of 2009 suggests a strengthening of at least some part of this market, as students in the Gulf region and neighbouring areas decide that travelling to the US for a university degree will be unaffordable with the current financial downturn. I consider that many students will use the current softening in the job market to gain a higher level of education and upgrade their skills in preparation for the recovery that will inevitably follow the downturn.
What trends, in terms of course selection, are you seeing from students?
The current focus on the importance of higher education in the emirates, and the maturation of the emirates as a development, commercial and investment centre in the world, has led to increased emphasis on degree programmes beyond the traditional areas of business, management and information systems. Although demand for our degrees in these areas remain strong, we are seeing increasing interest among students in programmes such as organisational psychology, communications studies, and other social sciences.
It is interesting that the need for graduates in particular areas is almost always ahead of student demand, and employers have identified a need for graduates in areas such as logistics and supply chain management, health services management and education management, as well as computing science and engineering.
We are also seeing an increasing demand for short graduate courses and training programmes, both from employers and employees.
We have also experienced considerable pressure from our MBA graduates to offer doctoral programmes, particularly a degree in which their research can be closely linked into their work.
What advice would you give students when considering courses in the current economic climate?
A high level of education is a really valuable asset, and especially in an uncertain employment environment. Using this time to gain a higher level of education, and to develop the habits and skills of lifelong learning, is perhaps even more important than training in a specific area. So my advice would be to look closely at the areas that result in students being employable in a wide variety of settings with skills that are transferable from one environment to another.
How do you see your curriculum changing over the next few years?
We will be responding to the needs of the UAE for graduates educated in a much broader range of disciplines, so we are already developing a number of degree programmes that will extend our current strengths in Business, Management, Finance, Accounting, Computing Science and Information Systems. We are also developing a strong doctoral program, initially focusing on business and management.
How do undergraduates from the UAE compare in terms of skill sets to those from other countries?
We have relatively few Emirati students in our undergraduate programmes, and we would certainly like to have more. The UAE-based expat students who satisfy our entry requirements are mostly strong and committed students. It is foolish to generalise, but perhaps the skill sets that are weakest in many students are what we call ‘quantitative skills' (the mathematics and statistics needed to excel in finance, accounting, economics, business and computing).In other students there is a weakness in English writing skills, and in others it is the ability to think laterally and innovatively, rather always needing step-by-step instructions.
What needs to be done to make Dubai more attractive as a destination for students?
Given its strategic geographic location, Dubai has a lot to offer as a destination for education. What is required is a coordinated approach from nationally accredited higher education providers and the government to promote the Dubai as an education destination. This has been done quite successfully in countries like Singapore, Australia and Malaysia.
The research we have done indicates that the cost of living and the difficulty of travel in Dubai are very significant impediments to studying here. There are currently regulations that prevent international students from taking employment while doing their studies, to offset these costs - and this is another impediment.
How do boys and girls compare in terms of standards?
The males and females at UOWD are no different from students in many other parts of the world; it is the females who dominate the lists of prizewinners!
What's your plan for the downturn?
UOWD will continue to focus on our guiding philosophy of providing a high quality, international-level, university education. During the downturn, we will be doing our best to educate potential students about the benefits of obtaining such an education - especially now.
We will also be striving to make sure that we are well regarded as a ‘university of choice'. For those prospective students who consider studying overseas, it needs to be made clear that they can get an education of at least equivalent quality in a nationally accredited university in the UAE, and it is certainly a less expensive option.
What effect will there be on demand and course fees?
That is the 64,000 dirham question! Course fees are set at the level required to provide the income necessary to deliver the quality of programmes we are striving for. Of course, if demand falls, we (like every other university) will be looking for ways of reversing that trend and of making savings in other areas. Our generous scholarship programmes provide academically meritorious students opportunities to study with us without taxing the family budget.
What's your biggest opportunity?
The following factors characterise UOWD: the high quality of our degree programmes, the high quality of our staff in teaching and research, the merging of our Australian higher education heritage with the opportunities in the UAE, the fact that we are a nationally accredited university in the UAE, our philosophy of working closely with commercial, industry and government agency partners to develop and teach our courses, and the fact that we have been operating in the Emirates (based in Dubai) for over fifteen years.
We have over 3,000 graduates, many of whom are in senior positions in companies and government departments in the UAE. Our biggest opportunity is integrating all of these qualities to develop new degree programmes that are relevant to the UAE, are of the highest quality, and produce employable graduates.