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Dubai for higher education?

December 06, 2011


A friend in Karachi recently asked me if she should consider a university in Dubai for her son’s higher education, because Dubai was much closer to Pakistan than UK or USA and that many foreign universities had campuses there. I gave her an answer more appropriate on Facebook under the relationships column: “It’s complicated,” I said.

The city of Dubai, vibrant and wonderful as it is, is fast gaining a reputation as a study hub in the Middle East. With foreign universities such as Michigan, Rochester, Wollongong, Murdoch, Middlesex and others opening campuses in this dazzling desert in especially designated areas like Academic City and Knowledge Village , one wonders if the education provided by these universities is up to mark, and if one can actually get an education of Western standards in the Middle East.

To begin with, let us take a look at global university rankings. Now rankings can sometimes be misleading and confusing, because to measure all universities in every region by the same yardstick can have erroneous results. However, global ranking has now become a widely trusted tool for students and employers alike and annual rankings by Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS Rankings, amongst other ranking systems are widely used and although data may be somewhat biased, we do get a rough idea of where a university stands.

To give you some idea of how much the higher education system in Dubai needs to develop before it can get any kind of global recognition, let me tell you that searches on the Times Higher Education (THE) website and the ARWU website showed no universities in the United Arab Emirates that were ranked well, or in fact ranked at all. On the QS University ranking, the best university in the UAE is the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain and it stands at a world ranking of 338. However, another website 4icu rates it number 766 in the world and Webometrics slips it many places below to 1389!

Furthermore the cost of studying in Dubai is almost equal to what one might pay in the West, and student loans and financial aid are far more difficult to get here than, say, in the United States. And when it comes to finding jobs, a degree acquired in the UAE has its drawbacks. Bhairvi Prakash, a recent graduate from Middlesex Dubai who now works in the local media feels that a student will get more exposure abroad and while an undergrad course in Dubai is a good idea, she feels that it is better to opt for a Masters abroad. As far as jobs are concerned, Prakash says: “It's fine if you're looking for jobs within United Arab Emirates but it may not be the case if you were looking to work in the West, as their educational base is much more established compared to something still relatively recent like the UAE.”

Charvi Bhatt, who is a student at the American University in Dubai (AUD), believes that education standards come into account when you want to transfer from the Middle East to a Western university and that sometimes, credits completed here are not accepted abroad. However, she also believes that education in Dubai has its perks. “Campus life is good, truly multi-cultural,” she says. "Besides, if you’re a Dubai resident you could save on costs like accommodation, phone bills, and other day to day expenses.”

Many Western universities have opened campuses in Dubai and are heavily advertised not only locally but also in countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Sadly though, the level of education offered by, say, Wollongong Dubai is very different from what one might experience in Australia. Consider the fact that Webometrics rates Wollongong Australia at 542, but Wollongong Dubai makes it to number 7494 in the world rankings.

Dr. Faiz Ishaq, Head of Campus at Szabist Dubai (a branch of Szabist Pakistan) feels that is because foreign universities in Dubai are not research based and rely on the research that has already been done. Universities abroad allocate more resources to research, hence furthering the frontiers of knowledge itself. According to Dr. Ishaq, in the UAE, institutions do not have the faculty required to promote research which he feels must be done at a cross-institutional level in order to make some kind of impact.

When one considers the fact that universities in UAE are ranked consistently low, Dr. Ishaq discusses a point which he also brought up in a QS University Rankings conference held earlier this year in Dubai. “QS Rankings are well-respected and we discussed the point that rankings are based on data given by employers. Since many of the world’s biggest financial and commercial companies have headquarters in the West, the feedback is generally about universities in the West. The universities in Asia are often ignored due to lack of data from employers.” The QS personnel agreed to that and offered to take feedback from employers in Asia as well to give fairer rankings.

Indian universities however, fare very well on any ranking system, with prestigious institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) occupying good positions. Dr. Ishaq believes that is because higher education in India is very well developed (unlike Pakistan or UAE) and that a solid base is given to students starting at the primary level.

Suffice it to say that in the field of higher education, Dubai, for once must understand that bigger is not necessarily better. Breathtakingly beautiful campuses with price tags to match do not ensure a good education. However, the effort on the part of the authorities to create something of a study hub must be commended as the UAE takes baby steps towards recognition in this sphere.


Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelance writer who blogs at Ummanaal’s Musings.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.