Education has always been an essential building block in the construction of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE’s founding father, His Highness the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, made educating his people his main priority and even encouraged all women to empower themselves by seeking education. Thanks to his enduring efforts, today the nations’ literacy rate is in the 97th percentile with women’s literacy rate exceeding that of the men’s.
With the rapid growth of the UAE’s economy the country has become one big melting pot in which many cultures and nationalities mix and brew. Private schools were founded to accommodate all nationalities residing in the UAE. Every type of school imaginable has been established and before we knew it the UAE has become infested with thousands of such institutions.
Education began its hypnotised stride towards the glittery world of business where profits rule with an iron fist. Schools became establishments with nothing but revenues in mind and where quality of education is no longer a requirement. The current education system in the UAE seems to be taking cue from the Starbucks model for success, mass franchising and churning out degrees/lattes by the dozen. It is quantity not quality that matters the most.
With the increase in schools and yearly graduates a demand for more universities and higher education became imminent. And so we were off once again spending billions of Dirhams and conducting laborious negotiations in efforts to convince this university or that to agree on opening a branch in the Emirates. All the while adhering to the universities’ culture and vision even if it contradicted ours. We are so keen on opening international universities within our boundaries even if it means we should bend our rules and skew our views.
These universities are of course well known and revered in the world of education hence the hefty price tags. And although money is never a deciding factor when it comes to UAE endeavours I am afraid that one cannot measure the price of such agreements by ones and zeroes. When we forgo negotiations on certain defining elements such as the type of subjects being taught at these universities and whether or not they go against the inherent character of this country then the issue becomes bigger yet.
When we allow for university students to live in mixed dormitories then we are attempting to ignore one of the most important aspects of our culture and taking a step unprecedented in the Arab world. For no other Arab country has adhered to such a stipulation no matter where the university they were seeking came from. With all due respect to these major universities but how do the sleeping arrangements of your students hinder your vision as an educational institution? I cannot see how that would act as an obstacle to the learning experience or the university’s social setting. Many students do not reside in dormitories while attending universities and come out with the same experience and receive your degrees just the same, don’t they?
If a university, no matter how famous and respectable, cannot and will not adhere or at least be sensitive to the country’s governing religion and culture then we can certainly do without it. It is not just a matter of slapping a famous name on the doors and distributing attractive brochures to fill seats with students from every part of the world. It is a matter of teaching and educating on more than just the subjects chosen by the university, but to also teach and educate students coming from far and wide about the United Arab Emirates’ heritage and values.
The idea of building an education system based on brand names is a flawed one. Besides, a university branch is almost always a second-rate version of the original, why settle for that?
The image I have of the UAE’s future education system does not comprise thousands of international schools and hundreds of franchised universities. It is a more specific and long term one. The idea is to simply pump these same billions first into the betterment and enrichment of our public schools, and second, to build a national university, just one to fully call our own.
In the past this idea would have been just a dream because human resources and expertise were not available, and therefore, they were solicited from abroad. But today and with our outstanding 97 per cent literacy rate this dream can surely manifest into a reality.
This is not to say that we do not have some brilliant universities that have paved the way in the right direction. In 1978, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan established the first national university, UAE University in Al-Ain. This university was to be his biggest step towards realising his dream of bringing education to his nation and providing it with the skills necessary to one day become self-sufficient. A project such as His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qassimi’s Sharjah University City is one that shines like a beacon in both the Gulf and Arab education system as a whole. The American University of Dubai and Zayed University have also found their places among the UAE’s prominent universities.
Because of such dedicated work the realisation of this dream is possible. This single UAE-built university can be a privatised one, led by prominent local experts in the field. Professors handpicked from both the Arab world and abroad for their excellence and commitment. The courses tailored to be a reflection of both the modernity of the United Arab Emirates and its cherished traditions and taught in both the Arabic and English language. The university’s name is one that bears no affiliate, one that is solely ours.
In the Arab world some universities stand out when you think of such examples. Egypt’s Cairo University, established in 1908, is one that has people from around the globe enjoying its rich education system, not because it bears the name of some famous university bought for billions of dollars, but because more than a hundred years later its own name has become worth just as much.
Let us build education institutions not for today or tomorrow but for hundreds of years to come, not for image or show but for substance and generations to come. So that some day foreign countries will pay to franchise the UAE’s name and adhere to its stipulations in pursuit of our knowledge and great achievements.
This article was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 24th April, 2010