A female's desire to study engineering could lead to the breaking down of the gender divide. Anthea Lipsett reports
When Sarah Mohammed Al Ameri found she could not study engineering at any of the United Arab Emirates' six women-only Higher Colleges of Technology (HCTs), she took the unusual step of asking to study with the men.
She asked for permission from His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE's Higher Education Minister, and is now the only female student at Al Ain College.
"It wasn't to make a celebrity of myself but so that I could continue my education. Engineering is not just about maths and physics, it's about troubleshooting and I love machinery and fixing things," she said.
"Everyone was shocked and thought I would die being with the boys but they are respectful and have been very supportive."
Miss Al Ameri's case is exceptional - her Bedouin father and Jamaican-British mother believe deeply in the value of education and gave their consent - but it symbolises the creeping changes in the UAE's resolutely single-sex education system.
There are 12 HCT colleges, which form one of the three branches of federally funded higher education institutions and offer a mixture of foundation, diploma and degree courses in subjects such as information technology, health sciences, business and engineering.
The colleges equate roughly to the UK's former polytechnics, with a focus on making students employable (work placements are integral). And in this regard they play a key part in the "Emiritisation" process going on to get UAE nationals into senior business positions where they can influence the future of their country.
More HCT graduates are employed than graduates from the two universities in the UAE.
Women make up two thirds of HCT students. Staff, who are largely Westerners, say they tend to be more diligent than the men and surprisingly confident, which chimes with research on single-sex education.
Fatma Abdulla, head of career programmes at Sharjah Women's College, did her PhD on higher education in the UAE at the University of Arizona.
"Education is free (for Emiratis), accessible and culturally acceptable,"
she said. "For the women there is little else for them to do and this represents a great opportunity. The men have other things they can do. They don't have to stay on campus all day and are less engaged and involved."
Some 80 per cent of her students are the first generation to go into higher education and have to cope with learning from and meeting male faculty for the first time. This made it hard to share their experiences with family but their parents were generally "wonderful", Dr Abdullah said. "As long as they see their daughters are supervised, they are happy for them to go abroad on trips and work placements."
Any country would struggle to keep up with the pace of change in the UAE, which was established only in 1971, she said. And further change will be driven by economics rather than society.
Aidan Thorne, a teacher at Al Ain, agreed. "The UAE can't carry on developing in the way it is and keep separate colleges. It's not viable. The drain on resources is massive."
This view is increasingly held by students. "Everything is changing and if a woman is married she must help her husband and work," a paramedic student at Dubai Women's College said. "We must study together as we will work together."
While the HCTs are still segregated, those students sponsored by employers such as the public services, study in mixed classes at the HCTs.
Sheikh Nahayan said this was "healthy". "I don't see anything wrong with it. But you can't force parents to comply with what you do. The important thing is (having) enough money to admit these students and educate them whether they are together or separate."
Higher Colleges of Technology at a glance
Chancellor: His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan
Vice-chancellor: Tayeb A Kamali
Workforce: Mostly from UK, US, Canada and Australia
Colleges and enrolment 2005-06
Al Ain Men's College: 756
Al Ain Women's College: 1,403
Abu Dhabi Men's College: 1,968
Abu Dhabi Women's College: 2,431
Dubai Men's College: 2,056
Dubai Women's College: 2,410
Fujairah Men's College: 178
Fujairah Women's College: 686
Ras Al Khaimah Men's College: 485
Ras Al Khaimah Women's College: 1,070
Sharjah Men's College: 810
Sharjah Women's College: 1,897
Centre for Excellence for Applied Research and Technology: 188
Enrolment by division
Foundation degrees: 32 per cent
Business: 24 per cent
IT: 21 per cent
Engineering: 10 per cent
General (common year): 5 per cent
Health science: 4 per cent
Communication technology: 2 per cent