Dubai proves a fast learner

March 6, 1998

The skyscrapers of Dubai's sleekly modern financial centre contrast with the traditional wooden dhows moored at bustling quays near the souk and spice markets.

But the contrast is largely superficial - the dhows no longer carry the spices, precious woods and fabrics on which the original prosperity of the city was built. Now barefoot dockers unload air-conditioning equipment and porters haul barrows piled high with computer monitors.

Trade and finance underpin the prosperity of Dubai, second largest of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Its strategic location and liberal financial climate have made it attractive to multinational companies which have established their bases for the region there.

But the booming economy has pinpointed a glaring skills gap that the Dubai chamber of commerce and Industry is anxious to plug through the creation of the Dubai Polytechnic, which opened a year ago this month.

The development of the economy depends on creating opportunities for advanced vocational training for all the state's young people including the families of expatriates. Offshore organisations - including a number of British universities that offer MBAs - had seen the opportunities of marketing degree-level courses but, despite identification of the market by the British Council, the demand for accredited professional and vocational qualifications remained largely untapped.

Existing post-school institutions - the United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi and the Higher Colleges of Technology - cater almost exclusively for Emirates nationals, who comprise only a fraction of the population of Dubai. Many UAE nationals aiming at a degree can also afford to study overseas - elsewhere in the region or in the United States. But the colleges offered little beyond the equivalent of HNC level, with no opportunity for progression.

It is into this near-vacuum that the polytechnic has stepped, launching its short course programme in March 1997 and its first academic courses for full-time students in September.

Against international competition the polytechnic was established by the DCCI in January 1997 to provide education and training to the community and employers in the public and private sectors in response to the growing need for vocational education.

Polytechnic director Sa'ad Medhat says: "The state-of-the-art facilities and strong links with the local and international business community will ensure that any prospective student will have access to the latest technologies, training and the most up-to-date working practices."

The first few months of the polytechnic's existence were a whirlwind of appointments, recruitment and - above all - accreditation. In April it was given approval for BTEC Centre status. Its core activities include BTEC HNC/ HNDs in business management and finance, information technology and engineering, media studies and travel and tourism.

As well as courses from foundation level through diploma to masters level, the polytechnic offers short courses, seminars and workshops in business management, finance, hospitality management, tourism, computing and industrial engineering. Student numbers are 350 and rising. The polytechnic says it is "on course" for about 700 students by September.

Fees range from Pounds 1,500 a year to Pounds 3,400 for a full-time course. About a third of the students are expatriates from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, India, Germany, Russia and Arab countries outside the Gulf region. Just over 50 per cent are male.

In its short existence the polytechnic has swiftly developed a network of international contacts. Last June it signed a cooperation agreement with Bournemouth University, followed in October by the University of Central Lancashire and, the following month, by the Maastricht School of Management in Holland and Middlesex University.

Later that month the polytechnic signed a collaboration agreement with Hull University, under which it will offer jointly developed undergraduate and masters programmes in business management and finance, computer and management sciences, information engineering and management, environmental studies and tourism management.

The UK's vocational education and training systems are attracting attention elsewhere in the Middle East. Jordan is reforming its vocational education and training in the face of broadly similar problems, including rising graduate and youth unemployment.

Jordan's community colleges - roughly equivalent to further education colleges - are based on the North American model to provide remedial school-leaving academic courses and a range of other two-year diploma programmes to a local community. In practice the colleges attract students unable to get a place at university or employment while their diplomas are widely regarded as valueless.

Study programmes to meet the needs of industry and commerce are needed, and Jordan is looking to the UK for a lead. This March Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad of Jordan and Khaled Toukan, president of the new Al Balqa'a Technical University, visit Britain to study NVQ, CGLI and RSA patterns of qualifications.

The community colleges will become constituent colleges of Al Balqa'a, which will take responsibility for their development.

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