How Brits can bridge the Gulf

June 26, 1998

IT IS BOOM time in the Gulf and it is not because of oil. Higher education is growing rapidly. The rise in numbers of students in Dubai alone from the early 1970s to 1996 has been 766 per cent (40,115 in 1972 to 312,000 in 1997).

Lured by the prospect of lucrative overseas enrolments, United Kingdom universities have sought partnerships with local institutions.

But their propensity to "leave the details" to their partners has resulted in highly reputable UK institutions linking up with highly dubious outlets in the Gulf.

Such a practice has damaged the reputation of British higher education and allowed competitors from other countries to steal a lead.

The brutal truth is that UK institutions are too parochial, caught up in their own melee of academic policies and practices and lulled into a false sense of security by the UK's "student on a plate" system.

Marketing in a hard-nosed highly competitive arena comes as a major shock to most UK universities looking for lucrative deals.

Marketing higher education in the Gulf cannot be done from an office 2,500 miles away. Educators have to visit, learn about and understand the people and their culture, which permeates everything, including education.

With the ongoing increase in educational standards worldwide, the Gulf has become an international dumping ground for all manner of "academic" courses. These courses are delivered with little knowledge of the region, and all promise a panacea for career advancement. Such claims have allowed these operations to flourish and grow, while also undermining institutions' credibility.

For example, one UK university offers three doctoral programmes at the Dubai World Trade Centre. But its web page lists only one staff member to support these programmes, and that person does not have a degree.

Little over a year ago, the perception in the Gulf of UK higher education was that although it was intellectually rigorous, it was also rigid, staid and boring.

Changing the latter part of this image, while not compromising on quality or standards, has been a challenge, and one which both Dubai Polytechnic and the British Council have faced and won.

Teaching students who speak English as a second and sometimes a third language requires a fundamentally different approach.

Whereas in the UK, lecturers can be excused if ambiguities or uncertainties creep in, lecturers in the Gulf have no such luxury. Content must be clear, simplified, well-defined and contextualised for regional understanding.

With student attention spans at a minimum, modern and exciting pedagogical methods have to be developed.

Delivery has to be intellectually stimulating, interactive and most of all, it has to be fun.

Learning has been bolstered by technological advance. Interactive teaching and learning environments via the Internet and CD-Roms have acted as a catalyst to student-centred learning. This approach to educational delivery is radically different from the archetypal "chalk and talk" methods that have plagued education in the Gulf for decades, and have further exacerbated the impression of British education as being rigid and dull.

Distance-learning programmes are offered widely in the Gulf, and have grown rapidly in the past few years, although their suitability for higher education extends only to those participants whose English requires no additional tutorial support. For this reason, the expatriate community gravitates more comfortably towards distance-learning MBAs and bachelor degrees.

Concern, however, has deepened among the British Council and education officials about many of the distance-learning programmes. UK institutions wishing to market such programmes need to be more rigorous in choosing their local partners, and more worldly-wise in their overall approach.

In order to monitor the market, attract students and build a reputation, British institutions need to have permanent representation in the Gulf.

The United States dominates the overseas recruitment market because its education system is compatible with that of the Gulf, is perceived by students to be easier, while the US is heavily promoted to be a freer, friendlier and better country in which to study.

Whether it is with a view to enrolling students for study in Britain, or delivering their own courses in the Gulf, British universities need to sell themselves more aggressively. They should also learn how the education systems in the Gulf work.

For instance, school pupils in Gulf countries finish high school at the end of their 12th year, the same as US high school pupils. But this means they need a further year of study in order to reach the standard required to get into a UK university.

A barrier to entry is therefore instantly imposed on the student who has to decide between the UK or US. UK institutions can surmount this barrier by marketing foundation and access courses as a stepping stone to a high-quality degree, and emphasising the UK's reputation as one of the international leaders of academic provision.

In addition, UK institutions should address the issue of the transferability of Gulf students' qualifications both on leaving school and when they are older.

The Gulf is a potentially fertile market for UK universities just waiting to be cultivated.

Sa'ad Medhat is director of Dubai Polytechnic in the United Arab Emirates.

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