The 2014 University Survey, conducted over the course of February, resulted in just under 250 responses and revealed three primary considerations for students when choosing their destination for tertiary education: University reputation (8.44/10), cost (7.84/10), followed by the reputation and ranking of a specific course (7.47/10).
UAE students, like their international peers, are clearly looking at the immediate financial impact of university on their (or their parents) bank balance, but ultimately what matters most is the ultimate return on their investment - a degree that can set them on their chosen career path.
Other considerations for UAE students dropped significantly after the reputation and ranking of courses. The next highest entry was the "ease of entry" (5.2) suggesting a realism in how students in the country approach their university choices, the availability of a scholarship (4.96) and the ability to transfer elsewhere (4.84).
Those students choosing to study at campuses of international universities within the UAE, do so with one eye on the ability to transfer to the parent university at a later stage. The ability to do so is a significant advantage of international campuses over UAE specific universities according to the survey with almost all respondents saying it was the reason for their choice of an international university in the UAE.
Other considerations ranked included "being in the country I want to eventually work in" (4.65), the availability of funding (4.42) and to be close to my family (4.24).
Being close to friends hardly ranked, with an average ranking of contributors of just 2.95.
Mind the Gap
For UAE universities these weighted considerations are not particularly good news. When asked the question, "What if anything do you think UAE based universities lack compared to universities overseas, just 1.89% said "they don't lack anything" - that is, for over 98% of respondents universities in the UAE are found lacking compared to universities outside of the UAE.
(Note: UAE based universities would by definition include both UAE universities, and branches of international campuses based in the country. However, in truth, UAE branches of international universities are likely to fall between the two, with which side they lean on very much dependent upon how much of a genuine experience they offer.)
This is in stark contrast to the reverse of the question - that is, "What if anything do you think international universities lack compared to UAE universities, where 62.6% said "they don't lack anything".
Moreover where there is the biggest difference in perceptions of value is in those areas that seem to matter most to UAE students when making their university choices.
Universities in the UAE are seen as offering less credible quality degrees by 54.72% of respondents, while the faculty delivering courses is considered less able (54.72% of respondents).
Other areas of weakness of universities in the UAE include campus life which was chosen as a weakness by 47.14% of respondents, and the brand/reputation of universities in the UAE (chosen by 40% of respondents).
The only real area universities in the UAE have to work with on current findings is that they are seen as an opportunity to stay and work in the emirate.
In total 18.87% of respondents believe a degree from the UAE should be able to offer more "chance of securing a job in the country on graduation". However, this figure should really be significantly higher - and many respondents think an international qualification will ultimately serve them better in securing a valuable job.
According to the WSA survey, there is one dominant reason why UAE students head to university - "it is essential for a good career", an answer chosen by 64.45% of respondents. The next highest reason chosen was "The ability to specialise in a chosen field, chosen by 1 in 5 respondents.
This finding is particularly bad news for institutions in the UAE, because neither students nor parents that took part in the survey believe a degree obtained in the country will be as helpful as an international one when looking for a job - inside the UAE or outside of it.
In total 54.35% of respondents said recruiters value a locally awarded degree less than an international one, 34.78% said "it depends", 6.52% of respondents think they are valued equally, while just 4.35% think a UAE awarded degree is worth more.
Given the primary reason for going to university is to find a job at the end of it, universities in the UAE clearly need to address the perceptions of the worth of their qualifications to employers if they are to encourage more of the country's students through their doors.
"There is a growing sense of a divide between elite universities around the world and "the rest". But generally, employers judge overseas degrees from certain countries as enjoying higher levels of quality assurance and veracity", one respondent told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com.
Clues for UAE universities
So what can universities in the UAE do to begin to attract more students directly from the emirate's schools - i.e. their own market?
Some clues can be found in the subjective responses provided by respondents. For the question, "What do you think recruiters value specifically in a UAE based degree?", where there was a response (many answered with a variant of "no idea"), interviewees focused on cultural awareness, experience of a diversity of cultures, experience in the UAE, and Arabic.
The question for universities in the country is how much to they currently leverage any of these possible advantages? The answer is probably not enough. How many UAE universities offer Arabic language study to non-Arabic speakers as a core component of their degree course? How many place their students in UAE jobs as interns as part of their courses? How many have relationships with local employers and act as feeders of local talent? How many include on the job practical projects, sandwiched as part of their degree?
The answer to these questions is too few, and/or too little. However, if UAE universities really want to begin to take a greater slice of the business on their own doorstep, then they need to begin to think more about leveraging these local strengths and advantages where they can compete, and not trying to take on global institutions on global terms, where seemingly they are not – yet - able.
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About the Survey
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com ran its University survey through the month of February, and collected just under 250 responses from educators, students and parents.
WhichSchoolAdvisor's research team runs surveys regularly on its web site. If you have an idea for a survey you would like us to consider, please contact [email protected].