SERIES INTRODUCTION: We too easily tend to think of other people’s education systems as being like our own, when often they are anything but. Higher Ed is actually a big and pretty strange world and, starting today, I’ll be doing some thumbnails of some of the systems I know best. First up, the UAE, where I’ve recently been doing some work on the funding formula for their universities.
According to the UAE constitution, education is exclusively a federal responsibility. There are three public universities, one “research” institution (UAE University, in Al Ain), one “liberal arts” institution (Zayed University, split between Dubai and Abu Dhabi), and one “polytechnic” (Higher Colleges of Technology, with 17 campuses). All are fully funded by government, as the country’s founding President, Abu Dhabi’s Shekih Zayed, apparently promised that anyone in the UAE who wanted a postsecondary education should be able to get one for free. So these three institutions, which collectively serve about 37,000 students, are completely government-funded, much like Scandinavian universities are.
One quirk of the UAE system is that while it has a higher education ministry, universities don’t report to it. Universities are actually independent entities which effectively report only to cabinet; the higher education ministry mostly busies itself with running overseas scholarship programs. They used to get around this problem by having the Minister of Higher Education be named in a personal capacity (but not as Minister) as the President of all three universities, but this is changing, as Zayed and HCT were recently given their own Presidents. The upshot of all this is that the UAE is one of the few countries in the world with less systems-thinking in higher education than Canada.
“But wait”, you say. ”What about the famous NYU-Abu Dhabi, or Dubai Knowledge Village and its many foreign branch campuses”? Here, it’s important to understand that the UAE is the only federation in the world where the constitution enumerates the powers of only one level of government. Yes, education is theoretically federal – but who’s going to tell a Sheikh what he can or can’t do in his own emirate? And so the seven emirates have permitted the creation, in parallel to the three federal universities (which are reserved for Emirati citizens), of about 100 universities of varying quality that serve Emiratis, ex-pats (the latter outnumber the former about 7:1, country-wide), and foreigners – and these universities are essentially outside the realm of federal policy-making. Again, this makes Canada look like a paragon of organization.
Apart from that, UAE is your typical Gulf country for higher education: nearly all the academic staff are foreigners on short-term (usually three-year) contracts. Profs get free housing plus $5,000/month or so, tax-free; their teaching loads are usually 4/3 or 4/4, and the research output is minimal. Public universities all have separate facilities for women and men; in the more conservative eastern emirates, families would likely not allow women to attend were it otherwise. In theory, graduates are all guaranteed jobs in the public sector, but these can take awhile to materialize, thus leading to a lot of graduate unemployment.
Sound crazy? Well it is, a bit. But then again, we look pretty odd to them, too.