Challenges to preparing GCC national students for higher education abroad

dr-natasha-ridgeBy Dr. Natasha Ridge Executive Director at Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research and  member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

While the domestic higher education sector in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been growing and improving in recent years, there remains a strong desire on both the part of families and policymakers to send national students to study abroad for undergraduate and/or graduate study. This however, has not been an easy task and many students are only offered a conditional admission that usually requires some kind of foundation program. Through our experiences working with students and educators at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, we have identified four key challenges to GCC students being directly admitted into degree programs. These are: 1. Student proficiency in English, 2. Student career preparedness, 3. Student knowledge of overseas higher education systems and 4. Parental support for study abroad, in particular for girls.

Each of these is discussed below.

  1. Student proficiency in English– Probably the biggest challenge for many GCC students to overcome when seeking direct admission to universities in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada is English. At the Al Qasimi Foundation, we have a program for gifted national students who attend public schools and wish to study overseas. In our first few years, we admitted students from Grade 10 who had achieved high grades in their state school exams for Math, Science, and However, despite scoring 80 percent or above in English at school, when we tested the students using a standardized instrument, from which to extrapolate an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score, most students were only able to achieve around 3 or 3.5, placing them well below the required 6, 6.5 or 7 for direct entry into most programs in English speaking countries. Even with additional after-school English instruction for the next two years, on average, only 5% of our students were able to make the leap to a 6 or above on IELTS at the end of Grade 11, and thus be eligible for direct entry to university.

Across the GCC most national students receive at least four hours of English a week from the beginning of primary school but still lack mastery of the subject on graduation from high school. This is in contrast to national students who attend private schools where English is the medium who typically graduate with excellent English and are admitted directly into university programs. This, therefore, raises questions about the efficacy and efficiency of GCC public schools in facilitating the teaching and learning of English. Unless national education systems can improve their pupils’ acquisition of English, local students who attend government schools will be at a disadvantage compared to those in the private system when it comes to being directly admitted to college programs abroad.

  1. Student career preparedness– Another challenge facing students from the region is that they may have a limited knowledge of the range of careers that are available to them that would best fit their talents and interests. Government schools and national students are often guided by whatever the dominant discussion is in the local media in terms of national economic priorities. For example, in the UAE, we previously had a spate of students seeking to study nuclear engineering and now we have another batch who express a preference for ‘space studies,’ both of which are consistent with national policy priorities. However, when we asked these students what particularly attracted them to these professions, they were unable to give an answer beyond the certainty of employment should they graduate. When we asked them what they thought the degree entailed or exactly what type of work they would do, they were also unsure. In addition to being guided by national plans, many students also choose general business degrees, again without knowing what the degree is really for or how they will use it but with the assumption that it will lead to a job of some sort.

For some time, there has been a lengthy discussion in the region about students not being work ready. However it could be more the case that students are not necessarily choosing to study degrees that most fit their talents and interests and therefore struggle once they begin work. One way to address this issue would be to introduce more comprehensive career guidance and aptitude testing in schools. This would help students to think more broadly and creatively about their futures and see that they can contribute to the national vision of their country in a multitude of ways. In the UAE the MOE has already begun work on this and has been training and appointing career counselors across the country, and it is hoped that this will yield positive results.

  1. Students’ knowledge of the requirements of overseas higher education institutions– Many national students coming from government schools may have some general knowledge of the two most popular destinations for studying abroad, the United Kingdom and the United States of America (USA). However, they are far less informed about the higher education systems in these countries, the application requirements and the strict deadlines that are adhered to and enforced. In particular, they struggle with sitting for standardized tests and writing their personal statement/essay, something they are unfamiliar with. Many students do not understand the importance of the personal statement/essay to the admission decision and the time that is required in order to get it right. This may be due to a less onerous application process and/or a lack of competition for GCC nationals in domestic universities. Unfortunately, however, this means that students do not always grasp the importance of spending time and effort on applications to study abroad.

Further to this, many students do not understand the rankings of universities and which institutions their home country would approve for a scholarship and as such may waste time applying to universities in which they are not eligible for a national scholarship. With better career advising at school or through attending after-school college-prep programs, these kinds of misunderstandings could be avoided, and students would be better prepared and more confident about selecting a university and about the admissions process.

  1. Parental support for girls studying abroad– Finally, students, in particular girls, struggle with parental concerns about studying overseas. While this issue is not indicative of the entire GCC or of all parents, there does remain a significant reluctance on the part of some national citizens to send their daughters to study overseas, particularly if they are going alone. This is despite the expressed desire of many girls who say that they would very much like to go abroad to study. In our experience, while parents might be theoretically accepting of the idea of their daughter studying abroad, we have found that when it comes to actually applying and agreeing to send their daughter to the USA or UK, these parents become far less supportive. It is important to note that this is not limited to fathers, as we have experienced equal resistance from mothers not wanting their daughters to study away from them, particularly in the case of parental separation or divorce. In the cases where the student would be the first in their family to study abroad, there is, understandably, even greater reticence as there is far less parental understanding of what will happen and who will protect and care for their daughter.

However, as girls currently are the top performing students across the GCC, a shortage of women studying abroad (only 17% of all Emiratis studying in the USA are female), can become a hindrance not only to individuals but also to the labour force in general in terms of maximising the potential pool of highly qualified nationals. In our experience, it has been very important to spend more time with parents to help understand them and to address their concerns in order for them to feel more comfortable with sending their daughters abroad.

The education systems of the GCC have been steadily improving as countries across the region spend millions on education reforms, infrastructure and a multitude of programs to prepare national students for the world of work. However, with a shortage of top-tier domestic universities, there is both a demand and need for students to study abroad. At the post-graduate level, this is often slightly easier as admission requirements may not be as stringent, programs are shorter and the applicant has already had experience of higher education and/or work. Thus, the student is typically more mature and informed about their studies. However, for those seeking to undertake undergraduate programs abroad, there remain significant challenges, as discussed above, in particular for girls. For national governments that wish to create a cadre of well-equipped future leaders, these challenges should be addressed as a high-quality university education, either domestically or internationally, will be essential to developing these young people.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

Many sides of skills gap issue – what the universities can and cannot do

By Dr. Senthil Nathan, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance. The Context: Reasons for students pursuing higher education have changed dramatically in the past few decades.

Just one hundred years back, going to a university was considered an elitist privilege for a select few from the community. Moreover, the reasons for attending college were to do with the broadening of intellectual horizons for the students. Only a few high school graduates went straight to college.

In 2017, about 70% of high school graduates enrolled in college [1]. The ratio of college students to 18 to 24-year-olds increased 20-fold, from 2% in 1900 to 40.5% in 2017 [2]. University education is becoming a matter of automatic progression in the USA. Over a third of the working population, today has bachelor degrees or higher – this was at 5% in 1940.

The past few decades have also seen manifold increase in tuition costs and hence increasing student debts. In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased from $3,190 in 1987 to $9,970 (both 2017 dollars). [3]. However, from 1960 through 2015, the inflation-adjusted average starting salary for a new bachelor’s degree graduate increased only by 5.9% [4]. Student loan debt in the U.S. has now topped $1 trillion. Over 44% of recent college graduates are underemployed — working in jobs that don’t require their degree.

The issue of Skills Gap must be assessed by university, industry and political leaders with a profound appreciation of such a significant increase in access to and costs of higher education combined with stagnant starting salaries for fresh graduates.

Is the Skills Gap a myth or a reality?

A majority of employers – in the USA and around the world – cite the skills gap as a major reason for difficulties in filling vacancies over a long period. Employers also see this issue as a major threat to their business growth. The Manpower Group conducts annual Talent Shortage Survey with major employers around the world. Its 2016-17 survey shows that of the more than 42,000 employers surveyed, 40% are experiencing difficulties filling roles the highest level since 2007. The top 5 hardest skills to find are skilled trades, IT staff, sales representatives, engineers, and technicians. [5].

Skills gap skeptics in academia, social sciences and journalism – argue that the magnitude of the skills gap is overblown. A recent study from MIT Sloan School [6] found that less than a quarter of manufacturing plants had vacancies that had lasted for three months or more. This fact may be contrasted with the manufacturing industry claims at the time that 75% or more faced a persistent inability to hire skilled workers. As unemployment has been steadily declining since the recession peak of 10% in October 2009, these experts counter the argument that the skills gap was to blame for elevated unemployment then and today’s full employment counters the persistence of that view. Skills gap skeptics also contend that employers will always complain about their candidate pools as they adjust the job requirements depending on current labor conditions ensuring a perennial gap. They also point to stagnant salary levels and vastly declining apprenticeship opportunities in the USA as lack of employer responses to persistent vacancies. Typically, when the unemployment is low – as it is now in the USA – wages for in-demand skills should rise; but that is not happening. A New York Times editorial [7] painted a picture of suspicion on corporates, “Corporate executives have valuable perspectives on the economy, but they also have an interest in promoting the notion of a skills gap. They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development. They also want more immigration, both low and high skilled, because immigrants may be willing to work for less than their American counterparts.”

However, it is illogical to dismiss a consistent and majority response from widely different employers from different countries around the world with overly simplistic theories – calling Skills Gap as corporate fiction. Jan 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data [8] shows that 6.3 million jobs remain unfilled in the USA and even the best recruiters are struggling to fill those roles despite millions of people who “are willing and able to work.” This is a rather “disturbing trend” for recruiters. Even in my brief experience in searching for university presidents, provosts, and deans, I faced significant challenges in finding appropriate talent in spite of receiving scores of applicants from interested candidates for each of these positions.

The World Economic Forum’s Talent Mobility Report expresses this frustrating paradox of unemployment / under-employment and talent shortages/skills gap, “Many countries struggle with vast unemployment, underemployment and huge untapped labor pools beyond what can be attributed to the recent global economic slump. Yet, many industries struggle with significant talent shortages and skills gaps that are dampening economic growth.” [9]

Interestingly, there is increasing consensus among experts taking extremely different views on this debate on at least two keys to address the “skills gap” issue: 1) to improve access to apprenticeship opportunities and 2) to enhance learning and development budgets of corporate sector.

Why should the universities care? Universities cannot afford to sit idle on this debate or continue to ignore graduate employability and salaries. Increasingly, universities are being ranked on “Return on Investment” or ROI.

PayScale reports “Best Value Colleges” on 20 year Net ROI (difference between 20-year Median pay for the bachelor’s graduate and 24-year median pay for a high school graduate minus the total four-year cost of higher education). Harvard, a perennial #1 in world and US ranking lists, is ranked 26 in this ROI ranking while Harvey Mudd College takes on #2 rank [10].

Forbes has begun to rank “Best Value Colleges” [11] based on a formula that weighs six factors: Quality (25%) + alumni earnings (20%) + median student debt (20%) + on-time graduation (15%) + drop-out risk (10%) + Pell Grant recipients (10%) / gross tuition and fees. In this ranking, University of Florida is ranked #4 – just pipping Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

As this idea is spreading across the ocean, an UK consulting company “Expert Market” has begun to rank “Best value universities in the UK” [12] by cross-referencing the university expenses with the average income and opportunities available to students after graduating from each university. Loughborough University is ranked #1 in this list while many of the Russell group universities are missing from the top 25 in UK. Cambridge is ranked #12, Oxford at 52 and University College London at rank 54.

What can the universities do? Aside from the top-ranked universities in the world, most of the private as well as public universities and colleges must pay as much attention or more to graduate employability as they do for increasing their tuition and other fees. Universities and colleges must

  • Closely align their program offerings to the current and emerging demands from employers in their region. They must proactively seek effective and ongoing involvement of their regional employers in their program and course design. Traditional programs must be revamped to fit the era of technology-mediated
  • Increase partnerships with regional employers to increase apprenticeship opportunities for students. German experience clearly teaches the exceptional benefits of apprenticeships in minimizing the skills gap and the gap between expectations of employers and fresh graduates.
  • Revamping of curriculum and assessments may be done in line with meta-skills required for graduate success in the workplace. For example, the universities may switch from recording student achievements by letter grades / GPAs and transition to graduate outcome-based assessment reports and portfolios. When I was a graduate student at Rice University – in the 1980’s – the university used a practice of not reporting graduate GPA in the transcript – as they believed that graduate’s accomplishments must not be summarized or evaluated by a single number. (Rice was pressured to change this policy later as other universities and employers demanded to see a single GPA in the transcripts). Curriculum design and delivery must include many and varied learning opportunities for students to gain soft skills at the required competency levels. Curriculum design tools may include project-based learning, problem-based learning, community projects, applied research, work placement – co-operative experience and the like
  • Actively counsel students with program choices and careers, matching student aptitudes and interests with the selection of majors. Educate the freshman students on career prospects and average salaries of various program majors.
  • Measure, monitor and report graduate success and progression (employment or advanced education immediately upon graduation; career progression and salary details) as feedback to relevant faculty to validate or refine programs and courses.

What the universities cannot do? Employers cannot expect universities to produce graduates who can be productive in a specific corporate setting from day one. Specific industry induction, learning and development and performance feedback are the sole responsibility of companies and universities are not positioned to contribute much to the progress of entry-level graduates in these aspects. Most of the soft skills – teamwork, people skills, communications, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship and the like – may be introduced at the university but are best honed and developed at the workplace.

A partnership model: There is a yawning gap between local industry and businesses and regional universities. It takes consistent and sincere efforts on both sides to develop and sustain strong linkages that would greatly benefit the graduates, the businesses, and the universities – in that order


Senthil 2 copyDr. Nathan is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance.  Since the founding of the company in 2014, Senthil has been involved in numerous advisory & consulting projects for higher education institutions, and investment firms . 

He joined the Higher Colleges of Technology in 1993, the largest higher education institution in the UAE with 23,000 UAE National students. He served in a variety of positions and from 2006-2103 was Deputy Vice Chancellor / Vice Provost for Planning & Administration. He has been involved in numerous advisory and consulting roles in education / training & development engagements to a multitude of clients in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, The United States, Africa, and India and speaks on the current issues of higher education in the Middle East.

Dr. Nathan in 2014 received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the National Institute of Technology in India by the former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam and is a member of the Board of Trustees for Livingston University in Uganda.  In addition to his Ph.D. in engineering from Rice University, Senthil has completed executive education programs from Harvard and MIT.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.