By 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Edu 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.