United Arab Emirates Looks to Vocational Education
Sara Hadman, New York Times
November 23, 2013
For Musaab Abdo Murshed Al Maamari, continuing his studies after high school has meant striking out on a new path.
“All the male members of my family are in the police or the army,” said Mr. Maamari, 20, an engineering student in the United Arab Emirates. “I wanted a change. I didn’t want to follow. I wanted more, a different kind of job.”
But rather than going to a university, he signed up for a practical engineering program offered by the National Institute of Vocational Education, in Dubai. “I want to know that I have the real skills needed to get a job—and to be good at that job,” he said: “So I chose NIVE.”
Founded in 2006, the institute offers one- or two-year courses that aim to provide graduates with practical skills and qualifications and to prepare them to go on into international higher education if they should decide to do so.
The United Arab Emirates suffers from chronic, structural weaknesses in boys’ education. A striking 25 percent of emirati boys fail to complete high school, according to 2012 statistics from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai.
Dropouts tend to find jobs in the military or police. Reflecting the school dropout rate, only 30 percent of university students are male; fewer still graduate.
Meanwhile, unemployment rates among emiratis stand at about 12 percent, according to a report by the independent research group the International Council on Security and Devlopment and a separate study by the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia. A study by the consulting firm Deloitte concluded that while jobs are available, students are not graduating with the skills needed.
“While the U.A.E. has built a strong perception as an educational hub, there remain some important work force supply and demand gaps in a number of industries including energy and healthcare,” said Emmanuel Durou, a consulting director at Deloitte Middle East. The hope is that vocational studies may help to fill those gaps.
“For those who have dropped out of school, one has to ask why,” Naji Almahdi, director of NIVE, said by telephone. “Our current education system does not yield itself to the individual, which is why vocational study is important: it gives students more choices and therefore, greater chances of success.”
Other vocational studies institutions have opened in the last two years. The Abu Dhabi Center for Technical and Vocational Education and Training was established in 2010 by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and will have opened nine schools by the end of this year. Four are now fully operational.
Still, “vocational and technical education certainly doesn’t have its fair share of the education market in the U.A.E. yet,” said Leila Hoteit, an education consultant at Booz & Company in the United Arab Emirates.
In countries like Finland, 50 percent of the children who go into secondary schooling choose some form of vocational or technical option, she noted.
Emiratis historically were traders and merchants, with a tradition of the practical skills that go with seafaring.
“Many of these emirati boys are very tactile and interested in carpentry — there’s a strong history of woodwork and crafts in the Gulf and we’ve lost a lot of these skilled trades,” said Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.
“Vocational studies would be a great platform for them to revive this tradition and perhaps learn to set up their own businesses in fields they are interested in, spurring entrepreneurship.”
The trend toward vocational training has spread across the emirates and across grade levels, with two technical high schools opening in the emirate of Ajman in August. The Institute of Applied Technology at the Ajman Technical Complex has already admitted 250 eighth-grade students at two campuses—one for boys and one for girls—bringing the total number of technical high schools in the emirates to nine. Most vocational and technical courses, however, are at post-secondary level.
In fact, the Higher Colleges of Technology, founded in the emirates 25 years ago, now educate about 20,000 students on 17 campuses, making them, taken together, the largest higher education institution in the emirates. But a move in recent years to raise admission standards resulted in a sharp drop in new entries, to just over 4,200 last year from about 8,000 in 2010, according to a report this year by the Oxford Consulting Group. For this year, the number of admissions rose slightly, to 5,479.
“There is a stigma attached to vocational study, people think of it as the alternative option if you don’t get the right marks to get into university,” said Mr. Almahdi of NIVE. “But we’ve got to clarify that it’s one of the main courses on the menu — this diversity of options is what will strengthen our economy.”
To that end, the National Qualifications Authority was established in 2010 as a federal body to set guidelines for national academic standards across all levels of education in the emirates.
The Higher Colleges of Technology, meanwhile, have been updating their course offerings to make them more attractive. “We are introducing new programs, such as an applied diploma in retail, to give students more options,” said Sam Shaw, a deputy vice chancellor.
Dr. Ridge said, “I don’t think young emiratis are fully clear on what vocational study means yet and they certainly won’t go for it if it is touted as an alternative option where the less academically inclined students are encouraged to go.” Still, she said, “this latest push has been ramping up for the last five years and it does change the educational landscape in the U.A.E.—and it’s just the start.