Sunday, 6 June 2010

An education vision with an eye on all Emiratis

Not all university students’ projects can turn heads. And yet this is exactly what one study by an Emirati graduate student at Al Hosn University has done in the past few days.

Thuraya Khalifa al Salmi’s study on adult education centres in Abu Dhabi has uncovered that a much larger percentage of secondary students are dropping out of high school in Abu Dhabi than originally estimated. As many as 51 per cent of students drop out, mostly due to social and economic challenges.

The results were quickly picked up by WAM, the UAE national wire service, and published across the country. Ms al Salmi’s findings can serve as a reminder to young Emiratis that their work will not go unnoticed if it is professionally resourced and executed in addition to addressing a social challenge. Her study also sadly serves as a reminder of the substantial challenges the UAE faces with regard to educating nationals.

Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 states that “the emirate intends to become a regional centre of learning and culture with world-class higher education institutions and schools in order to attract the best teachers and students”.

According to Ms al Salmi’s study, this noble and ambitious goal faces a major stumbling block. Also, unless this issue is addressed, Abu Dhabi may turn into a global centre of higher learning and education targeted only at visiting students rather than its national population.

Using Singapore as an educational benchmark, Vision 2030 also outlined the emirate’s desire to see an increase in the level of higher education its workforce received. The plan proposes to more than double the share of the Emirate’s population that holds a tertiary degree (undergraduate and postgraduate education) from 16 per cent, estimated in 2007, to 35 per cent in 2030.

The study by Ms al Salmi can serve as a wake up call for those implementing Vision 2030. In fact, the Abu Dhabi Educational Zone found in an earlier survey that the number of dropouts in the last year of high-school is not only high but is steadily increasing.

Earlier this year, Paul Dyer, a labour and demographics expert and fellow at the Dubai School of Government, told The National that some Emiratis drop out of school because older family members lacked formal education. He also cited the option of joining the military, which allows them to start earning money at an earlier stage to support their families.

The National also found that an Omani plan to deal with the high number of high-school dropouts (estimated at 7,000) did not meet with much success, as it did not provide educational facilities for those who dropped out because of learning disabilities or special needs.

When I was living in London three years ago I recall meeting Hamad, one of my nephew’s good friends, whose school in the UAE had bluntly told his parents that he was incapable of completing his secondary degree due to a handicap. His father contacted a specialised school in Manchester, which identified his so-called handicap as dyslexia. Hamad recently informed us that he will soon be graduating from university thanks to the simple fact that an instructor would read his questions out for him during examinations.

The UAE must provide high-school dropouts with alternatives to completing a high-school degree, including vocational training and back-to-school incentives. Ironically, some Emiratis still view the American General Educational Development, or GED diploma, as a more accessible alternative than the UAE Ministry of Education’s programme that provides night classes. Upon completion, the GED allows holders to access American or Canadian universities not only in the UAE but also internationally.

Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 education targets are quite ambitious, but attainable. And yet, it seems that in our rush to plan for the future, we are forgetting the present complex set of realities.

Vision 2030 is not solely an educational vision; it is a social promise to the people of Abu Dhabi and the UAE that things will only get better for them in the future.

In order to succeed, those who are implementing it must work hand-in-hand to plug all the loopholes that could jeopardise its success. The Vision must also learn how to walk before it runs, so to speak, since the challenges facing many young nationals are of an immediate nature.

For Vision 2030 to work, this ambitious plan must be brought back to the ground and made to work from the bottom up. As a start, it wouldn’t hurt to ask what the young Emirati who has helped bring the situation to light, Ms al Sami, what she thinks ought to be done.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 6th June 2010

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