Archive for April, 2010

Lost in translation?

On 3 April, 2010, the National ran the following:

Sorbonne Abu Dhabi overhauls its bachelor’s degree programme

This doesn’t seem like very earth-shattering news, at least from the headline, as I’m sure the overhauling of degree programmes is a pretty routine thing.  But something struck me as a little weird.

According to the article, the executive director of Sorbonne Abu Dhabi said “subjects such as history, philosophy, literature and art history would merge, beginning in the autumn.  The curriculum will remain unchanged.”


First of all, how do we ‘merge’ history, philosophy, literature, and art history?  Do we eliminate a bunch of 101 courses in each discipline and create a brand new course called History, Philosophy, Literature, and Art History 101?  Second, how do we do this without changing the curriculum?  Third, how do we merge these courses and still maintain bachelor’s programmes in the following — all of which continue to be described in detail on the Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi’s website?

  • Archeology/History of Art
  • French/Comparative Literature
  • History – Civilization and International Affairs
  • Philosophy/Sociology

Or perhaps we merge the four programmes completely into one?

I wonder how they say ‘bachelor of all trades, master of none’ in French?


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Today’s National ran the story

‘Two university campuses threatened with closure over quality test’

I don’t even know how to begin talking about this.

First, there’s the Dubai-based Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), an education authority created by decree 30/2006 “to improve schools and other human resource sectors in Dubai”1

Then there’s a board set up in 2009 by the KHDA called the University Quality Assurance International Board (Uqaib – the website http://www.khda.gov.ae/uqaib returns a 404 Error) that “(a) provides advice to the KHDA on HEP [Higher Education Provider] Branch Permits and (b) makes decisions for the KHDA on Program Validation.”2

We’ve also got the federal-level Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (could this be the first entity in the UAE that hasn’t been assigned an acronym?) and the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA — also federal).  The Ministry’s purpose is to

Develop knowledge, skills, globalization, integration, scientific research, quality educational systems, apply appropriate abilities and attitudes, community needs, environments that encourage learning, social responsibilities, to provide leadership in delivering excellent, accessible higher education for learners and enabling an integrated and dynamic approach to education, research and innovation; facilitate the provision of quality of Higher Education to the UAE community and to promote development in application of its outcomes in collaboration with all stakeholders; to ensure the orderly development of higher education in the UAE and maintain its high standard through the inevitable utilization of information and IT, and through proper guidance on resource procurements, utilization and through effective scientific evaluation and monitoring systems.3

The CAA’s mission is “to promote educational excellence across diverse institutions of higher learning in the UAE. Through licensure of colleges and universities, and accreditation of individual programs, the Commission strives to assure high quality education, consistent with international standards.”4

I don’t know about you, but my head is already spinning, and I haven’t even begun to dig into the US and UK accreditation labyrinth.  Uqaib’s (and by the way, why aren’t all those letters capitalised?) Quality Assurance Manual alone is 66 pages long, and quite frankly, I don’t think I want to read it in its entirety.  But it appears that the UAE has a number of entities involved in accrediting/licensing/approving/recommending higher education institutions (or individual programmes) whose power seems to depend on whether an institution is in a free zone or not, and whose missions seem to overlap.

With all these resources and lengthy documents devoted to educational quality assurance here in the UAE, can anyone tell me why, according to the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research’s website, NYU Abu Dhabi’s MBA programme was denied accreditation here?

The UAEMHER doesn’t explain, but it seems to rank pretty highly in the US.5


1Knowledge and Human Development Authority. (n.d.) “About KHDA”. Retrieved 13 April 2010 from http://www.khda.gov.ae/En/AboutUs/AboutKHDA.aspx.

2University Quality Assurance International Board. (2009). Quality Assurance Manual. Retrieved 13 April 2010 from http://www.khda.gov.ae/CMS/WebParts/TextEditor/Documents/UQAIB_EN.pdf.

3Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. (n.d.) Retrieved 13 April 2010 from http://www.mohesr.ae/en/mission.aspx.

4Commission for Academic Accreditation. (n.d.) Retrieved 13 April 2010 from http://www.caa.ae/caa/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabindex=1&tabid=60.

5U.S. News and World Report. (2009). Best Business Schools. Retrieved 13 April 2010 from http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-business-schools/rankings.

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From The National, 6 April 2010:

‘Students who fail should pay for college’

Although this piece focusses on the high number of females, and particularly Emirati females, who are denied a seat at federal universities here in the UAE (UAEU, Zayed U, and HCT, for instance), it seems to me that the problem extends to males and non-nationals, as well as to students in non-federal institutions.

Sure, these federal institutions were established with the mission to educate Emiratis and prepare them for employment.  I have no problem with that as long as there’s a healthy dose of merit-based consideration in who gets accepted in the first place and who subsequently advances.  The fact is, the current go-to-school-for-free-regardless-of-your-performance system really doesn’t benefit anyone:

  • excellent students are either prevented from studying at a given institution or intellectually hobbled when the curriculum is dumbed-down to meet the needs of the lowest performing students
  • faculty time that should be devoted to teaching necessary content (or doing valuable research) is instead spent delivering remedial sessions and engineering clever grading schemes so that abominably low GPAs on the part of local students don’t raise too many eyebrows at senior management meetings;
  • university reputations are (despite self-aggrandizing press releases) marred;
  • poor-performing students are sent the message that motivation and hard work are not linked to success.

In my mind, this news piece really misses the point, particularly given the ability to pay on the part of (in some cases) the worst performing students.  In a land that enjoys one of the highest per capita GDP incomes in the world, it doesn’t necessarily follow that forcing failing students to pay university tuition is going to ramp up motivation or even induce them to drop out and free up space for students who merit it.  If I were to re-write this article, this would be the new headline:

‘Students who fail should, after a period of probation, be dismissed from college’

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Where to start?

With over a year’s worth of news clippings, press releases, hearsay, and experience, it’s difficult to know where to start.  Posting a link to a nine-month-old article about NYU’s new Abu Dhabi campus seems wrong, but it serves as a necessary foundation for more recent news (particularly since NYUAD has begun to gather its incoming students out here for some meet and greet sessions, announced a few high-priced research initiatives, and is firmly set to open for business [!] in the coming term).  So you can expect to see a few references to news that isn’t really news anymore.

One way to tackle this mountain of material is to do what comes naturally to me:  create categories.  Here’s a first stab at that:

  • Education in the news
  • Working in academia
  • Curriculum issues
  • Students – readiness, performance, etc.
  • Education in a cultural context
  • Standards and accreditation
  • Research

There will undoubtedly be some modifications to the above, but it’s a start.

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Why this site?

Oh, let me count the reasons:

First of all, a quick search for blogs specifically geared toward higher education in the UAE doesn’t turn up much.  So there’s a gap.  Being an academic, I’m all in favour of gap-identification — it’s what gets you published, cited, and employed.

Second, there’s plenty of news posted on university websites.  But that’s under someone else’s control (and necessarily subjective).  Since I like control and truth (even more than filling gaps), I think it’s time to comment on some of this news and do a little quality control in the form of cross-checking with information from other sources.  Some of this commentary will be of a positive nature; some will not.

Third, given the issues frequently posted on the UAE/Middle East teaching forums in Dave’s ESL Cafe and The Chronicle of Higher Education, people continue to have questions and concerns about the state of education here, job offers, research initiatives, and so forth.  One goal of this site will be to collect and categorise a number of such questions and concerns.  And since I get to control the information and comments, readers won’t have to put up with the  inevitable diversions from topics and one-upmanship so prevalent on forums.  They’ll just have to put up with me.

I will try my best to be fair and honest, but the fact is that I know a lot of people and I read and hear a lot of things — not all of which are published in the papers, and not all of which will make everyone feel good.  There will be times when I’ll need to watch my step (remember, I’m not living in a democracy for the time being), so bear with me.

And welcome to Academics in the Desert.

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