Archive for May, 2010

The following article was published this week in BusinessWeek:

John Sexton’s Global Campus Plans for NYU

While plenty of this piece is devoted to relating New York University’s rags-to-riches story over the past few decades, much of it focusses on the recent expansion in the form of an Abu Dhabi branch, set to officially open its doors in Fall 2010.

If you don’t relish reading through the entire article, here are a few highlights:

Along with paying all costs associated with the university, Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, will reimburse NYU for the cost of replacing NYU faculty who relocate to the Middle East. Abu Dhabi has also made a $50 million unrestricted gift to NYU. Sexton describes it as a “gesture” rather than part of the agreement.

Some faculty are concerned that the school’s growing dependence on oil money will affect academic freedom, says Andrew Ross, an NYU professor of social and cultural analysis. The flashpoints are Abu Dhabi’s lack of diplomatic relations with Israel, its intolerance of homosexuality, and its treatment of migrant labor, says Ross, president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Sexton says Israeli professors will be able to travel to the campus, as well as gay students and teachers, and NYU is monitoring labor practices.

NYU will raise its standards in Abu Dhabi, not diminish them, Sexton says. NYU Abu Dhabi will be so choosy that students accepted there will be “clearly admissible to any college or university in the world,” and its faculty will include Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, he says. “We are very confident we can sustain the quality, not just for this year or the next five years but literally for the generations,” Sexton says.

I hate to say it, but I smell something unpleasant here.  When I read words like “paying all costs associated with the university” and “$50 million unrestricted gift,” I have a difficult time really believing that “NYU Abu Dhabi will be so choosy” or that academic (as well as personal and political) freedom won’t be compromised when some wasta-wielding student complains about not receiving an admission offer, being offended by the course material, or receiving a grade lower than he was expecting.

You see, academic freedom is compromised here in the desert — for all sorts of reasons, but mostly due to a heavy dose of close-mindedness (Hey, I’ve had students tell me that Hitler was a great guy.  Really.) and an even heavier dose of getting what one wants via money and connections (along the lines of ‘fail me and I’ll see that you lose your job’).

It’ll be a great day if NYU Abu Dhabi can say that it’s 100% immune to the problems plaguing virtually every other higher education institution here, and that its standards haven’t been compromised, but right now I keep thinking that all that lovely money isn’t coming cheap.


Hechinger, J. (27 May 2010). John Sexton’s global campus plans for NYU.  BusinessWeek. Retrieved (29 May 2010) from: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_23/b4181072514193.htm

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This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy piece on UAEU and its provost Wyatt Hume:

Money proves elusive and progress difficult at United Arab Emirates U.

This seems to be one of the first articles in The Chronicle that is entirely devoted to the goings-on at a local university (as opposed to a branch campus of a US institution), so I encourage you to read it.

Then have a look at the comments (all 35 of them, as of today).  In a land where secrecy agreements prevail, academic freedom is somewhat less than free, and faculty are fearful of speaking out, it’s refreshing to see such candor.


Mills, A. 23 May 2010. Money proves elusive and progress difficult at United Arab Emirates U.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved (26 May 2010) from: http://chronicle.com/article/Money-Proves-Elusiveand/65658/key=SGt1cFRsNSFNZXA3cndBKHdVPiF9Jkp8PnNFNi4aZV5d

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No, that wasn’t a typo, but a response to today’s headline (courtesy of The National):

Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill

(as if this is news to anyone involved in education over here)

What it IS, is yet another article in the paper’s education section talking to us about how poorly prepared students are for university curricula,  how the “goverment efforts [what efforts?] to end the need for remedial English and maths courses…have had a minimal effect so far” (Lewis, 2010), and how more school reforms are needed because students still can’t write a sentence or add simple fractions after 12 years of school (and no, that is not an exaggeration of the facts).

Let me tell you what I think is needed.

Hire real teachers and give them two things:  autonomy and protection.  Trust them to teach what needs to be taught without oodles of oversight from the M of Ed (who evidently isn’t doing such a hot job of overseeing).  Then shield them from irate parents and students who are willing to go on a mission to deport the poor teacher if Johnny doesn’t get the grade he thinks he deserves (and believe me, in most cases, he’ll always think he deserves an A).  Assess faculty on the basis of how well they teach, not how many students like them, and not how many students pass.

Because here in the desert, it’s not unusual for F to stand for ‘Fired’.


Lewis, K. 25 May 2010.  Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill.  The National.  Retrieved (25 May 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100525/NATIONAL/705249818/1019

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I saw a shocking story in yesterday’s The National about the substandard learning experience of high school students:

RAK students grateful for second chance

Note, in particular, the following statements from one of the young women interviewed:

“I will tell you about English class,” Ms Mohamed said. “I still laugh about it. They would give us 12 paragraphs and tell us ‘You will have an exam with three, so memorise them’. So I memorised 12 paragraphs and understood nothing.

“We told our teacher, ‘We don’t understand’. She said, ‘It’s usual not to understand’.”

I just don’t know what to say about this.

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Number, please

Some recent postings on the teaching forums here in the ether prompted me to have a closer look at admissions requirements for a few local universities, specifically the English proficiency requirements.  Not being an English teacher, I’ve heard multiple references to the TOEFL (American standard) and IELTS (British standard) during my tenure here (and, perhaps more revealing, I’ve actually seen the proficiency levels first hand).  But the numbers themselves remained little more than Applestats (the statistic, which, without context, is about as meaningless as saying ‘apple’).  Until now.

The first task was to take a quick look at the minimum TOEFL iBT (internet-based test, as opposed to the paper test which is on a completely different scale) requirements for admission to the universities on my links list.  Here are the results:

Institution TOEFL iBT Raw Score
Abu Dhabi University 61
Al Hosn University 61
American University of Dubai 79-80
American University of RAK 61
American University of Sharjah 71
Higher Colleges of Technology 80
Khalifa University (KUSTAR)** 79
Mich. State University, Dubai 79
NYU Abu Dhabi no min.
Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi n/a (French curriculum)
Petroleum Institute 61 (79 for non-Emiratis)
UAE University 75
Zayed University 61
**KUSTAR raised its minimum requirements from 61 on the TOEFL iBT and 5.0 on the IELTS quite recently. A 12 May 2010 Google cached page contains the lower numbers.

Right. This is, in fact, about as interesting as writing in ‘apple’, ‘orange’, and ‘kumquat’ in some of the cells.  So let’s have a look at the context, courtesy of the Educational Testing Service’s Test and Score Data Summary for 2009 (ETS, 2009).

The TOEFL iBT comprises four sections (reading, listening, speaking, and writing) with a maximum score of 30 points each, so the maximum score for the entire iBT is 120.  This in itself adds a little more meaning to ’61’, but we can dig even deeper, as the ETS offers mean scale scores by native language (note that the mean for the English native speaker category is 88):

Low (Bambara) High (Dutch) Arabic
49 101 70

and by country:

Low (Mali) High (Netherlands) UAE
57 101 64

To be fair, we can also examine the mean scores in the mideast context only:

Low (Qatar) High (Lebanon) UAE
61 81 64

(Note that the highest mideast mean is actually 94.  See if you can guess which country claims it.)

And finally, to put all these numbers in perspective, here are the percentile ranks for TOEFL iBT scores (undergraduate-level students):

Total Scale Score Percentile Rank
120 100
116 99
112 96
108 92
104 86
100 80
96 74
92 68
88 62
84 55
80 49
76 43
72 37
68 32
64 27
60 22
56 18
52 15
48 11
44 9
40 6
36 4

Now we’re cooking with gas (instead of apples).  And what we see is that the majority of UAE tertiary institutions are admitting freshman with English proficiency scores in the 23-26 percentile rank (considering the population of all TOEFL iBT test takers).

Still, this isn’t quite enough context.  To really understand what these numbers mean, we need to ask what the minimum TOEFL requirements are not just here in the UAE, but at institutions in English-speaking countries.  The ETS conveniently provides us with this information for several such undergraduate programs:

Institution Minimum TOEFL iBT Score
Arizona State 61 (pre-professional programs), 79 (professional programs)
Austin Community College 71
Boston University 84-91, depending on college
Calvin College 80
Carson-Newman College 79
Central Queensland University 79
Columbia International University 80
Columbus State Community College 54-55
Grand Valley State University 80
Lehigh University 85
North Carolina State University 79
Ohio State University 71
Savannah College of Art & Design 85
SUNY – Albany 79
Syracuse University 80
University of Arkansas 80
University of Denver 70
University of Pittsburgh 80
University of Toronto 100
University of Virginia 90
University of Washington 70
University of Western Australia 90
University of Wisconsin 80
Wheaton College (Mass.) 90

This is, admittedly, a lot to digest in one sitting.  But at least all the numbers are in one place.

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According to today’s The National, the American University of Sharjah has plans to launch a campus in Abu Dhabi next year.  This seems like pretty big news, considering the reputation of AUS.

The American-curriculum  uni will be offering Abu Dhabi based foundation programmes as well as vocational training and postgraduate courses.


Swan, M. (21 May 2010). American University to set up in capital.  The National.  Retreived (21 May 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100520/NATIONAL/705199891/1019

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It’s no secret that the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan includes a heavy push to develop a UAE national workforce in the engineering and technology sectors, and not a week goes by without seeing an article in one of the newspapers like the one in today’s National:

Technology -oriented schools to grow enrolment

True, the tech-savviness of a nation has a substantial role to play in its global competitiveness (see my earlier post), but every so often I want to hear about someone valuing a non-technical degree.  Today I got my wish.

Not one, but two (two!) articles have appeared in The National this week highlighting academic curricula that prepare students for careers in fields that don’t include the word ‘engineering’:

On 17 May, the Sorbonne was reported to be offering master’s programmes in museum studies and archive studies here in Abu Dhabi, as well as an upcoming graduate programme in the performing arts. (Unfortunately, the Sorbonne should probably be offering a degree in web design, or at least hire someone competent, as its site is by far the least user-friendly on the local academic scene.)  But web snafus aside, it’s refreshing to see this non-technical (and highly relevant, given the Saadiyat Island Cultural District Master Plan) academic opportunity here in Abu Dhabi.

The second piece, in today’s The National, reports on the 22 students in Zayed University’s Diplomatic Academy (rather unfindable on the Zayed U site, but one can read about it, and other ZU intitiatives, here).  Again, I find it heartening — particularly when I read words like “wide range of skills” and “broad knowledge base.”

Amid my growing concerns about higher education being turned into little more than a trade school, these words, if they’re to be taken seriously, are music to an academic’s ears.

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