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Spinning Door for Professors May Hurt UAE Higher Ed, Researchers Find

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) champions itself as a hub of higher learning in the Arab world, drawing brand names such as New York University and hosting the world’s largest collection of branch campuses.

But the country’s state and federal schools are largely attracting transient expatriate staff who are on short-term contracts, work in institutions characterized by top-down decision making and have limited opportunities for professional development. Those factors could be harming the country’s quality of education, researchers have suggested.

“There is a lot of research that says that building a unified, cohesive, strong university requires the commitment and engagement of the academic staff,” says David Chapman, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota who conducted a study about UAE faculty members at state and federal universities with a team of researchers. “You have a vast preponderance of your academic staff basically mobile,” he says, “and the question then is: How do you build such a strong university system with such a mobile workforce?”

The “revolving-door nature” of academic staff is the main challenge facing the quality of education in the UAE, Chapman said. While it’s true that some faculty remain in the country on revolving contracts, the arrangements probably discourage serious scholars who want to develop a career and build a program, Chapman said. “There’s no guarantee there is going to be much durability of what they create.”

Moreover, the short-term nature of employment hurts prospects of building a research tradition. Serious research usually requires stability among the academic staff so they can build a laboratory, collect colleagues with similar interests, or start a research program and see it through, Chapman said. “That’s in turn a serious factor in impeding the development of graduate education,” he said. “The current policies would make it very difficult for a serious research agenda.” Graduate students tend to prefer to work at research institutions where they can get research experience and have their dissertation supervised by an active researcher.

The short-term nature of expatriate faculty members who work at state and federal institutions is rooted in a variety of factors, including motives for moving to the country that do not always reflect a commitment to their universities’ interests, research showed.

Researchers conducted interviews in 2011 with 38 faculty members—three who were from the UAE and 35 from at least 19 different countries. They found that 38 percent of the expats came to the UAE seeking adventure. “For this group, teaching in the Emirates offered reasonably good salary and benefits, a different culture, few professional demands outside of teaching well and, if married, a safe environment in which to raise young children,” says an article about the study that was co-authored by Chapman and published in Higher Education Policy, a peer-reviewed journal, last year.

Whether the faculty members were academic nomads or recent retirees continuing to work, they expected to move to another country, viewing the UAE as their current stop, the article said. And while they appeared “quite good at their work” and committed to students’ well being, they had little commitment to the institutions where they were working, the article said.

“Root seekers,” who comprised the second largest group, saw an advantage to teaching in the UAE because it was close to their families living in nations nearby. “Comfort seekers”—comprising 16 percent of interviewees—found the UAE to be an easier place to live than their home countries. “Redemption seekers” came to the UAE after encountering difficulties in previous jobs or difficulties in their personal lives, such as divorce.

“Nation builders” comprised the smallest group: Emiratis who sought to build higher education in their country, the study showed.

Once faculty members arrive in the Emirates, the institutional structures in which they work can impact their commitment and dedication to their institution, said Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, who also worked on the research.

While employment contracts in the UAE can be renewed, they are short—a maximum of three years, according to the article. And expatraties don’t have employment protections or ability to appeal job termination, creating widespread concern about job security. Many expatriates know former colleagues whose contracts were terminated and who were asked to leave the country in a few days.

“In terms of attracting and retaining talent you really need to provide a stable structure,” Ridge said. “The best faculty aren’t going to come somewhere where they feel they could lose their jobs tomorrow or can only have so much say in the institution itself or where the institution isn’t committed to them.”

Many study respondents said they avoided topics in their work that could be interpreted as critical of national or institutional policies, fearing they might lose their jobs. “There are certain topics that you can’t discuss,” said one expatriate instructor who works at a government owned and operated university, citing this as the major drawback.

Ridge also said existing structures don’t let faculty demand enough from students. “We’re not seeing students being pushed as much as ideally you would want to see them pushed or maybe held to the standard that you would really want them to be held to,” she said, adding there is a lot of pressure to keep the students happy.

Ridge said there is also a lack of high-quality research coming out of universities. “Clearly there are areas where people are doing really good stuff, but in general the lack of professional development has an impact on the quality of research.”

The instructor who works at the government institution said faculty members are only “given the appearance of professional development.”

“I don’t know anyone who comes to this part of the world to grow professionally, whether in research or other areas,” the instructor said, citing heavy teaching loads as the main factor restricting research time.

Still, the instructor said she has had a fulfilling experience so far. And others indicated dedication to teaching—regardless of when they plan to leave the UAE.

“For the most part people are really committed to teaching, so even if they are not going to stay, they are committed to the students and to the process,” said a professor who has worked at the American University of Sharjah for 14 years. “Whether it’s for two years or 20 years, I see good stuff happening in the classrooms.”

One Comment

  1. During eight years in the UAE – 3.5 at a national university and 3 at a private foreign university, I found similar volatility. In both jobs I had an excellent relationship with the administrators who hired me. When those administrators were replaced, their successors were eager to clean house. What had been good became bad. There was no way to appeal, no way for students to express their opinion of a faculty member, and nothing like a faculty senate or other body to act as a brake on administrators.

    Top leadership whether Emirati or in another country had no interest in what was going on. Only the appearance of progress counted, not the reality.

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