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Are Private Universities Worth the Money?

This article is one in a three-part series that examines the growing role and impact of private universities in the region. The other articles are “Qatar’s Private Universities Are the Most Expensive in the Region” and “Private Universities Thriving as Public Ones Weaken.”

Tens of thousands of dollars in tuition doesn’t guarantee a job or even a good education for a student who decides to go to a private university in an Arab country.

Quality among institutions varies widely, and not always in proportion to the cost, experts on regional higher education say. Some families walk away a great deal poorer and unhappy with the education their sons and daughters have gotten. But those students who attend an institution with strong teaching and good career counseling say they are satisfied. (See a related article Private Universities Thriving as Public Ones Weaken)

In Beirut, Amani Dakkak’s family paid a whopping $55,000 for her to receive a bachelor’s degree from a private university. Ultimately, she decided “it’s good to be a graduate from a private university here in Lebanon.”

That’s because she was able to secure a job after graduation, sometimes receiving university e-mail messages notifying her of up to five employment opportunities at a time. That, she says, was very helpful.

Other students also say that one of the main benefits of attending a private university is the help they get making the transition to the workplace.

In Doha, Abdulrahman Sajid, a student who attends the College of the North Atlantic, says private universities offer job fairs and networking events that make it easier for students to find jobs than if they graduated from the nation’s only public university. “We get internships during our study, which are very helpful in entering the job market with more practical skills,” he said.

With most Arab universities not collecting employment data on their graduates, of course, there is only anecdotal evidence that private universities have better placement rates, which also vary widely by institution.

Take the case of Lebanon, for example. A lot of for-profits were offering business and computer science education there in the 1990s, when private education started exploding across the region, says John Waterbury, a former president of the American University of Beirut. It wasn’t difficult to rent a couple of floors in a building, put in a bank of computers and recruit professors from public universities who were looking for additional income, he said.

At a well-known private university in Jordan,  students have to sit on the floor. (Courtesy of Thabahtona)

Students were willing to pay, but the educational quality was extremely low, he says. The market remains “dynamic and unregulated,” he adds.

The situation is similar in other countries. At a well-known and expensive private university in Jordan, students attending class last semester had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs in the classroom, a photo e-mailed to Al-Fanar Media by the Jordanian National Campaign for Defending Students Rights showed.

“This photo is not an exception,” said the campaign in a press release. “We could pick up dozens of similar images in many private Jordanian universities. It’s due to the big influence of the universities’ owners, so no one dares to ask them about giving priority to academics as opposed to profit.”

Across the region, however, there are plenty of exceptions, with many institutions set up as nonprofit organizations. One is the American University of Sharjah, established 17 years ago and located in the United Arab Emirates. It has managed to rise as a leader in higher education in its region, Waterbury said. “A lot of Gulf universities that are affiliated with the U.S. or other foreign institutions are—on the whole—pretty good.”

Mechanical engineering student Asra Al Suwaidi agrees. “From my perspective, a private university strengthens a person’s use of English,” said the Emirati student who attends the American University of Sharjah. “In addition to that, in private universities we really get to interact with the other gender. This helps us in getting a better understanding of the ways of interaction, unlike public universities where the interaction of opposite genders is rarely heard of.”

“However, I still think that the tuition is… very expensive,” she said.

Students in Lebanon can pay up to $14,000 a year for private university tuition. While the highest annual tuition in a country can be as low as $500 a year in Iraq, it can also climb to as high as $47,000 annually in Qatar.

In some situations, private universities offer an alternative to parents and students no longer comfortable with public institutions.

Student Clubs Day at the American University of Beirut (Courtesy of AUB)

“I studied at a public university, but I can’t enroll my daughter in a public university today,” said Kulthum Dekkaki, 41, an accountant in Morocco. “There is a noticeable decline in the education quality at public universities, in addition to harassment and lack of security.”

Bilal al-Dirani, 24, studied at the private American University of Beirut. “It’s not the academic experience, but the cultural and social experience you got from the university,” he said. “There is a large library and many interactive teaching methods.”

“It was worth it—I am sure,” he added, saying that he is now choosing between job offers.

In some countries in the region, students enroll in private institutions when their grades don’t meet entrance requirements for the public system. So the private institutions may offer opportunities for education those students wouldn’t otherwise have. The private system can also offer study in a wide range of disciplines.

Not everyone, however, is pleased with the cost of private education. In Lebanon, Ebtehaj Saleh’s two sons enrolled in a private institution. She didn’t think it was worth the difference in price from the nation’s only public university, Lebanese University. “But, here in Lebanon, the labor market prefers private university graduates,” she says.

In other countries, the opposite can be true: It is easier to secure jobs when graduating from the public system.

“Although I have a job now, I think that graduating from a public university is better as graduates could find jobs more easily,” said Zowena Mubarak, who sought private education in Oman because her grades weren’t high enough for a public university.

In the United Arab Emirates, many Emiratis opt to attend one of the nation’s three public universities, where degrees—unlike at private universities—are always recognized by federal authorities. That makes it easier for students seeking government work to secure employment. Some public academic programs are also developed in partnership with employers and the universities offer relatively good quality: the public United Arab Emirates University—which admits students from Arab countries outside the U.A.E. —ranked 71st in Times Higher Education’s BRICS and Emerging Economic Rankings this year.

That doesn’t stop students from looking at private education.

“I decided to attend a private university because I knew I wouldn’t have received the same quality of education in a public university,” said Nada Darraj, a Palestinian-American who graduated from the American University of Sharjah. She felt the university was expensive. But she started working in a good company doing a job that was in a field that she studied. That, she says, showed her the university was worth the cost.

* Contributing: Ahmed Mubarak Al Darmaki in Oman, Khalid Aitnasser in Morocco, Abeer El Sayed in the United Arab Emirates, Madonna Khafaja in Lebanon, Eman Kameil in Qatar.


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