Globalized higher education in the United Arab Emirates – unexpected outcomes

Editor’s note: today’s guest entry has been kindly prepared by Dr. Neha Vora. Dr. Vora recently received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. As of Fall 2008, she will be Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at Texas A&M University. Her current research focuses on the dynamics of race, class, and gender in the United Arab Emirates and how they affect the large Indian migrant population. By focusing on the overlaps between state and expatriate discourses, she considers how migrants, who officially do not have access to citizenship or permanent residency, are often participants in the production of forms of exclusion and exploitation in contemporary Dubai. Dr. Vora also holds an MA in Women’s Studies from San Francisco State University. Her next research project will focus on the recent influx of American Universities into the Gulf Arab States, including Texas A&M!

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In 2006, I was in Dubai conducting research among the large Indian migrant community in that emirate. Several of my younger informants, it turned out, had attended branches of US-accredited universities, which were a relatively new arrival in the Gulf States. My research, which focused on forms of identity and belonging among differently situated South Asians, was mainly concerned about the question of what it means to belong to a place like the UAE, where despite family histories that sometimes go back generations, one has no access to citizenship or even permanent residency. I started to notice that almost all of my informants, while staking certain historical, cultural, and geographic claims to Dubai and the UAE, vehemently denied any desire for formal belonging. In fact, the exclusion of the UAE’s overwhelmingly non-citizen population was predicated in many ways on the participation of non-citizens themselves. However, one group of informants differed greatly in how they spoke about their status in the UAE, and these were the young people who had attended foreign universities in the Gulf. They were actually quite politicized. They spoke of themselves as “second-class citizens” and expressed anger at what they felt to be systemic discrimination against South Asians in the Gulf. And, surprisingly, they attributed their awareness of their own exclusion directly to their university experiences, at schools like American University of Dubai, University of Wollongong, and American University of Sharjah, among others.

In the last decade, the options for higher education in the Gulf have expanded. Higher education is one of the major focal points of non-oil development in the Gulf States, and it is of particular importance to the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. The American University of Sharjah (AUS), for example, is affiliated with American University in Washington, D.C. and confers a degree equivalent to a US four-year university. The proliferation of colleges like AUS (pictured to the right, courtesy of the AUS website) means that a large number of expatriate middle-class children, who used to have to go abroad for higher education (usually to India, Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK), are increasingly able to stay in the UAE through the time of their college graduation. Therefore, many South Asian young people I interviewed, unlike their parents or even their slightly older counterparts, had not previously considered the reality of perhaps having to migrate to another country to find work, settle down, and start a family. Here, I consider briefly how the recent influx of American and other foreign universities into the Gulf works to produce Indian youth as both parochialized South Asian and neoliberal transnational subjects, who in turn reinforce Dubai’s economic growth as well as the divide between citizen and non-citizen in the UAE.

Many scholars have connected the globalization of American universities with other trends in the university system geared at profit-making enterprises (see for example Altbach 2004; Morey 2004; Poovey 2001). In addition, there has been an increase in “market” language to speak about the university—students are considered “clients,” educational offerings “products,” and extracurricular and other options “value-added.” The marketization of education is by and large seen as a negative by American academics, who lament the contemporary commodification of higher education, part of which is indexed by the increasingly transnational nature of universities and the neoliberal orientation of international curricula. Gulf-based projects such as Education City in Qatar and Knowledge Village in Dubai seem to be prime examples of these processes, particularly in light of recent WTO negotiations to further liberalize the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which specifically includes higher education as a commodity service.

Gulf governments, faced with large demographic imbalances between citizens and expatriates, who make up the majority of the workforce in many countries, find foreign universities attractive because they provide educational opportunities for citizens that make them competitive both at home and abroad, and because they will potentially generate—after large initial investments—non-oil revenue. Foreign universities are also attractive to expatriates, who are barred from attending state schools. However, these students, particularly those who have spent their lives in the Gulf, are simultaneously inculcated into parochial national identities and an exclusion from the UAE nation-state. In addition, and perhaps conversely, the globalized American university, lamented by scholars as an erosion of the liberal ideals of the university, is providing space and opportunities for unexpected liberal politicizations and calls for rights by South Asian young people in Dubai.

When I asked Indian and Pakistani young people who attended these schools to talk about their childhood experiences, I learned that they grew up almost exclusively in South Asian social and cultural circles. Their family friends, their neighborhoods, their own friends, their schools, their leisure activities—these all produced for them a sense of Dubai (pictured here) as an Indian or Pakistani ethnic space in which they did not experience a lack of citizenship or belonging. Only in the university setting, when they began to interact with Emiratis and other expatriates, often for the first time in their lives, did they seem to develop a greater sense of the citizen/non-citizen hierarchy and the fact that they were in fact foreigners in their home. The university was a space in which all students were technically on equal footing—they had equal access to facilities, they excelled based on grades and not ethnicity, and they interacted socially with a wide range of different nationalities and ethnic groups. However, it was the very space of the academy that highlighted to my informants their difference from other groups, for they experienced direct racism and practices of self-entitlement from their peers.

While primary and secondary education in the UAE tends to follow national lines, higher education is very diverse. AUS, for example, is home to students from over seventy nationalities. For almost all of the students at universities such as this one, diversity is experienced up close in ways that it has not been before, even though they have lived their lives in a very international space. In Dubai, social, cultural, geographic, and work spaces are very segregated and defined by systemic inequalities. By entering a university space that is modeled, in most cases, on American academic institutions, these young people are placed on equal footing, at least theoretically. However, my informants recounted many incidents that made the transition into this type of egalitarian space very interesting and sometimes difficult. All of the young people whom I spoke to about being South Asian in Gulf universities told me that the thing they found most difficult was the behavior of Emirati and other Gulf Arab nationals. In our conversations, they spoke of incidents in which “locals” would cut in front of them in the cafeteria line, would expect them to share their notes and even their homework, and would speak in Arabic in mixed Arab/non-Arab social gatherings in ways that made them feel excluded. It is unclear just to what extent the social hierarchies outside of the university impact what goes on in the university itself, but while students are afforded more equality than they would be under the UAE’s legal system or in the workplace, there are inevitably ways in which these distinctions between groups seep into the university setting. AUS is an excellent example. The university, with which I was affiliated during my fieldwork, was definitely more open to the study of expatriate groups in the UAE than national universities would have been. AUS seemed happy to sponsor my residency and the professors I spoke to in the International Studies department were interested in my topic. However, after spending many days at AUS, I began to see some unique entanglements of American academic ideals and UAE societal structures.

While AUS has a stated policy of non-discrimination, houses students of all nationalities together, and attempts to enforce egalitarianism in terms of grades and even rules against cutting in line, the staff and faculty pay structures are still nationality-based. Of course the university has an official stance on fairness, but several people I spoke to at the university, both white and Indian, told me that Indians get paid less for the same jobs, particularly administrative positions. The low-wage work such as landscaping and cleaning is almost 100% done by South Asians.

Because AUS is in Sharjah, it also follows some of Sharjah’s strict decency laws. Men and women are housed in separate dormitories on different sides of the campus and women have a curfew that they have to follow or they are reported to their parents. In addition, tank tops and short skirts are banned from campus, as is any public display of affection between men and women. In the classroom itself, which often has members of the ruling families as students, faculty members do practice a certain amount of self-censorship. They do not criticize social and economic hierarchies in front of their students because they never know how influential or connected their students might be. While American universities exist in the Gulf, tenure, if available, is tied to US home universities, and jobs are bound to visas that can be revoked at any time for any reason. Classes at these universities teach Islamic cultural history and Gulf Studies, but they do not provide much information about expatriate communities or their histories in the Gulf. Professors also told me how divisive the classroom can become when they broach topics such as migration, so they tended to tread very lightly or avoid such topics altogether.

Experiences such as the ones above, inside and outside of the classroom, were the focus of my informants’ narratives about their feelings of being “second-class” in the UAE. Ironically, it was the egalitarian platform of the university, and not the segregated environment of their childhoods, that showed them the realities of inequalities in the UAE. For these young people, then, the university experience was doubly unsettling—they had to face the impending realities of perhaps settling outside of the Gulf, and they had to face the knowledge that they did not belong in the place where they felt most at home.

This personal politicization is an unintended consequence of the private university system in places like Dubai. So, as more and more South Asian migrants raise their children in Dubai, and my informants themselves start families in the Gulf, what impact will the growing number of international universities have on the Indian community? These young people were among the first to experience not having to go abroad for higher education, and despite their sense of being temporary, many were settling down (without feeling “settled”) in Dubai. In fact, some had already procured jobs in Dubai or taken over their fathers’ businesses. The sense of insecurity and the idea that they would have to move abroad did not translate to an actual move in many cases. However, the tenuousness of their lives in Dubai hindered actual assertions of political belonging.

I left Dubai feeling that the “system” was less fixed than I felt when I arrived. The differences in politicization between young Dubai-born Indians and those in their parents’ generation were stark. These young people spoke of citizenship and rights with a sense of injustice and entitlement, and in so doing, they laid claim to Dubai in ways their parents did not. The opportunity to remain in Dubai uninterrupted, as it becomes the norm for middle-class South Asian families, might increase these feelings and lead to forms of resistance and activism that the young people I interviewed did not presently consider a possibility. And the demographic impacts of expatriates who are educated in the Gulf are unclear. On the one hand, citizens have access to more education and training; on the other hand, expatriates who do not ever have to leave may begin actively to assert belonging in the domains they previously accepted as unavailable to them, like the nation.

Neha Vora

5 thoughts on “Globalized higher education in the United Arab Emirates – unexpected outcomes

  1. Neha,

    Thats an interesting dissertation topic. I am not sure whether you are aware of but quite a few Indian universities are opening branch campuses in Dubai. These universities cater to Indian and expat Indian students. It will be interesting to study the interaction between these two type of students.

  2. Hi Neeraj,

    I agree that the influx of Indian universities is definitely very interesting. I’m wondering what the incentive would be for Indians to go from India to attend these schools when they could just do so at home. My impression is that these schools are for the expats living in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East. Do you have more information on that?

    Neha

  3. Hello Neha

    You need to be congratulated for a nice and succinct article. I enjoyed reading it and the comments posted thereafter.

    I happened to stumble on your article as I was looking for academic positions (University Lecturer, Asst Professor etc) in the Gulf. I possess a PhD in Structural Engineering from a reputed university in Australia and was wanting information on the salaries one can expect for university teaching positions in the Middle East. I hold dual citizenships (Indian and Australian) and was considering the prospect of teaching in the Gulf.

    What would your advice be (both in terms of pay as well as the issues you have mentioned in your article).

    Neeraj, I would be happy if you could provide some insights too.

    Thank you again

    Kind Regards,
    Harsh

  4. hi neha,

    that was a very interesting article as were also the comments (as harsh said)
    i recently moved to the uae.i have a 10 yr old son who goes to an international school here.considering what you have observed,i wonder if an international school setting with its children from different countries,would help to produce more understanding and tolerance among the students.

    warm regards,
    sujatha

  5. Pingback: What the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Thinks About Globalization | Globalization101

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