Russel C. Jones, Ph.D., P.E.


Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research

Abu Dhabi, UAE






Attracting appropriate students into engineering and science study at the college level is a difficult challenge in most countries in the world today. Engineering study is difficult compared to other areas, and rewards are not as great as they were before the “dot-com bust”. In addition, the secondary school preparation of many students is currently less than desirable for entry into engineering programs in many countries. This paper describes what one group of countries is doing to address these issues.



Several oil-rich countries in the Middle East have come to understand that they must diversify their economies, utilizing significant amounts of the income from sale of their oil and gas to invest in future commercial efforts. In particular, several such countries are focusing on developing “knowledge economies”, by developing higher education programs that will provide the human capacity to initiate and support such new economic thrusts. High quality engineering graduates are a key component in building this human capacity.

But the demographics and local economics of the oil-rich countries in the Middle East provide significant barriers to attracting national students to challenging programs such as engineering. In some countries, only 20% of the population is nationals, with 80% expatriates. And those nationals educated locally are frequently poorly prepared in their pre-college educations, particularly in the language of instruction of engineering programs in the region – English. In addition, nationals often receive substantial financial support from their governments and thus have little motivation to pursue a challenging higher education degree.

Universities from Europe, North America and Australia are being attracted to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East to offer degrees in fields including engineering through branch campuses and other mechanisms. Attracting sufficient enrollments, particularly from nationals, is an issue for such efforts.

This paper explores the dimensions of the higher education scene in one Middle East country – the United Arab Emirates – and discusses steps being taken to attract students into the study of engineering there..



The attraction of students to prepare for careers in science, technology and engineering is a global issue. The attraction to these fields has dwindled just when increasing numbers are needed. Consider the following facts: 1

As oil-rich countries in the Middle East look forward, it is apparent that they must diversify their economies. The world market for oil is sensitive to the high cost of the products, and to the environmental damage created by burning such fossil fuels, so it  is looking toward alternative energy sources. That trend provides a wake-up call to countries currently heavily dependent on oil sales. Several countries in the Middle East have thus set national priorities on investing current revenues from oil sales into the development of “knowledge economies”.

Several countries in the Middle East are thus making substantial investments in the development of higher education systems which will provide the human capital to fuel such knowledge economies. In several cases, universities from abroad have been encouraged to provide higher education in Middle East countries by opening branch campuses or other delivery systems. Engineering and other technical fields are highly sought after for such programs. But attracting students to these programs, and those being developed locally, is a challenge.

The k-12 education system in many of the oil-rich Middle East countries leaves much to be desired. Graduates of secondary schools typically must spend at least a year in a “foundation program” prior to entering university level study, doing remedial work on their skills in English, math and science.

Countries like the United Arab Emirates are working heavily to upgrade their k-12 education systems, while at the same time providing various incentives to attract able students into key university level study areas such as engineering. The following section describes some of the practical efforts currently underway.


Practical measures

The leadership of the United Arab Emirates has established several practical mechanisms to attract students into high need areas such as engineering and technology. Following are several that are being found to be effective.

Make it a public priority: The leadership of the country makes it clear through the media that higher education is a national priority, particularly for native Emaratis. Young people are encouraged to develop an effective work ethic, and prepare for a career that will contribute to the rapid development of the country.

Appeal to their sense of values: Young people can be motivated to seek higher education in needed fields by appealing to their philosophical sense of values. The leadership has, for example, set a goal of developing green alternative energy as a way of diversifying the economy away from the current heavy reliance on oil and gas. Young people can relate to the need to reduce emissions that pollute the environment and want to be part of such a movement, The Masdar initiative2, which is using substantial funds from current oil sales income to develop alternative energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) is a prime example in this area.

Pay them to study: Students interested in earning degrees in engineering and science, and nationals in general, are eligible for free tuition, free room and board, and a stipend while studying at the postsecondary level. At the  UAE University, for example, eligible students get monthly stipends of 2000 AED in their first year, graduated to 4000 AED in their final year (1€ = 4.64 AED).

Company support: In addition to other financial support during their college years, eligible students can also glean support from the companies they will go to work for upon graduation. This mechanism guarantees them jobs upon graduation, as well as support while studying. The Petroleum Institute3 in Abu Dhabi Emirate is an example of this effective mechanism, where students are well prepared for targeted positions in the oil and gas industry after graduation.

Attract girls: The culture of the Middle East often restricts study and career paths for young women. But engineering and science are often seen as paths to productive careers for girls, and programs to facilitate their entry and progression are growing in the region.

Secondary School feeders: Pre-college education in the UAE currently leaves many students without adequate preparation for study in a challenging field such as engineering, particularly in English (the language of instruction in engineering programs), math and science. Technical high schools, such as the Institute of Applied Technology4, can provide a head start for study of technical subjects in English. The Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research is attracting IAT graduates to its engineering programs for that reason.

Newspaper ads: Local universities, both public and private, advertise heavily in the several Arabic and English language newspapers, hoping to attract appropriate students. In the local culture, the parents of college age students are particularly influential in steering their young people toward appropriate higher education areas, and newspaper ads and articles are effective in providing such parents with the information and the stimulus for the selection of engineering for their young people to study.

Education and career fairs: Major educational fairs such as GETEX (The Gulf Education & Training Exhibition) provide an opportunity for prospective students and their parents to explore career options and alternative educational institutions. Held each year at the major convention center in Dubai, GETEX focuses on three areas: Careers & Training, Education Equipment & Technology and Student Recruitment.

Contests: Contests in areas of interest to prospective engineering students can attract their interest and active participation, reinforcing their attraction to the field. The annual National Programming Contest and the annual Mobile Application Contest (unique mobile communications applications) are such contests popular in the UAE.

Send abroad: The UAE has programs to send top nationals abroad for study, including in areas of engineering and science. Such students are fully supported for their study abroad, and often return to the Emirates to leadership positions.

Coed option: Most public education at the college level in the UAE is conducted in separate gender programs. One new university, Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research5, is now offering coed programs at the undergraduate level, providing an attractive option to some students who see such mixed classrooms as good preparation for the workplace.

These several approaches to attracting students to fields such as engineering are currently in use in the United Arab Emirates. They have been stimulated by the aggressive economic development plans projected by the government, as described in such documents as “The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030”.6 Time will tell which prove to be effective.



Many countries desire more and better technical graduates in fields of engineering and science in order to provide the human capital to compete well in the current global economy. A particular subset of these countries, the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, has a unique set of challenges and opportunities in this area. With the substantial financial resources made available from current sales of oil and gas to the rest of the world, and the insight of national leaders who see the need to diversify their economies, such countries are finding multiple paths to attracting students to engineering and science.



1)      Linda Froschauer, “How Can We Attract Students to STEM Careers”, National Science Teachers Association. NSTA Reports, 2006 11-02.

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6)      Government of Abu Dhabi, The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Department of Planning and Economy, Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development, November 2008.