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Teaching in Dubai: how it’s different from Canada

A Canadian academic decamps for the Persian Gulf, and a very different postsecondary system.

By CAROLYN WATTERS | JUN 08 2010

Chet Jablonski, now assistant provost, research and graduate studies, at Zayed University in Dubai and formerly dean of graduate studies at Memorial University, sheds some light on how the postsecondary industry operates in the United Arab Emirates.

Funding graduate programs

Although Canadian universities have challenged the federal government to provide more funding for research, everyone nonetheless agrees that Ottawa plays a role. Not so in Dubai, says Dr. Jablonski: “I have to run grad studies like a business … because the [UAE] federal government does not support graduate studies of any kind.”

Graduate programs are funded almost entirely from tuition fees, which tend to run about $30,000 for two years. By contrast, undergraduate education is free in Dubai. So what incentive do universities in the UAE have to offer graduate programs?

“They believe by building a graduate school, and providing graduate education, that it enhances the kind of faculty they can attract to teach,” says Dr. Jablonski. “And there is some spin-off by way of examples for the young women who, by and large, are undergraduate students.”

Gender relations in Dubai

Critics of the gender inequality that pervades many Gulf societies might expect campuses in the Emirates to shun women. But Dr. Jablonski says that is not the case. “The graduate programs are actually open to both genders and to nationals as well as ex-pats. But [for] the undergraduate programs, at least at my institution, it’s limited to Emirati females only.”

But when they graduate, do women get jobs? “They get very good jobs in government, in particular,” says Dr. Jablonski. “I think there is the vestige of the glass ceiling there … but officially the doors are open, unlike in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and in Oman and other [Gulf] countries.”

He adds, however, that when they’re applying for jobs, “females have to prove some degree of capacity, and I’m not sure that’s always a question asked of the males.” Men and women value education quite differently, too. “Males are not that receptive to education because they don’t see the benefits for job prospects or career income that females do. Females see it, and correctly so, as the door that opens the opportunity.”

So how does Zayed University attract women to its campus? “We do a lot of strong marketing … because there is so much competition,” says Dr. Jablonski. That means the school pursues all the normal advertising channels. But it also took out an ad in the Dubai Ladies Club magazine which, Dr. Jablonski says “is a first-run, glossy magazine for coffee tables, which will grace the tables of the wealthiest families in the nation.”

Another difference between Canadian campuses and those in Dubai is that “there is no tenure”, says Dr. Jablonski, adding that that faculty sign three-year contracts. Many are young professors and there are others nearing the ends of their careers, but “you have a dearth of faculty in the middle, where the real productivity is – the academic productivity.”

Disparity among faculty

People from other countries comprise most of the faculty at Zayed University. “We only have, I think, one Emirati faculty member. Finding Emiratis with PhD qualifications who want to teach and be at a university is pretty tough. They can do a lot better in government and elsewhere, so we tend not to get them.”

This disparity persists, adds Dr. Jablonski, despite a two-tier salary system that sees Emiratis get paid about 50 percent more than ex-pats.

On balance, Dr. Jablonski seems content with his migration from the shores of Newfoundland to those of the Persian Gulf. “I like it there. You feel quite at home, even though you’re in a Muslim country,” he says.

“There is a degree of respect [afforded] to faculty that you just don’t see anymore in North America, which is quite nice, and I think people have a hard time denying that.”

Yet, he adds, it’s not always an easy place to live. “There is a class structure there that is jarring for any Canadian, because you see the workers are not treated all that well, and that’s just a way of life which is not going to change.”

Listen to Carolyn Watters’

full audio interview with Chet Jablonski.

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