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Many Gulf countries are home to foreign university satellite campuses, including New York University and Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates as well as Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Carnegie Mellon University in Doha, Qatar. Offering many of the same academic programs as their home bases and granting accredited degrees, these universities have welcomed students from all over the world for over a decade, with some recently celebrating over 20 years in the Gulf. While many commentators and academics in the Gulf and abroad have accused these higher education institutions of not contributing significantly to their host countries and not integrating large numbers of graduates into local workforces, others applaud their diversity and the opportunity for local residents to study at private, highly ranked institutions.
The most recent academic institutional collaboration in the region, announced in early June, brings the U.S.-based Minerva Project to the UAE’s Zayed University campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. According to Minister of Culture and Youth and President of Zayed University Noura Al Kaabi, the Zayed University x Minerva agreement intends to equip students with “enduring” and “future-proof skills” suitable for a rapidly evolving job market, by implementing an interdisciplinary curriculum. Much of the fanfare and excitement for the collaboration, however, has come from the leaderships of Zayed University and Minerva, leaving many current students, alumni, and faculty at Zayed University feeling apprehensive about the institutional changes ahead.
A New Institutional Collaboration
Founded by Ben Nelson in San Francisco in 2011, the Minerva Project is an educational technology innovator that creates pedagogical tools, such as its Forum Learning Environment software, and designs custom curricula. Minerva launched an online college based out of Keck Graduate Institute in California in 2013. The Minerva Schools at KGI was recently accredited and became Minerva University in August. Boasting a more selective admissions process, at least in numerical terms, than Ivy League universities – just 2% of the 25,000 applications received in 2020 were accepted – Minerva aims to change higher education by focusing on in-class discussions, collaborative projects, and engagement with local companies and community initiatives. Students attend classes virtually, on the Forum Learning Environment, while living in Minerva’s residential buildings in cities across the world, from Taipei, Seoul, and Hyderabad to London, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires.
Zayed University, Minerva’s home base in the Gulf, is one of the largest federal universities in the UAE. It was established in 1998 as a women’s college by the late Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the founding ruler of the UAE, and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education of the United States. Zayed University currently offers 26 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, many of which it plans to phase out over the next five years as it gradually adopts the Minerva pedagogical approach. By 2026, Zayed University x Minerva hopes to fully embrace curricula divided into “ways of thinking” rather than disciplines within its new College of Interdisciplinary Studies, headed by Dean Richard Holman.
The first phase of the Zayed University x Minerva collaboration offers three interdisciplinary undergraduate degree programs: business transformation, computational systems, and social innovation. These programs draw from various fields, including psychology, political science, and business, to teach students the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed in a world where critical thinking, creativity, and leadership are in increasingly high demand. Like at Minerva University, classes at Zayed University x Minerva are taught virtually on the Forum Learning Environment software, with Zayed University amenities and spaces available to students at all times. In August, the collaboration welcomed its first cohort of 125 students.
Initiative Runs Into a Buzzsaw of Criticism on Social Media
The Zayed University x Minerva collaboration has recently drawn much criticism from the Emirati community on Twitter in English, under the hashtag “save_zayed_university,” and Arabic. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor with 265,000 Twitter followers, expressed his discontent with the transformation of a national university into “experimental labyrinths” by a “foreign commercial platform.” Similarly, Sami Al Reyami, editor in chief of Emarat Al Youm, criticized Zayed University’s move to implement a nontraditional academic system at a highly esteemed Emirati university, arguing, like Abdulla, that such an institution is not the place for pedagogical experimentation. Just a week prior to their tweets, a poll conducted by The National and sponsored by Zayed University asked, “Would your friends and family accept a non-traditional university degree as a sign of success?” Out of over 14,200 votes received, 86% said “No.” Coinciding with the UAE’s recent announcement of benefits and subsidies to push more citizens out of either unemployment or the public sector and into private sector jobs, other individuals on Twitter expressed concerns that such a program will not provide the concrete skills necessary to boost private sector readiness among Emirati graduates.
At the root of many of Zayed University community members’ concerns is an unease regarding the potential failure of overhauling traditional academic programs and replacing them with a virtual and student-driven model. One current Zayed University professor interviewed by AGSIW, speaking on condition of anonymity due to work contract confidentiality rules, explained that while teaching virtually during the coronavirus pandemic, “student engagement disappeared.” The Zayed University professor added that, given the various constraints faced by students in turning video and audio on in their home settings, both at Zayed University and universities worldwide, “it would be difficult for a purely online platform like Minerva to force students to engage, and be on track as independent learners, and to have ready skills (going into their program) that allow them to navigate interdisciplinary learning.” In a July 2020 article published in The Guardian, Allison Littlejohn, a professor of learning technology at University College London, criticized Minerva’s virtual platform over “privacy and surveillance” concerns regarding how students are monitored on the platform and how their data is collected.
In response to the flood of concerned tweets, Zayed University tweeted about what it suggested was “misinformation” about program accreditation by stressing, “We would like to assure all of our students and community that Zayed University has and will always adhere to the rules and regulations of local accreditation institutions and the MOE.” The UAE Ministry of Education also tweeted in response that, “New majors and colleges are optional for interested students,” and that “Existing colleges and majors will remain.” It is unclear if the ministry means that the programs will remain just for the present cohort of students since the initial reports suggested they would be phased out. Ben Nelson also defended the Minerva model speaking at the October Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit, hosted in Dubai in association with United Arab Emirates University. Nelson insisted that local scholars and education leaders would be actively involved in the development of program offerings tailored to Emirati students and the local job market, adding that the speculation online was just “rumors from professors who are not involved with the program.”
Questions About Student Readiness for an Interdisciplinary Education
Zayed University claims that existing faculty will be trained in Minerva’s instructional methods. However, the Zayed University professor who spoke to AGSIW said, “I am not aware of any ZU faculty who are teaching at both ZU and Minerva. ZU faculty have been invited to apply to Minerva’s Zayed project, but we never received details about course offerings, pedagogical tools, or a presentation about what a simulation of Minerva teaching looks like, so I for one have no idea about what a Minerva class experience is like.” This professor also suggested that interdisciplinary teaching methods “are more useful in graduate studies or in polytechnic institutions perhaps,” rather than in “a public university that aims at providing a broad general education and academic skills to students.” In The Guardian article mentioned above, British educational consultant Nick Hillman explained that, “It is much easier to deliver an excellent education to people with high prior qualifications.” Like him, the Zayed University professor believes that Minerva’s model is “suited for a student who is engaged, organized, a self-starter, and is very competitive,” which the professor feels are not traits honed and promoted by the local secondary and tertiary educational system.
AGSIW also spoke to Maha Alshamali, an Emirati student currently enrolled in the Zayed University x Minerva program. Maha, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in social innovation, expressed her initial hesitation toward changing her Zayed University application from an international relations track to a Minerva-taught program. She said, “I was undoubtedly intrigued but also intimidated because it seemed like a drastic change from the traditional way of learning that I was used to, and it seemed like a challenging program that was way out of my comfort zone. I think of myself as an introvert, so applying to a program that was based on discussion, active participation, and working with external companies seemed like a big challenge. Ironically, the aspects of the program that made me reluctant to apply were also the exact reasons I ended up applying.”
Maha added, “As someone who wants to work in the UAE government as an ambassador and to empower other Emirati women in the field, communication, confidence, and the ability to work under pressure and face various challenges are necessary skills that, in working with international students and companies each semester, I am hoping to develop at ZU x Minerva.” When asked about what she is most looking forward to in her undergraduate experience, Maha explained, “By having the opportunity to work with businesses related to my major and field of interest, I will be graduating with professional experiences that will help me more easily find a job after graduation. This is a huge issue for Emiratis in the UAE as countless students graduate and are unable to find jobs because they are not qualified, lack necessary experience and skills, or are applying to jobs that are already saturated with applicants.”
Opportunities for Broader Educational Reform
Zayed University, however, is not the first school in the UAE to implement an interdisciplinary pedagogical model. It will be joining NYU Abu Dhabi, a university that has offered several multidisciplinary majors and minors since it opened just over a decade ago. Though its liberal arts program, like Zayed University’s, has not done away with traditional lecture-style courses, it encourages students to take courses from other disciplines through its core curriculum requirements. Given that over 95% of NYUAD’s 1,600 alumni have landed employment or graduate school opportunities upon or shortly after graduation, the success of an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach within the Emirati academic context is not unprecedented.
The worries expressed by community members, university stakeholders, faculty, and students about the feasibility of the Minerva model in an Emirati university also allude to the perceived gap between skills taught at the secondary level in the UAE and the skills required to succeed in a Minerva-style program, as well as a gap between the skills gained in Emirati undergraduate programs and the professional opportunities sought by graduates. Those who spoke up about the collaboration believe that, for the Minerva model to deliver a framework suitable for the needs of Emirati university students, educational planners in the UAE will have to work with institutions at the secondary level first to strengthen student academic performance overall and prepare students in Emirati high schools to succeed in an interdisciplinary university setting and compete in the Emirati job market: steps that have slowly been taken by local government entities.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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