A surge of new Uni & School campuses in the UAE – but how is the region tackling alumni relations?

The United Arab Emirates is fast becoming a white hot destination for foreign universities and schools.

A plethora of western educational institutions have piled into The Gulf States in recent decades, from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

“It’s been a huge growth market here for 20 or 30 years,” says Karen Ryan, Marketing and Community Relations Manager for the UAE at Strathclyde Business School.

She says that with a population of young professionals from across the globe growing rapidly in the UAE, there is increasing demand for professional development.

“The MBAs in particular have a lot of currency in the region,” she says.

The surging demand is matched by a lack of world-renowned educational institutions, notes Luis Escamilla, Executive Director, Dubai Campus at HULT International Business School, although this is clearly changing.

He says: “In 2008 nobody would think of doing an MBA or relocating full-time to Dubai. Locals had to quit their jobs to pursue education outside of the country. Now, Dubai itself has gained a lot of recognition. Many companies have set-up their headquarters here and quality universities are coming into Dubai.”

These fledging schools in shiny business parks have now accumulated several years of alumni — who are essential to their pioneering universities for fundraising, student recruitment and graduate career services.

But most of all, the growing pack of UAE alumni can help with adjusting to cultural norms that differ from life in London, New York or Shanghai, says Viola Polakowska, Head of Alumni Relations for City, University of London, which launched The Dubai Centre in 2009 and has 850 alumni living in the UAE.

“It’s very common that people reach out to alumni to ask their opinion on things that seem simple in London but are different abroad — how do best I look for an apartment? How do I find a school for my children?” Polakowska says.

But where are these former students now and how are the schools staying in touch with them?

Manchester Business School (MBS) launched the Middle East Centre in Dubai, but like many of its peers, MBS’ alumni base (2,500) from the Centre is widely dispersed, according to Elena Agaragimova, Careers and Alumni Relations Consultant.

“Alumni play a vital role for MBS as ambassadors for the school across a large region and multiple countries,” she says.

But that means keeping in touch with alumni can be a challenge — for both MBS and its competitors.

Schools are deploying a range of methods — from utilizing social networking sites like LinkedIn and newsletters, to meet-and-greets at graduation, regional networking events and new types of alumni software.

It’s clear, though, that those with “boots on the ground” have an advantage in engaging their growing alumni bases. While plenty of universities have campuses in the UAE many keep their alumni departments back home, shuttling them between countries for key dates during the academic year.

“We regularly invite alumni back to the school to take part in panels and sessions, where they will share their program experience, advice on studying, and leadership and career experience,” says Julia Marsh, Executive Director for Leadership Programs at London Business School (LBS).

LBS established the Dubai Centre almost 10 years ago, and expects to surpass 1,000 alumni from its Executive MBA program in Dubai by 2018.

Budgetary constraints ensure that for many schools, this isn’t always a reality. For those that can’t operate locally, one of the most effective ways to engage alumni is to group up, to find strength in numbers.

Strathclyde for example is part of a joint network in the UAE with 56 business schools, some of which don’t have a physical presence, like Harvard, but which are still active in engaging their alumni, says Ryan.

Moreover, she adds that not many schools run standalone events because “they can’t fill them”. She says the infrastructure in Dubai can make it difficult to travel during rush hour. Besides, schools face massive competition in a region hoping to become an events and tourist destination, with its hosting of the World Expo in 2020, Ryan adds.

“The UAE has become an events region. You’re constantly being invited to events. There is lots of competition for people’s time in Dubai.”

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