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Branch campus students thrive on high-stakes contests

Student-life facilities at Dubai's Knowledge Village, or KV, are almost non-existent. A central food court with the odd coffee shop or student lounge provide the only gathering spaces for students enrolled in cross-border programmes.

There are no gymnasiums or atriums and staff and students alike congregate informally on the tree-lined walking path between the buildings.

Yet the lack of student space has not prevented extra-curricular programmes from thriving at KV's branch campuses. Sports team practices are well attended as basketball and badminton players are driven to neighbouring athletic facilities to practice.

But the real dynamism in student activities is found among the self-proclaimed 'geeks' who are flourishing in Dubai's high-tech business world. Through technology clubs and innovative entrepreneurism, these students are winning competitions in the fast-paced world that they will one day lead.

Competitive learning

Dr Farhad Oroumchian is an associate professor in the faculty of computer science and engineering at the University of Wollongong Dubai, or UOWD. He has spent 10 years as the faculty sponsor for student clubs in areas like robotics, gaming and software design.

Oroumchian is always watching for external competitions to motivate his students in extra-curricular learning. UOWD's biggest success has been at the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition where the regional winners for the past three years have been UOWD students and alumni.

Competition-style programmes seem to draw the highest achievement from students, many of whom have grown up in Dubai's high-stakes business world.

Competitions present students with a problem to which they must apply their course learning and work as a team to solve. Often there is a strong emphasis on innovation and creativity that sets the winning teams apart.

Faculty Dean Mohamed Vall Mohamed-Salem stresses the importance of these activities for students to gain employment after graduation: "Their resumes need to be more than a list; I want them to have a story to tell at their interviews."

The emphasis on innovation has led numerous alumni to start their own businesses, while others get noticed by big-name companies that host the competitions.

In the building next door, students at Middlesex University Dubai are also succeeding at competitive extra-curricular activities. In 2013 Middlesex students won the regional Global Business Challenge for the Gulf area.

The finals took the team to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they competed with university students from around the world, eventually being placed seventh overall.

For some members of the team, this was their first time outside Dubai and their country of birth. They were surprised to find themselves two years younger than their international competitors, many of whom take gap years and a four-year bachelors degree.

Few challenges to overcome

Knowledge Village sits in the shadow of lofty skyscrapers at the entrance to the glamorous Palm Jumeirah. Dubai - a dynamic city that breeds innovation - is the same place that seduces students away from their studies.

While high-achieving students eagerly anticipate the next competition, university faculty find many of the students are quite the opposite.

The biggest challenge for faculty is motivating the other side of the student body, those who are more interested in Dubai's high-rolling lifestyle and endless activities. For these students, education comes second and they lack much of the drive of their peers.

Apart from the allure of Dubai, however, the branch campuses face few of the challenges limiting student clubs in other regions.

For example, there is no lack of funding for students to pursue competitions. The university pays the full cost of students' attendance at competitions both regionally and for overseas trips to attend global finals.

Furthermore, female students participate in extracurricular activities despite cultural stereotypes that suggest a different picture.

Dr Mohamed-Salem was surprised to find a large number of women involved in traditionally male subjects like engineering when he first arrived at UOWD from Canada. The university has also been involved in programmes like DigiGirlz to ensure women remain active members in tech-related extra-curricular activities.

Commercial context

Branch campuses are a unique outcome of thriving cities and a demand for higher education.

Legitimately, critics have questioned the quality levels and sustainability of for-profit, offshore programmes.

But the success of student groups at more established branch-campuses like UOWD and Middlesex seems to suggest that offshore education is being augmented by the climate of business competition in which they exist.

It is true that students are not hiking through mountains and joining nature clubs in their urban environment. But for the present, Dubai's branch campuses are fuelled by the dynamic business culture that defines the city.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a doctoral candidate in higher and international education in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto in Canada. Email: grace.karram@utoronto.ca.
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