How to create a world class university in under a decade

New York University’s new Rafael Viñoly designed campus in Abu Dhabi is an experiment in global education that’s worth watching.


By Tim Jarvis

OK so God made the world in just seven days but for us mortals creating something out of almost thin air in a short time is nigh on impossible. While the existence of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is not quite miraculous ,it is pretty impressive none the less. On a recent visit to the Emirates, as a guest of the university, I got some insight into how it was manged in five simple steps.

Step 1: Drill for, and then find, oil. Lots of it

Universities are big business and are expensive to run. The top universities of the world have large endowment funds built up through centuries of graduating financially successful alumni. If you’re starting from scratch you can either wait several hundred years to build your facilities and reputation or you can locate yourself in a society that has seemingly limitless amounts of capital. In the United Arab Emirates where it is cheaper (but not advisable) to shower in petrol rather than water you can find such a location.

Step 2: Bring alongside a big brand university that already packs a reputational punch

Ideally you want a top ranked institution, with a strong study abroad focus and a globally recognizable name. A name like New York for example would do the trick. If you have money, (as opposed to aeons of time) to burn, then buy your reputation off the shelf. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi this is the modus operandi. If you want to cultivate culture in your country for example you can FastTrack the process by bringing in the curatorial expertise of the Louvre (An extension of this famous French museum opens in the city this year). Abu Dhabi has also partnered with names such as the Guggenheim Museum, Ferreira and Formula One to elevate the city’s cultural and sporting status on the world stage. It is no surprise to see New York University also open up in the city as NYUAD.

Step 3: Build a state of the art campus

NYUAD campus on  Saadiyat Island is designed by award winning architect Rafael Vinoly
Once you’ve designed and built it, equip it with enough resources to make NASA jealous of the Engineering department and even Hollywood take a second glance at the film studios (apparently there is enough apparatus there to run three Hollywood scale movies at the same time). The campus at NYUAD is so resource rich that the students pay for nothing, the only requirement is that they notify staff if stock of something is running low. The attention to detail is such that even the palm trees have been imported from Egypt (ice to Inuits) simply because that particularly variety does not drop its date and create mess. In the last 20 years cities in the Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have grown. Building is nothing new in the Emirates as any one who has witnessed the growth of Dubai in the last few decades can testify. The population of Abu Dhabi alone has just about doubles since 2005.

Step 4: Populate the campus with best faculty and students as possible

With a big name university on board, the staffing should take care of itself as long as you can pay them. But that’s no problem in a land where there is so much money its citizens do not need to pay tax. What about the students? Well when they apply, host a candidate weekend where you fly the best of them in literally from around the world, at no expense

The population of Abu Dhabi has almost doubled since 2005
to them. This extended two way interview process allows you to select the best of these best and make sure they (or rather their parents) can afford to come to your college. NYUAD is one of only five US Colleges that offers a ‘needs blind’ admission process for all students (not just US citizens) which simply means the university choose the candidates they want and then makes sure they can afford to attend. It means you can really take the best of the best instead of the richest of the rich. I had the opportunity of sitting in the opening session of such a candidate weekend and listening to the students introduce themselves. It was like witnessing an Under 18 team of some sort from the United Nations. Not only were there representatives from all around the world, some of them were true global citizens. Think, “Hi I am Indian but I was born in the in the Philippines and currently live in Denmark” and you have the general idea.

Step 5: Raise, and continue to manage, your university profile

Make sure you fly in Counsellors from top schools around the globe to create brand awareness. Also careful massaging of the criteria that go toward your institutions ranking position is essential. ‘Yield’ is an example of such a criteria and refers to the percentage of students who accept the university’s offer when it is made. NYUAD ensures this ratio is acceptable through its candidate weekends which ensure each successful applicant is already committed and socially invested in the university. As a result NYUAD’s yield is up around 75% mark, about as good as it can get I’m told. Such statistics ensure a high ranking, driving a greater demand and causing a rapid upwardly spiralling reputational cycle.

A vision of global citizenship

Essentially these are the five steps that the United Arab Emirates has taken in partnership with New York University from 2009. In a changing world NYUAD is a bold experiment in global education and the vision is, through listening to people who are vastly different to you, to create international citizens who understand that the basic infrastructure of humanity is the same no matter its local expression. NYUAD have also partnered with THE Institute of International Education (IIE), an organisation set up in the aftermath of WWI to enhance global interaction in an effort to build understanding. IIE locates diverse schools around the world from which to source unique students, not just the homogenous inhabitants of British and American international schools. OK so the project will also ensure an alumni of influential leaders well disposed towards the UAE but that doesn’t look as good as words like ‘vision’ and ‘global’ in a glossy brochure.


At the end of the day resources and facilities alone cannot make a great educational experience, only people can do that and that is the attraction for many given the international outlook of NYUAD. Despite that, I imagine the experience would not be for everyone, as one student candidly put it, “If you want to sit around drinking with your mates in a bar downtown on Friday night then NYUAD is probably not for you”. Despite its global reach and Western embrace the United Arab Emirates is still an Islamic country with elements of Sharia law present (an unmarried South African women was recently arrested for extramarital sex). In an understated response to a question on LGBTQ rights in the Emirates, one of the university admission officers replied, “Well you’re not going to see a Gay Pride march in downtown Abu Dhabi anytime soon.”

Will it work? I tend to think it will. With the amount of money behind the project NYUAD does not have to rely on chance. It’s a bold experiment but it can and is happening. Who knows, perhaps if God had the same cash flow as the Emirati government he could have brought the whole creation project in with enough days to spare for proper long weekend, not just a Sunday.

A Rhodes Trip

A university education, like a road trip, is just as much about the journey as the destination.

By Tim Jarvis

I dropped my son off at Rhodes University recently. This involved some tears (mine), some raised voices (mostly mine), a substantial amount of money (entirely mine) and an awful lot of driving. The problem is that between most of KZN and Grahamstown stands the inconsiderately placed Kingdom of Lesotho. On hearing that the routes to the East of the mountains were beset by a raft of Stop/Go roadworks we decided to take the long way round via Clarens and the Free State.

It was a wonderful journey. We travelled through National Parks, up mountain passes, past fields of sunflowers and cherry trees, ate at farm stalls and crossed the wonderfully swollen Orange River. The road was a little potholed but there were no blow outs, unless you count the one when I lost my cool at a Stop/Go (“average wait +/- 40 mins”) in 38 degree heat. Upon arrival at Grahamstown, we decided, as scenic as the journey had been, we would take a more direct route home.

Thereafter began the business of settling him into the University and in particular Res. My wife and I are extremely mindful of the #feesmustfall movement and the impact this has had on university life around the country. Rhodes itself had some quite nasty incidents involving police firing rubber bullets in one of the residences last year. So as we drove up to the road to the residences we were dismayed to see a group of placard waving students blocking the road. “What are they protesting about?” my wife asked and as the cars slowed to go past there was a lot of hooting and shouting and I could feel her anxiety increase. As we closed on the mob it became clear they were mostly female. “Oh no” my spouse exclaimed, “it must be #free the nipple”.

It turns out it was neither a fees must fall protest or a free the nipple demonstration (much to my son’s disappointment), but merely a group of students gathered to welcome the Freshers into their new home. This scenario was replicated all the way up the hill leading to the university residences, creating a carnival vibe on campus. The welcoming atmosphere continued as we entered the assigned Hall of Residence. Sub Wardens, Student Support and IT reps all came and paid their respects, introduced themselves to my son and explained their various roles. The Res Committee reflected a diverse intake into the halls of residence. Different races, different walks of life, but all overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming.

Nerves calmed and anxieties settled, the next day we headed to the formal parent orientation which included an address by the Vice Chancellor of the University. As he approached the podium, a student dressed in a headband and carrying a knobkerrie rushed onto the stage and grabbed the microphone. I sunk lower into my seat, exchanged an ‘I knew it glance’ with my wife and resigned myself to the inevitable #feesmustfall speech. The young man unleashed a torrent of rapid fire Xhosa of which I could not understand a word. However as he continued it became quite clear that this was a praise singer, who had got up to sing a hymn extoling his Vice Chancellor. I worked this out from the snippets of English considerately thrown into the speech and the fact that he and the VC hugged each other at the end.

When he was finally able to speak the Vice Chancellor made much of the difference between education and schooling and the dangers of seeing education purely as a commodity. The idea that you can simply purchase a degree of knowledge as fast as possible is an anathema to the Rhodes philosophy. Jonathan Jansen recently tweeted, “There are few things worse than to be overschooled and undereducated”. Rhodes espouses the idea of formative degrees (as distinct from programmes) which facilitate greater flexibility, allowing for example, a Humanities student to study Science courses or a Commerce student to take some Humanities subjects. This approach together with a healthily diverse residential life and an encouragement to engage in extracurricular activities, means the students have the opportunity to be thoroughly educated. “Education as opposed to schooling”, concluded the Vice Chancellor, should be a journey of self-discovery for your sons and daughters. If they leave the same person as when they arrived then we have failed.” Such is the transformative nature of real education.

Then it was time to go.

We left feeling reassured about our son, inspired by the young people we had met, and overwhelmed by the beauty of this land and its people. In my son’s educational expedition I know there will be pot holes and plenty of Stop/Go works along the road. The fees must fall movement, rooted as it is in legitimate concern, if not expression, has yet to run its course. And yet is it not in being exposed to, and overcoming, such realties that we are truly educated? As one of the students paraphrased in his welcome speech, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” JF Kennedy. This experience is as much about the journey as it is about the graduation.

After all that, my wife and I travelled home the long way round again. I hope my son does the same at university.

Psychopathic schools

My most popular blog for 2016.

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Some of my boarding school colleagues have a frenzied start to the day. Overseeing morning roll call in a fog of morning breath, checking that all the boys are present and correct, making sure they are dressed correctly, clean shaven, hair suitably brushed and off to breakfast. These days it also involves dispensing large quantities of medication all before getting to that first lesson with Grade 9.DSC_0350

One typically frenzied morning a harassed colleague of mine was in the pharmacist phase of his morning routine. He happened to have a spitting headache and a difficult class looming. He grabbed himself a couple of Panado’s as he handed out a variety of stimulant and other medication to those in his charge.

Unfortunately as the day waned his headache did not and he found he had to take more painkillers. It seemed to work and he found himself focused and engaged as…

View original post 2,100 more words

Suffer the little children…

The Christmas service at our local Chapel this year threw up an unexpected lesson in an amusing way. As we head into the New Year year we need to make space for the young people in our lives.

By Tim Jarvis

As always on Christmas morning, my family and I attend the Eucharist service at our Chapel on campus. Invariably displayed is a nativity scene set up from the Crib service the night before. The nativity features the usual characters plus, as you will see, one or two others that I am fairly sure aren’t found in any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth. Welcoming us all, the Chaplain reassured the parents in the congregation that they need not worry about their children. Indeed the children were free to wander around the Chapel and, as long as they weren’t actually screaming, mum and dad could just relax.

That was his first mistake.


The second was that at the start of the sermon he invited all the children to sit up at the front of the Chapel in full view of the entire congregation. To be fair he does this every year, it’s just that this year the Chapel was unusually full with some 400 people crammed in. As the pews disgorged large volumes of children, hitherto hidden behind pews and parents, into the aisle and down to the altar, the Chaplain visibly blanched, his face turning the same colour as his ecclesiastical robes.

As is traditional the Chaplain then discussed the real meaning of Christmas with the young flock seated at his feet. Working with children in an interactive way in front of a large audience is never easy, but the Very Reverend has experience in this area and manfully negotiated this tricky period of the service before going on to give his sermon while the children remained seated at the altar steps.

The Very Reverend spoke for, from the perspective of a small person, a very long time. To their credit the children hung on well for the best part of the sermon but as they lost concentration they also lost that consciousness of self that comes from being under the gaze of several hundred adults, and seemed to forget where they were.  As the sermon drew to a close and moved into the Eucharist, the Chaplain made his third, and in hindsight, most critical error. He neglected to send the children back to their parents.

At around this time the children’s gaze wandered and they started to realise that they were sitting by and amongst the carefully crafted nativity scene. There is a saying that you should never work with children and animals. I not sure that includes crafted animals from a nativity scene but given what happened, it should. Small hands started gravitating towards some of the more peripheral characters that the Gospel writers somehow failed to mention (there is no record of a Bengal tiger from Matthew, Mark or Luke). It wasn’t  long before some of the more central cast were under threat and pretty soon one of the Wise Men was being savagely pecked by a penguin (don’t ask) to a mixed reaction from the now enthralled audience. I say mixed, but it was largely unbridled delight except for the horrified parents of the would be puppeteers. Puppeteers who, I might add, were now in complete control of what had very rapidly morphed from stuffed toys and alabaster models into full blown action figures.

At one point the protagonist of the Christmas story was in very real danger of being kidnapped by one of the girls (I like to think she was called Mary). As she headed down the aisle it looked like the return of Christ was very much in doubt. Due to the carnage at what now resembled a middle eastern war zone, one of the sheep got hooked onto the Lay minister’s robe and was dragged round and round the altar to the amusement of those receiving communion. It might be unedifying to say too much more, suffice to say that it is incredible how much damage a tiger (albeit a stuffed one) can do in the hands of a boy (albeit a small one). I am also not sure that one of the Shepherds will be tending his flocks anytime soon given he no longer has a head, and from now on it appears we will be having just two wise men at our nativity instead of the traditional three.

“Let the children come to me.”

The unpredictability of working with children and young people is what makes it simultaneously so demanding and so rewarding. Stuffed penguins and tigers aside, what Luke, Mark and Matthew do agree on is that Jesus had time for children. When his disciples tried to stop parents bringing their children to him, Jesus said ‘Let the little children come unto me for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ I am glad our Chaplain lets the children come to altar. If we can’t make space for them at Christmas time then we really are like the proverbial innkeeper. As we head into the New Year, if you yourself are involved with children and young people, as a parent, teacher or in any other capacity, remember that yours in a holy work.

Oh and good luck…


Moving up by slowing down

I had a wonderful slow holiday. Lots of reading, even more sleeping, some baking (when it’s not been too hot), an appropriate amount of exercise, inappropriate amounts of food, watching cricket (the unadulterated 5 day test match sort, not the WHAM BAM variety) and of course plenty of coffee. It was quite similar to my last Christmas holiday actually, I found this old tweet from a year ago.Holiday tweet

It seems a long time ago and I fear that I am already relying on too much caffeine than can be good for me.  One of my favourite haunts to put the mocha back in my Java is nearby Café Bloom.  Its coffee is decent, but more importantly the philosophy of life it serves up and embodies is appetising. Café Bloom espouses the notion of slow food.  Not slow service necessarily, but rather taking the time to do things properly. This means simply that there are no short cuts in food preparation, the organically grown food is sourced locally (often right outside the door) and served seasonally. It is essentially cuisine that is the very opposite of fast food.

I don’t get much time to visit in the term time and (ironically) I am usually rushing if I am there at all. Mostly back to work for a class, or a meeting, or a coaching session, or assembly or an appointment or (very) occasionally to do some marking. A cappuccino ‘to go’ is my drink of choice. It was no surprise then that Mick, the owner questioned why I almost always ask for a take away as opposed to taking a table. Reflecting on his observation I was reminded of the pace that we move at through life. This is true in our schools as a microcosm of society, as much as it is in the wider world.

Denise Clark Pope argues in her book ‘Doing School’, that as a society we are ‘…creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students’. In many of our schools there are strong expectations placed on performance and achievement; these in turn seem to create a fast paced life-style. My question is just how corrosive is this success driven focus and is it really in the best interests of education and the students themselves?

It would seem not. Astonishingly the United Nations estimates that fully one in five people have suffered from a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. In the United Kingdom the government used to survey the mental health of its teenage population, they stopped this in 2004 and the cynics would say this is because they did not want to see the results. Guardian writer, George Monbiot’s excellent article on the dangers of aspirational parenting considers the fact that in the UK, hospital beds for teenage mental health patients have increased 50% since 1999 and they still can’t cope with demand. It also appears that eating disorders have doubled in the last 3 years and self-harm has increased by 68% over the last 10.Doing school book

If this is the case, what is it about society and how young people are schooled (in the broadest sense) that has contributed to this epidemic. There are varied pressures on young people, lack of appropriate parental involvement (for whatever reasons) is one, but there are also concerns around the influence of technology and commercial pressures. Is it right for example that children in the  Western world view up to 40,000 adverts in a year? Or that they cram 8.5 hours of screen time into 6.5 hours through the phenomenon of ‘two screening’? What interests me in particular however is how young people feel under increasing pressure at school and from an early age. In the sense that schools reflect society, there is little need to make a case that much pressure comes from the need to get ahead and make a success of yourself. Parent and schools expect it. Universities and the job market demand it.

As a school counsellor I often see what I believe are the results of this pressure, as I know my colleagues do around the country. Across the nation depression and, in particular, anxiety are no strangers to the school campus. This academic non-stop merry go round where students deal with the twin anxieties of trying to keep up and simultaneously deal with the resulting threat of almost continuous judgement can take its toll on many. In his thoughtful book ‘What’s the point of school?’ author Guy Claxton says, “In a nutshell, young people are stressed. Psychologists tells us that stress is what happens when the demands made on you exceed the resources you have to meet them…getting drunk, depressed or aggressive are increasingly desperate attempts to avoid the self-criticism that comes from not feeling up to dealing with life’s problems”.

In almost all schools, testing and assessment seems to play a large part in this. Almost endless assessment makes, “Children feel under endless pressure from endless testing, they do not feel that have the time to enjoy themselves” according to Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England.  Even as far back as 1856 testing was viewed by Joseph Payne as “…continually pulling up the plants to see the condition of the roots, the consequence of which was that all good natural growth was stopped.” Imagine what Joseph would have said today.  I spoke to one English teacher in South Africa who conservatively estimated that at least 40% of the time in a Grade 12 IEB English class was spent doing assessment. I read with horror that in the United Kingdom the government plans to introduce formal testing for 4 year olds! Have we all gone quite mad?

The bell driven schedule that drives students through their day to day existence is exhausting. Most older teenager seem chronically short of sleep.  Jonathan Jansen talks of how young people see school as irrelevant because it is just not linked to the real world. Instead you just keep jumping through hoops. It is no wonder that young people complain of being tired and bored with school. I know of some boys who have downloaded an app that sounds exactly like our school bell. At a strategic time in a lesson they then play the sound of the bell sound safe in the knowledge that the teacher’s Pavlovian conditioning will kick in and unintentionally release them to enjoy an extra few minutes of freedom. I am told this works best if you can also manage to adjust the classroom clock on the wall.

One might be forgiven for thinking of course that after 6 hours of fairly intensive concentration and effort (at least in theory), that this means the day is done. But of course it doesn’t. It is quite likely that an hour or two of intensive sport coaching remain, possibly more if students do more than one sport. For most children, for most of the time, sport is a fun and relaxing way to ease the pressure of the academic day. For others however sport adds to the pressure. In the competitive sporting landscape that many schools find themselves in there is strong pressure to perform. This can create a quasi-professional environment that is not always conducive to a healthy educational approach. And it’s not necessarily even good for sports. Evidence to suggest that over coaching has reduced performance and the development of skills. As Carl Honore says  “…who is going to risk a Christian Ronaldo step over or a Gareth Bale dribble when you are judged for making a mistake.”

John Cartwright, a football coach in England believes that young players today are less skilfull that previous generations because they have spent more time being coached and less time kicking a ball around in the streets or the park with their mates. I always enjoy seeing some of the boys at the school where I work playing ‘Quad’ soccer. Played on uneven ground, preferably in the rain to enhance slide tackling, with trees and a pond as additional obstacles to be negotiated around, it is pure fun all away from the watchful eye of teachers and coaches. All too often this is the exception. In the USA 70% of children quit sports by the time they are 13, blaming exhaustion, burnout and the pressure cooker atmosphere created by coaches and parents says Carl Honore.

If it’s not pre-season rugby training and the like, it could just as well be play practice, music lessons, ballet classes and any number of other extra-curricular activities or clubs. It would seem we have managed to professionalise play if such a thing were possible and not an oxymoron. This crazy scheduling often means families are endlessly ferrying their children from one appointment to the next. In the United States, the demographic group that were most often guilty of running a red light were the ‘soccer mums’ as they rushed their children from one activity to another. That’s just plain moronic, oxy or otherwise.

At least at the end of all that you would think there would be time to put your feet up, enjoy the evening and relax. Not so, the usual dinner time fare is spelling, projects, reading, research, math, essays, the list goes on. Take your pick depending on the age and stage of your child. Homework is often more of a 5 course meal as opposed to a quick bite to eat and for older teenagers can run late into the night.  Although it is hard to get a clear picture as to the value or otherwise of homework, what is certain is that up until the age of 11 there are no clear benefits to doing homework. Could it be that all it really does for younger children is ruin family time and eat into the necessary mental health buffer that is downtime? Even for older children the evidence that homework helps is mixed. A survey by Harvard University looked at National Merit scholarship winners in the US to see what factors made them academically successful. The conclusion? Sitting down to a meal together as a family was the single biggest predictor of success.

Cafe Bloom

It would appear that there are numerous benefits of slowing down in an educational setting. It can be argued that physical health, mental well-being and academic performance can all be enhanced from a ‘less is more’ approach. So how do we go about this, where do we start? Well given that we are talking about going slowly I’ll leave that till my next blog. If you have time before then won’t you just complete the poll below and let us know if you think children today are too busy. In the meantime I am going to take up Mick’s suggestion and sit down with a few friends for a coffee.


Much of the research mentioned in this article comes from the book ‘Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting: Putting the Child Back into Childhood’ by Carl Honore  It is well worth the read.

If you are interested in more details on the sources for any of the statistics or research quoted in the blog please let me know in the comments section and I will provide you with them.