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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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