Real Life: Going Back to School Rules!

Think it’s too late to get back on the learning ladder? More women are ditching their 9-5 and going back to school
Thursday , 14 July 2011
Real Life: Going Back to School Rules!
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Your student days may bring back memories of dull lectures, a diet of pot noodles and hitting the nearest bar when you should’ve been hitting the books, but whether it’s a change of direction or a new career development you’re after, giving up your job and heading back to class is a growing trend all over the world.

According to a survey by the UK's Department of Education, the number of adults returning to education has increased by 32 per cent since 2009 and adults now make up almost 20 per cent of all enrolments at UK universities. It’s a similar story in the States where a study by the Department of Labour found that 90 per cent of US adults feel that furthering their education is the answer to career success. Here in the UAE, new universities including Khalifa University and Abu Dhabi University have experienced a sharp rise in the number of people enrolling in 2010, many of them mature students wanting to make themselves more competitive in the job market. “We’re finished with the career era where you get a job and then stay in it for ever,” explains Peter Smith, senior vice-president for academic strategies and development at Kaplan Higher Education ( “Today it’s all about career management, which requires workers to adapt to new skill requirements, new technologies and constant change. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing a massive rise in adults furthering their educations and going back to school.”

For many UAE women, re-training, updating their skills or simply finding a suitable vocation can be a huge challenge. Not only is the prospect of sacrificing the safety of your current job for studying a daunting one, but when you factor in today’s fast-paced lives and family responsibilites and financial commitments, returning to education is not an easy commitment to make. In the UAE, with most international, accredited universities offering a leaner portfolio of degree options, the majority of undergraduate programmes require full-time weekday attendance. But, thankfully, the government has recognised this and vowed to make it easier for women, encouraging institutions such as Zayed University in Abu Dhabi to integrate childcare and nursing facilities into their campuses.

Cass Business School in Dubai is another establishment that has programmes designed with the mature student in mind. The Executive MBA for example is a two-year programme with part-time classes running from Thursday to Sunday – perfect for women who are attempting to create a work-study balance. Similarly, other local universities such as Murdoch and the new Dubai campus of the London College of Fashion offer more diverse admission options from flexible learning to short, intensive courses. “Around 30 per cent of the students who’ve attended the London College of Fashion short courses in Dubai told us they were doing it because they were thinking of changing their career,” confirms Linda Roberts, senior business manager for London College of Fashion. “We offer 12 courses that are between one and five days long, as well as a range of online e-learning courses and part-time degrees. We’re committed to developing more part time, flexible study options to enable more people to access education and training in the way that suits them.”

And, while Kaplan Higher Education vice-president Peter Smith accepts that time and money are due considerations, he advises would-be students not to be put off by them. “It’s all about finding the right course for your circumstances. I recommend that people shop around, not only for a university’s quality, but to also learn about accelerated degree programmes or part-time courses, which will most likely make the education less expensive.”

Making a compromise
Dubai-based public relations manager Rima Armstrong, 26, is one mature student who has made her studies work for her. Having graduated from the UK’s Middlesex University in 2005 with a degree in TV production, she decided to return to part-time education in September 2010. She’s currently studying for a masters in marketing and communication at the Dubai arm of Middlesex University and hopes to secure a role with the UN. “I’d been in Dubai for five years and, while I loved my media job, I’d always had an interest in Middle Eastern politics and working for the UN,” Rima says. “I decided to do a masters in marketing and communication as I felt this would be useful for my current role as well as helping me out in the future.”

Due to her full-time day job, Rima attends evening lectures twice a week, from 6pm to 9.30pm. In addition, she studies a further six hours independently. “My social life has taken a bit of a hit,” she admits. “That said, because I’m an expat, my friends are very much my family, so I plan study times carefully and make sure that they don’t clash with social events. I’ll often make a compromise to study all day on Saturday, which means I can go out on Thursday night. Of course, because I’m funding my education myself I have to prioritise and if I miss the odd night out it’s not the end of the world.”

As for the cost, Rima’s master’s comes with a Dhs49,000 price tag - but while that might sound hefty, she’s quick to point out that flexible instalment plans make it achievable. “I’m not good at budgeting but, because I pay Dhs12,000 every five months, it feels like a more feasible expenditure. It was a big decision because it’s a lot of money, but I saved for four months for the first instalment and now I put a bit aside each month.”

Changing direction
Opportunities to climb the career ladder or swap to a new, more exciting profession have been cited as the main reasons why many expat women have been drawn to the UAE in the first place. Taking positive steps along your new career path with a fresh set of qualifications means that the dream of your ideal life can become a reality, wherever you may live.

When UK-based Louise Fewtrell, 29, received news that she was to be promoted for a third time in three years, her human resources manager hoped it would give her the professional buzz she’d been waiting for. It had the opposite effect: nstead of racing further up the career ladder and bagging the corner office, Louise rejected the offer and decided it was time to head back to school. She handed in her notice and in September last year, enrolled full-time at the UK’s University of East Anglia (UEA) to study for her Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).

It’s quite a departure for the management graduate, who thought she’d seen the last of exam halls when she completed her studies in 2002. But, along with a rising number of female working professionals, Louise has discovered that a return to education has the potential to provide the key to career happiness. “When I first went to university at 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” recalls Louise. “I chose a broad degree and after accepting a lucrative role on a graduate training scheme, I began a career in HR management. It took seven years after graduating to realise that my true vocation is teaching. A career in HR no longer excited me so I decided to start again.”

Louise researched a variety of courses and universities and eventually settled on UEA, where the one-year, full-time PGCE course costs Dhs30,000. “It has a good reputation for teaching and the full-time course also included a placement at a school, which meant I didn’t have to worry about making my own arrangements. I have no regrets.”

Going the distance
For those who are not in a position to attend classes, distance learning has become another viable avenue. Forget faux internet degrees from the University of Outer Mongolia – 75 per cent of reputable colleges in the US now offer online courses. The UK is following the trend with 64 per cent of universities offering similar programmes, many of which can be completed from the comfort of your living room in Dubai. One establishment is the London-based BPP Law School, with programmes ranging from legal practice to postgraduate diplomas. Students can study via distance learning at a pace that works for them and finish with recognised qualifications from an internationally renowned university.

Claire Malcom, owner of a communications and media consultancy in Dubai, used the online option to enrol in a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the London School of Journalism. The two-year course was “pretty full on”, she says. “I started it when I was working for a hotel group and continued it right through to my first full-time editor position.” Although Claire had been freelance writing for a few years, she’d had no formal training and was keen to refine her skills. “It was definitely a worthwhile investment. Since doing the course, I’ve been lucky enough to work on a range of different publications, from in-flight magazines to the UK’s The Sunday Times.”

“Distance learning courses have come a long way,” says Dr Alphonse de Kluyver, online and distance-learning programme leader for BPP University. “The reason they’re attractive to mature students is because they provide more flexibility in terms of study, which means if you don’t live near a suitable university or don’t have time to attend regular classes, you still have the option to learn.” The courses at BPP Law School vary in duration from four months to six years, depending on your topic, but you get the freedom to go at your own pace.

Naturally there are disadvantages, says Dr Alphonse. “You don’t have as much face-to-face contact or regular interaction with teachers that some people need. However, in my experience of students who study later in life, they tend to be highly motivated and are happy to get on with the work themselves. I think this is because they’re older and much clearer about why they’re doing the programme.”

This is echoed by Rima Armstrong. “Going back to university the second time around was scary and very different from when I went in 2005. There was no campus and no partying, but I see that as a good thing,” she says. “The difference is that I have a lot more direction now and I know what I want to do.” Rima is due to graduate in 2012 and then plans to undertake a PhD in Middle Eastern studies. While she’s undecided about where she’ll study, she intends to take another part-time course. “I’m really enjoying the freedom part-time study allows so I’ll definitely head down the same route.”