Taking the tour

Alison Smith, CUBO executive member and depute director of property and facilities at Edinburgh Napier University, tells us about the International Student Affairs Study Tour.

As a member of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACHUO-I), I was fortunate enough last summer to be given the opportunity to embark on a group International Student Affairs Study Tour to the Arabian Gulf.

This was an educational tour, which included three distinct regions of the Arabian Gulf and was designed to assist in developing a fuller understanding of the structure and practice with regard to higher education in the region.

Through a programme of formal site visits to universities, participants were given an insight into the strategic direction for HE in the region and also a first-hand view of the complex issues for those providing facilities and studentservices to the universities in the area.

Detailed arrangements for our trip were provided by our organisation partners in the US. This provision included the entire tour arrangement through to simply supplying interesting journal articles and other material to further assist with our understanding of the culture and issues we would experience on the trip and I am extremely grateful for all of their input.

On our tour we visited Doha, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai over a period of 10 days. The study tour group were from various parts of the world, diverse in their areas of interest and during the trip we were also very fortunate to have the most capable and supportive tour leaders. Throughout the tour we were led by a respected academic who was an authority in HE in the region.

As we travelled we were also joined by local hosts who were experts in their fields and were able to provide much insight into the process of providing support for HE facilities in the area.

Visiting the Gulf region allowed us to closely experience some of the culture in each of the states and there was much to observe. One notable experience was when visiting the Qatar National Mosque. On arrival at the mosque the ladies were shown into a separate entrance and we were asked to put on an abaya, a full length clothing, and we were asked to cover our heads. Our guide explained the history, rituals and reasons for this and also the background to prayer within the Mosque. I have to confess to initially feeling slightly uncomfortable in the Abaya as this was something outside of my normal dressing routine. Within a short period of time I began to appreciate the principal that by just seeing someone's face you can focus much more on the individual with little distraction. I understood also that by wearing the abaya I was fully displaying my respect for the religion and the people there.

Some of the universities visited were standard co-educational; however a number also segregated males and females which meant some campuses were split with entirely separate facilities. In one such university we visited the female social area that resembled a shopping mall with a spa, nail salon and florist!

As we visited many universities and other important buildings I was extremely impressed with the architecture and facilities.

The developments were further brought into focus when we were shown two campus master plans that resembled small towns in scale.

Clearly there is great wealth within the regional states and this is reflected in the scale and speed of development that can be seen everywhere. The governments within the regions acknowledge that educational development will be key to any strategy where the focus is on maintaining this level of development into the future. This is particularly important, as natural resources such as oil are unlikely to sustain the region in the long term.

Finally, I would like to share with you the immense value of taking part in such an experience and it has provided me with a rich appreciation and understanding of university life within the region. I would encourage anyone who may be interested to become a member of ACHUO-I and take advantage of opportunities such as my recent experience of the Middle East.