A call for tighter regulation of international branch campuses in Dubai's free zones hit the headlines last week. In a Dubai School of Government policy brief, Jason Lane of the State University of New York says patchwork regulation has encouraged significant duplication of degree offerings, concern about the quality of some programmes and could damage the emirate's reputation. Should we be surprised?
There are two reasons why not.
First, whether the field is telecommunications or higher education, rapid innovation will always leave regulation lagging behind the market.
It took Europe almost a thousand years after the University of Bologna opened its doors to begin to develop a framework to standardise degrees across all its varied institutions of higher learning. The Bologna Process now unites 47 countries in the European Higher Education Area. Yet the UAE opened its first university only in 1976 and most international branch campuses have been established in Dubai only in the past decade.
Second, Dubai's commitment to market-based approaches is in its DNA and it may not view regulation as the best way to guarantee quality. The free zone model provides potential higher education students with a great deal of choice. More options per capita, in fact, than are available in almost any other city in the world (not to mention additional choices a short drive away in neighboring emirates Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah).
It may be unfashionable to rely on market-based approaches to problems of governance, but these have a long and until recently largely successful history in Dubai. The market-oriented model also requires institutions to play a major part in teaching potential students what to look for in a quality educational opportunity.
It may be that lower-quality universities have thrived at the expense of Michigan State University, which closed its academic operations in Dubai due to low enrolment, but we simply have no data to make that judgment. It is equally possible that Michigan State was poorly priced to provide the education that people in Dubai needed.
I have spent years working with universities to improve the administrative functions that allow faculty members to achieve their goals and students to develop desired capabilities.
Beyond the macro economic problems, Dubai's efforts to build an innovative higher education landscape now face four challenges. The first is a sign of growing up: Dubai must decide what it wants from higher education. What is the future role of the university in Dubai's evolving economy?
I've come up with my own list.
There is a clear need to provide just-in-time training so knowledge employees can put real skills behind their ambitions. As a gateway to a better life, Dubai is a natural hub for career-focused education: degrees in business, finance, civil engineering, architecture.
As an international and cosmopolitan community, Dubai can play an important role in attracting global scholars to assist in the UAE's impressive national efforts to develop its research infrastructure. And situated, as it is, within a region with far-reaching economic development plans, it can play a major role in addressing the changing human capital needs of a diversifying labour market.
New museums in Abu Dhabi and Doha need graduates trained in cultural and heritage management; regional-wide, primary and secondary schools delivering education to unprecedented youth populations require new training for existing teachers and new capacity in universities to train more; major healthcare initiatives require not only more physicians, but an increased and steady supply of nurses, pharmacists and allied health professionals; and a region with as much sunlight as oil and gas can supply students or career changers with tools and knowledge to advance alternative energy.
The second challenge is to clean up the regulatory hash caused by rapid development. Dubai's approach to market solutions is not at all simple: different free zones have different sets of rules.
International branch campuses make up nearly half of the institutions licensed to operate in the emirate. Clear regulatory frameworks should require institutions to demonstrate success based on patterns of evidence of student attainment. Clarifying and unifying regulation in this way will allow for continued competition to meet the educational needs of Dubai well into the future.
A good regulatory apparatus is institution-friendly and ensures fair play, transparency and accountability. Given the increasingly global landscape of higher education, quality assurance and accreditation agencies must also increase their cooperation at the international level.
But regulation does not enforce itself. Consultative visits are central to a strong regulatory cycle. Also critical are the development of shared educational values among institutions and strong incentives to self-police.
The third challenge is about global engagement. Dubai must take an active role in shaping the global exchange of ideas around the definition and practice of quality in higher education.
It is fair for Lane, an assistant professor of educational administration and policy studies, to argue that, with the largest number of international branch campuses of any region in the world, "there are no similar models to use as guides".
Yet in deciding what it wants from higher education, Dubai needs to join, and in some cases lead, the global discussion. Qatar, Hong Kong, South Korea and China, for instance, are exploring similar challenges, as international branch campuses augment home-grown capacity.
The fourth challenge relates to local capacity development. Relying on foreign universities is unlikely to be the ultimate answer to the UAE's human capital challenges. Strong economies have strong local institutions in addition to access to global ideas and institutions.
A new regulatory framework can emerge in the UAE to align international branch campuses with the government's strategic priorities. But Dubai's efforts to build an innovative higher education landscape must also include creative international partnerships and local capacity development to ensure that the benefits of knowledge transfer meet the needs of its rapidly developing educational system.
It won't take a thousand years, but some soul-searching is required for Dubai to decide what role it wants its universities to play.
* James DeVaney is a director in the Global Higher Education practice of Huron Consulting Group and lives in the United Arab Emirates.
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