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Quality the big challenge for private education hubs

Quality is the biggest challenge for United Arab Emirates (UAE) education hubs offering private tertiary education, experts said on Thursday during an International Finance Corporation conference in Dubai.

High school graduates who are unprepared for university level education, programmes that are not culturally relevant and the lack of a national framework to regulate the quality of private institutions in the country’s economic free zones are also problems.

This was the view of Warren Fox, executive director of higher education at the Knowledge Human Development Authority (KHDA), who spoke at a panel discussion at the IFC conference “Making Global Connections”.

“The biggest challenge is to sustain and improve the quality of institutions in the free zones. Eventually we want to see programmes more attuned to the economic and cultural needs of the region that we’re in.”

Fox explained that when the KHDA was established five years ago, and its University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB) was set up four years ago, all universities in the Dubai free zones were assessed.

At the beginning of that process some campuses did not meet UQAIB standards and were asked to leave.

“In fact, in one case there was no home campus, which they described in great detail, so that education permit was denied and they moved quickly. Unfortunately, they opened up elsewhere in another emirate, which calls for more national planning,” said Fox.

The KHDA is a Dubai government body that issues permits to all private schools and free zone universities operating in Dubai. Each emirate oversees its own free zone institutions. UQAIB looks at the quality of programmes offered by foreign higher education providers to ensure equivalence in relation to the home campus.

Universities outside the free zones are under the remit of the Commission for Academic Accreditation at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Fox said other barriers to becoming a true education hub are the proprietary nature and unwillingness of higher education providers to collaborate, allow credit transfer or share students.

“It’s one of the things we are working on and would like to achieve in the future. I do think eventually, once the market works itself out and we have a large number of successful campuses, we’ll find it is the ticket to success.”

Education hubs

In the light of this Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in higher education internationalisation, questioned whether education hubs were “fads and branding exercises, or new development and centres of innovation worthy of serious attention and investment”.

Hubs ought to be looking at knowledge production in addition to teaching as the next step in their evolution, she said.

Despite the challenges, the UAE, and Dubai in particular with 27 branch campuses, is regarded as “an exemplary model” among the world’s education hubs, according to Knight.

The UAE is home to 37 branch campuses – the highest number among 200 worldwide – followed by Singapore with 18, China with 17, Qatar with 10 and Malaysia with seven, she said.

Ayoub Kazim, managing director of the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) and Dubai Knowledge Village education clusters, part of Tecom Investments, also pointed out that the UAE’s education hubs are less than a decade old.

However “private sector enrolment has been growing at a robust 7% per annum over the past decade.”

Kazim cited a recent report by the Parthenon Group that 120,000 students are currently enrolled in the UAE higher education sector, with 78,000 registered in private institutions.

“In a short span of time the cluster has attracted foreign institutions from diverse parts of the world and has also seen tremendous influx of students from this region and beyond,” he said.

Anand Sudarshan, CEO of Manipal Global Education, said the attraction of Dubai for higher education providers was policies that were investor-friendly.

The Indian education group initially set up a small branch campus, Manipal University Dubai, in DIAC and now has its own stand-alone campus in the free zone.

“Dubai has been a sterling success for us. There is an enormous opportunity for growth globally and mobility is taking on a whole new meaning, which is why we are working on multiple models.”

Sudarshan said the Manipal group expanded out of India because it could not grow further. Dubai was also attractive as the DIAC initially provided the infrastructure – often a barrier to entry – and it is home to a large South Asian population, mostly from India.
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