Huge growth in UK transnational students in UAE – Review

The number of students studying for a British transnational education award in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, has seen astonishing growth over the past few years. This includes a 37% increase in students during the past two years – bringing to 15,000 the number studying there for United Kingdom awards.

The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, or QAA, has just released the findings of a Review of UK Transnational Education in United Arab Emirates: Overview.

It looks at higher education programmes that lead to awards from UK universities or colleges. There were also visits to 10 institutions in the UAE and meetings with students as well as staff based in the United Kingdom and in the UAE.

Huge educational growth

The UAE’s higher education landscape has developed at a tremendous pace in just two decades: the fast-growing population has topped the eight million mark, and includes a large expatriate community accounting for about 85% of that figure.

There are more than 100 higher education institutions enrolling some 120,000 students, with about 37 international branch campuses from 11 countries catering largely for expats.

There are various types of campuses, mainly branch and ‘administrative’. An international branch campus is located in another country from the institution that either originated it or operates it, with some physical presence in the host country, and awards at least one degree in the host country that is accredited in the home country.

The UK has nine branch campuses and is the highest sending country – in fact, the number of British students in the UAE has almost doubled in two years. This increase is most noticeable among those studying in an overseas branch campus of a UK institution.

In 2012-13, the proportion of students studying in a branch campus was 44% of all British transnational education delivered in the UAE, up from 32% in 2010-11. Interestingly, UK provision focuses almost entirely on masters and bachelor degrees (95%).

In the Dubai free zones, there has been a noted increase in the provision of UK transnational education over the past three years – a 58% hike in students studying for a British award.

Fewer masters degrees

UK provision in the free zones is dominated, in student numbers, by the two large branch campuses of Heriot-Watt University and Middlesex University – in total 78% of students.

The campuses’ growth is attributed to the number of students taking bachelor programmes – fewer were doing masters at these institutions than in 2010.

Business programmes are the most popular with students in Dubai free zones studying for a UK award, comprising more than 50% of provision. Since 2012, it is the only field that has witnessed a significant growth in numbers. While engineering has seen a 69% increase over the same period, it is off a smaller number of students. Just 4% study arts and design, while maths and computing make up 6% of students in the free zones.

British universities, said the review, showed different degrees of success in different aspects: issues like staffing, setting and maintaining standards and meeting student needs varied.

A 2012 report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education on international branch campuses listed six of 11 institutions in the review – Heriot-Watt, London Business School, Manchester Business School, Middlesex University, Bolton University and Cass Business School.

The reviewers saw good examples of how management was organised at these campuses.

Manchester was highly successful in maintaining contacts and coordination between its centres and home campus, and London Business School had a solid foundation for a strategic approach to internationalisation on which to base programme planning. Strathclyde's standard templates for written agreements with partners appeared economical and effective.

Conversely, not all institutions have fully considered the organisational consequences of their global offering.

In some cases heads of the UAE centres were physically located at the UK campus, even where the UAE operation was developing beyond the scale of an administrative campus. One of the branch campuses, otherwise highly successful in organisational terms, had only an indirect line into the governance and management of the university at large.

Importantly, no institution appeared to match all aspects of the relationship between the global orientations of programmes with UK expectations, whether in the specific ‘Quality Code’ sense, or the simple dictionary sense. Only one followed the Quality Code in relation to making external examiner reports available in full to students.

Although Heriot-Watt had thought through the structural implications of global operation, the principle implied at least equivalence in the student experience wherever they may be geographically, and the university acknowledged that some aspects, likes student services and staffing on branch campuses, did not yet fulfil the logic of its position.

The London Business School approach to assessment was strongly influenced by higher education practice in the United States, for example in class participation in assessment and grading relative to others on the programme.

Staffing difficulties

The most common topic for recommendations in UAE reviews relates to staffing. This seems straightforward for administrative campuses, where core teaching – and in some cases all teaching – is by ‘flying faculty’.

The problem of finding difficulty in consistently staffing branch campuses, which has been observed in China, is less evident in the UAE. Most use only faculty who are full members, as core staff, of the home organisation – although sometimes they are not located in the UK.

Most administrative campuses, however, also use local staff in some capacity. The evidence from several campuses is that the contribution of staff from the UK at any level is highly valued and regarded. Student experience of the adjunct staff is less consistent.

In both administrative and branch campuses, since programmes are the same as those in the UK in all important respects, standards setting was not problematic, and assessments appeared well managed.

Students in all the UAE transnational education sites under review believed the UK degree had international value that made it an attractive option. Even in the biggest of the campuses, Heriot-Watt, students believed themselves to be part of the global university, not just of the local campus.

Important observations

Important observations from the QAA review included that awareness of the changing parameters of operations was critical in determining the extent to which aims and strategies for the provision of UK higher education were articulated and effectively implemented.

On branch campuses, institutions could do more to introduce a UK academic culture: engaging branch campus staff in academic governance and quality assurance, and encouraging a culture of scholarly inquiry.

Reviewers said the most effective branch campuses realised that if the UAE centre was to be a campus in the full sense, it needed to run like one, with the full range of support including pastoral, careers and social facilities.

Institutions should consider the expectations they were raising in promising a global campus experience. Arrangements to support career development – including curriculum content, industry links, alumni networks and careers services – were particularly important in the UAE.

It was also suggested that locally recruited part-time and fixed-contract staff needed similar kinds of support to what was routinely offered to full-time, permanent staff in terms of appointment practices, probation, staff development and so on.

Most importantly, the reviewers noted that the UK brand was a valuable selling point in the UAE. Not all providers had yet realised the full potential of their links for students in the United Kingdom.

* The reviewers visited the following universities in the UAE, with a separate report published on each one: City University London, Cass Business School; Coventry University and Emirates Aviation College, Dubai; Heriot-Watt University, Dubai; London Business School; Middlesex University, Dubai; Middlesex University and SAE Institute, Dubai; University of Bolton and Western International College, Ras Al Khaimah; University of Bradford; University of Exeter; University of Manchester; and University of Strathclyde.