A Conversation with Ayoub Kazim: Dubai as an Education Destination

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Until just over a decade ago, the conference room where Ayoub Kazim met with an Al-Fanar Media writer on a recent afternoon didn’t exist.

Yet the concrete complex in which the meeting room sits is at the heart of Kazim’s vision to make Dubai a global player in higher learning and human capital development over the next ten years.

Known as Dubai Knowledge Village, the sprawling stretch of cream-colored structures is one of two ‘free’ zones that Kazim oversees as managing director of the Education Cluster of TECOM Investments, a real estate developer and operator in the United Arab Emirates. The other free zone is Dubai International Academic City, which started up in 2007.

The zones allow foreigners to own and run educational institutions in Dubai and are home to 21 international university branch campuses and four local higher-learning institutes. Together the institutions enroll more than 20,000 students from 125 countries. But can student enrollment at the international campus sites grow? What challenges do universities face setting up outposts in a 43-year-old nation?

Kazim spoke with Al-Fanar Media about branch campuses in Dubai and what obstacles the nation faces in advancing higher education.

Looking at the branch campus model, is it proving to be a healthy model for international institutions?

Yes, if you play it right. There are many ingredients or many parameters or criteria that you have to work with when it comes to setting up a branch campus. In order to have a successful model branch campus, a university should seriously do their due diligence, do a market-research study and understand the educational landscape locally and regionally. Plus, they have to ensure that they will have [people] who are fully aware of the local educational landscape to be running the branch campus. You need to ensure having the right leadership, the right human resources, to manage and operate the branch campus successfully.

Also, sustainability is quite important here now. The university, when its sets up its business plan, has to review the business plan every year, looking at market intakes, the students and what type of programs that they could add in order to diversify their portfolio, in order to ensure sustainability.

But above all, you need one important factor… If you do not have strong home-campus support, the operation is doomed to fail. You take it from me. This is what we have seen.

– What challenges do branch campuses face?

Let me mention a couple of them. The first thing is that the universities, when they come here, are under the impression that they are well recognized. This is one important miscalculation. University heads think, ‘We are well-known in our respective country, so we will be well-known anywhere we go to.’ Fine, but at least you need to do marketing and promotion. You need to have the right exposure. And you have to have that visibility among the industry leaders, among the academic community, and in the region with the activities that you carry out, with the programs that you offer and so on.

Another one is doing the right due diligence. Some universities come in without doing their homework… They don’t know what type of programs they should offer. We always recommend that the university should offer their niche programs, the programs they are strong at… But they come in and they try to test the water. They offer one or two programs in order to minimize their risk.

Testing the water is not something that students would like to hear, or the parents… That is flat out wrong. You shouldn’t be doing that.

Third would be the regulatory framework that we have. It is quite solid. It is quite good, except there are some challenges when it comes to licensing and accreditation. This might be posing some kind of a challenge for some of the academic providers we have here.

– Would you say lack of collaboration between the private sector and universities, specifically when it comes to funding for research, is the single biggest factor holding education back in the UAE [United Arab Emirates]?

This is one of the factors. This is one thing we see. But also now there is an element of mistrust between the community and schools, academic institutions that are for-profit-driven institutions. This relationship and this mistrust should be at least addressed somehow, because at the end these academic institutions are offering quality programs. Profit might be recycled into the advancement of their educational system, in the curriculum, in the courses, in the course content and so on.

– Are you talking about local universities? 

Both local universities and international branch campuses.

– Can you point to a few branch campuses that have been the most successful and a few that have been the least successful?

I cannot make a comment on the least successful, but the most successful, I will give you one example here. We have a Scottish university in Academic City. It’s called Heriot-Watt University. They came in eight years ago. What we have seen over the past eight years has been phenomenal especially with this great academic institution. They started with around 150 students, give or take, back then. They had a very small set-up and they started to grow gradually, but also, they were growing at an exponential rate. So over the past 8 years they have grown to 3,800 students. I forgot to mention the model we have here with TECOM. Dubai International Academic City is the only free zone in the world dedicated to education. Now, the universities, once they come into Dubai, can take up a small space and offer their programs and depending on growth, they could take a plot and built their own campus to have a more sustainable permanent setup. And this is what they did.

– What has been Dubai’s strategy to draw branch campuses and what is the strategy going forward?

We wanted to make Dubai an education destination, an alternative education destination. I think the outcome of a report we did with Deloitte was revealed—a study where we surveyed students from 17 countries, and we found out from that study that the UAE was perceived to be the fourth most desired destination for students in this vast region from South Korea all the way to North Africa, plus Nigeria. What prompted these students to look at the UAE as one of the leading destinations? Well, one important thing is safety and security.

Then you have the employability of students: What is their most important objective of pursuing their studies? It’s employment, after graduation. The UAE is the second-largest economy in the Middle East. It is considered to be the most active country in the Middle East when it comes to recruitment, in various sectors. Especially now with the Expo 2020, things are moving in all different directions in all different sectors.

Third, I would call it the standard of living… But also looking to other benefits associated with living here and working here, ease of visa issues and so on. These are some other added advantages, aside from being a multi-cultural society. You don’t feel that you are a foreigner in this country.

– Where are most students at branch campuses from?   

Mainly what we have seen, the students come from around 125 countries. So, it’s quite diversified in nationalities. The majority of them would be coming from Southeast Asia. They will be coming from there and also the Middle East and GCC countries. We see more students from the GCC countries are also coming and enrolling in the programs. Since we started for the past 10 years we have managed to have now 21,000, 22,000 students. Around 35 percent of them are transnational students, students who come from abroad and come to Academic City to pursue their studies—so, a third of the student population. Our objective is to have 50 percent of students coming from abroad to pursue their studies.

– Do they usually end up staying once they graduate?

Not all of them but a majority of them stay. Employment opportunities are there. The UAE is doing quite well economically in terms of the GDP in the past year. It all depends on the economy.

– Where do you envision Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village when it comes to the branch campuses in two, three decades?

Let’s not go that far. Let’s take it to ten years from now. By the way things are moving right now, we are back on track. I think we learned our lessons from the last decade. What we see here ten years down the road: We are not only going to be a regional player, we will be much more of a global player when it comes to higher education and when it comes to professional development, human capital development.

Note: The full interview was edited for brevity.

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