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United Arab Emirates’ Experiments with Branch Campuses Have Mixed Results

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Heriot-Watt University is a long way from home.

That’s the point.

Seeking to become a global university, the Scotland-based institution set up a campus eight years ago in Dubai with a vision for long-term presence. “We are here for a very, very long time,” said Ammar Kaka, head of campus and the executive dean at Heriot-Watt University Dubai. “We have made quite a large investment.”

That attitude of permanence is just one factor that led to the success of Heriot-Watt’s campus in Dubai—and that attitude contributes to the potential success of others, say experts. Institutions that adopted realistic aims, came well prepared and fostered long-term plans have created healthy branch campuses in a nation seeing a rising demand for higher education, experts say.

The branch campus model “has been healthy and is remaining so,” said Warren Fox of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, or KHDA, a local government body that oversees education in Dubai. “When you look at the overall number of institutions and the number of students, the numbers have stayed very positive and have been growing.”

Rising Demand 

A significant population spike and a shift toward a more diversified and knowledge-based economy is strengthening demand for higher education in the United Arab Emirates, says a June 2014 report by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, an independent body in the United Kingdom. That demand has largely been met by increasing the number of non-federal institutions, the report says.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) now hosts 35 international branch campuses nationally—more than any other country worldwide, according to KHDA figures, which vary from others depending on how ‘branch campus’ is defined. Dubai alone is home to 26 while others have sprouted in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah—the country’s northernmost of seven emirates.

In Dubai, the primary strategy for attracting international programs has rested with its ‘free’ zones, which allow institutions full foreign ownership. (Outside the free zones, ownership of an enterprise, educational or otherwise, is limited to 49 percent.) Two of the free zones—Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village—are dedicated to higher learning and human-resource management respectively, hosting 21 international branch campuses from 10 countries. Many students attending the institutions are expatriates already living in the UAE, pursuing master’s degrees and working, said Fox. “We serve mainly the expat population,” he said, “and close to 90 percent of the population of Dubai is expatriate.”

With 57 higher-education institutions collectively freckling Dubai—including federal, local, vocational and international institutions—competition to attract students is a key challenge for the foreign campuses, said Peter Hawke, director of marketing and student recruitment at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. “The market is still maturing.”

Yet the number of students enrolled at Wollongong, which came to Dubai in the early ‘90s, keeps climbing. “We started slowly with realistic expectations and our growth over the years has been well-paced and adjusted to the market,” said Daniel Kratochvil, director of the office of planning and performance at the university. “If an institution overseas views Dubai as El Dorado, as fast money, they have unrealistic expectations and they will not last very long.” A main asset in successfully recruiting students is word-of-mouth reputation, he said. “People know we’re not going to disappear. We’re not a fly-by-night operation,” he added.

Among the factors that make branch campuses thrive are proper marketing, strong home-campus support and good grasp of the educational landscape, said Ayoub Kazim, who overseas Dubai Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City as managing director of the Education Cluster at TECOM Investments. ( (See related interview: A Conversation with Ayoub Kazim: Dubai as an Education Destination.)

New York University’s state of the art campus in Abu Dhabi opened its doors to students this semester.

It also helps to offer programs that meet local needs. After scaling down its operation in 2010, failing to attract enough undergraduates, Michigan State University is now concentrating solely on master’s degrees, executive education and research while seeking to offer areas of study needed in the country and region. “Things like the law, speech pathology—particularly those two are key at the moment,” said Tessa Dunseath, executive director of Michigan State University in Dubai. “And we don’t want to overstretch ourselves. We want to make sure we deliver a quality product.”

Shutting Campuses Down

Quality of education is a sensitive topic in the UAE. No universal policy exists for quality assurance and accreditation in higher education. Instead a patchwork of agencies covers different institutions and free zones.

Outside of the free zones, higher learning institutions nationwide must be licensed and accredited by the Commission for Academic Accreditation, which falls under the country’s education ministry, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Foreign institutions operating in the free zones are not required to seek federal licensing, but can if they want to.

Quality-control measures also vary among the zones. Branch campuses in Ras Al Khaimah, which are located within a single free zone, face no local regulation to operate there, according to the QAA. In the two free zones in Dubai, all higher education programs must be approved and registered by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority. An internal body within that authority assesses the quality of international branch campuses, usually relying on quality assurance and accreditation from universities’ home countries, according to the QAA.

That means in Dubai, there are three potential levels of quality assurance and accreditation: the parent institution’s procedures, the KHDA’s process and accreditation by the federal commission. “That creates some confusion,” says Jane Knight, adjunct professor in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the University of Toronto. “It can create some overlap and gaps as well. That is clearly an ongoing issue, but I do believe that Dubai has taken significant steps to address the quality assurance issue of the branch campuses.”

Before the Knowledge and Human Development Authority starting reviewing branch campuses in Dubai, one was closed for failing to secure proper licensing, said Fox. Later, the authority shut down three branch campuses. “It indicates that they have rigor, that they haven’t been afraid to take what other people might consider to be difficult decisions in the interest of students and parents as well as the reputation of Academic City,” said Carolyn Campbell, a member of the advisory board of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a higher education research organization based in the United Kingdom.

Another important issue for the branch campuses is whether the degrees of their graduates will be recognized. The central government doesn’t recognize many branch campus degrees since many are not licensed and accredited by the federal commission. While that may not matter for expatriates, it can deter Emirati nationals from seeking non-federally licensed degrees if they seek to work in a government job or pursue further education at a federally licensed institution.

Moreover, potential students at branch campuses should be wary of what various institutions offer: Only two United Kingdom-based institutions in the United Arab Emirates are readily recognizable as “branch campuses” by including the range of facilities students would expect at campuses in the United Kingdom, says the QAA. Others are more like administrative campuses, lacking permanent and local academic staff, while still others are structurally more like partnerships than branches, the QAA says.

The entrance of New York University Abu Dhabi’s new campus on Sarjiyaat Island.

Abu Dhabi: A Different Strategy

Over an hour’s drive southwest of Dubai, the UAE’s largest emirate—Abu Dhabi—is also home to branch campuses. Those include Paris Sorbonne University and New York University, which welcomed 740 students to its ‘portal’ campus this year, boasting a highly selective 6 percent acceptance rate for new students—similar to that of Harvard University.

“Only five years ago, before we had recruited that first class, there were many who predicted that we would never be able to attract some of the world’s best students to Abu Dhabi, or draw top faculty… away from the world’s leading universities,” said Al Bloom, vice-chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi, in an email. But those naysayers were proven wrong, he said.

Students, who come from 107 countries, just started their academic year at a new complex that underscores the emirate’s strategy for attracting foreign institutions: The educational complex was financed by the Abu Dhabi government. That local financing and support allows foreign universities to scale up faster than others can elsewhere, said Jason Lane, director of Educational Studies and senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. “The campuses have had less skin in the game, other than their branding,” Lane said.

While that may be an initial asset, however, it may mean the branch model in Dubai, where universities rent or build their campuses, is more sustainable over time, Lane said. There is larger commitment by institutions to be there—and be sustainable, he added.

An Education Hub

Branch campus sustainability is one component of broader growth of the United Arab Emirates as an education hub, says Knight.

Of what she considers to be six major education hubs around the world, the United Arab Emirates seems to be unique in that it lacks a coordinated national strategy for its hub development, Knight said. Planning is done at the local level of the emirates. “This has provided opportunities for innovation, but on the other hand has raised issues related to sustainability, lack of coordination and missed opportunities for leveraging some initiatives,” Knight said.

In Ras Al Khaimah, educational institutions are part of a major development push. But when it comes to branch campuses, the emirate remains more on the margins, say experts. “They have been much more experimental without a clear vision,” said Lane. Five years ago, George Mason University’s campus there closed its doors, citing “several issues, not the least of which is the global economic crisis,” according to a July 2009 statement.

Despite some challenges international campuses have faced, the United Arab Emirates was considered the most attractive destination for higher education in the region and fourth worldwide among students polled in a 2012 study by Deloitte and TECOM Investments’ Education Cluster, which manages the two Dubai free zones. Within the emirates, most of those polled favored Dubai, surely thanks in part to its density of international branch campuses. “It’s an international and new experience and we are working with it, working for it, and it will be interesting to see in a decade or two where it all ends up,” said Fox, at KHDA.

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