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International Campuses in Dubai Feel Pressure From Covid-19

DUBAI—International branch campuses in Dubai, which has one of the world’s largest collections of such university outposts, face an uncertain future in the wake of Covid-19.

With high rents and reduced enrollment rates, the universities are being forced to offer students financial incentives, while also showing flexibility on entry standards for secondary-school graduates who had their examinations canceled this year.

A large share of the 17 university branch campuses’ student base comes from the United Arab Emirates, often as high as 90 percent, but a significant number of students still come from other countries in the region, especially India and Pakistan, though increasingly from the former Soviet states and Africa too.

The number of campuses had already dwindled in recent years, from a high once over 25. Many of the campuses concentrate on a limited number of academic offerings, including an over-supply of business programs.

Branch campuses such as India’s Amity University, Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University and Australia’s Murdoch University mostly attract students who cannot afford to study abroad or whose families prefer to keep them close to home in Dubai. They are often the children of expatriate workers from India and Pakistan, many of whom now find themselves in a precarious financial situation following the widespread salary cuts and job losses that Covid-19 has caused in the emirates.

Extra Costs for Campuses

Murdoch University has been operating in Dubai for eight years, but instruction has been online only since early March, when the U.A.E. government ordered schools, colleges and universities to close their campuses to students. It had just four days to transition to online programming.

The university recently spent several million dollars setting up a new campus in Dubai’s Knowledge Park, a more central location than its previous base at Academic City on the city’s borders. That huge investment is now sitting empty and might remain so for some time while the government draws up new teaching regulations. In the meantime, the university has its usual expenses and is having to spend more on online learning, IT infrastructure and bandwidth.

“It can be quite expensive,” says James Trotter, Murdoch University in Dubai’s dean and academic president, although cloud technology is easing the financial pain somewhat.

Rents are high in the Gulf state, amounting to millions of dollars each year, says Trotter, and the campus still has maintenance, utilities and staff costs, plus increased cleaning costs because of new health measures.

“Our costs are fixed up to a point—a certain cost from space, a certain cost for the staffing—and that’s the same whether you’re teaching five students or 20 students.”

James Trotter  
Dean and academic president of Murdoch University in Dubai

Even if Murdoch University is able to open its classrooms in the fall, capacity is expected to be sharply reduced, especially in areas such as computer labs, and a blend of on-campus and online learning is expected.

“Our costs are fixed up to a point—a certain cost from space, a certain cost for the staffing—and that’s the same whether you’re teaching five students or 20 students,” Trotter explains.

Despite its own increased costs, the university has acknowledged the financial challenges currently being faced by parents by offering all students a 10 percent scholarship. It has also established a hardship fund for families who have lost employment.

In May, the latest admissions intake period, Murdoch saw a 50 percent drop in the typical number of students starting the new term. So far, autumn enrollment is looking better, Trotter says, though for many of the international campuses, it’s a case of sit and wait.

Unlike the federal universities, the international campuses are governed under Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which does annual quality control checks to ensure parity with the home campus. This also means there is no financial support from the government to buffer the institutions during such challenging times.

Potential Bright Spots

The branch campuses are trying to find positives in the unprecedented circumstances. Many expect potential university students in the emirates to be less keen on studying abroad in the coming year, which presents opportunities for Dubai-based campuses.

“Even if restrictions on travel are lifted, there’ll be a lot of people who will feel uneasy about sending their children overseas to study” because of the ongoing pandemic, says Trotter. “So if they have access to an international degree while keeping the children here in the U.A.E., they can have peace of mind as well as reducing some of the costs.”

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New students will still have the chance to go to Murdoch’s home campus in Australia or its branch campuses in Singapore or Myanmar, should they want to.

Ammar Kaka, head of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, is also hopeful that the university can sweep up students who otherwise would have studied abroad, particularly those interested in the United Kingdom, with the incentive that they can go later to Heriot-Watt programs in Scotland.

Flexibility has been essential this year, Kaka says. As the university prepares for more online delivery, its costs have also increased, but it too has offered financial incentives to students. During Ramadan, it awarded a scholarship worth about $2,200 to all students and established a hardship fund. Kaka says the university owns its purpose-built campus, so it has less concern about rent, but costs remain high.

“The safety measures against the pandemic evaporated the second business model [recruiting international students] overnight.”

Marvin Erfurth  
Head of research at the Al Qassimi Foundation for Policy Research, in Ras Al-Khaimah

As for the year ahead, he says that while applications are up year on year, acceptance is slower, because of the delay in high school exit exams or the reliance on predicted grades. “In terms of commitment and payments, we’re slightly behind last year,” he says, “but we think that is because many of the results will only come out in July, rather than May.”

Long-Term Sustainability

Questions remain over the sustainability of many of Dubai’s branch campuses. Kaka says the smaller campuses and those relying on lower-income families for enrollment will struggle, and it will only be come September that the situation will be clearer.

Marvin Erfurth, head of research at the Al Qassimi Foundation for Policy Research, in Ras Al-Khaimah, explains that the business model of international branch campuses in Dubai is typically based on two groups of consumers: locally based and international students. “The safety measures against the pandemic evaporated the second business model overnight,” he says, as international students cannot travel for the foreseeable future. “They might instead look for options in their home countries now, although the story might be different for the most reputed universities,” he says.

Another challenge for international branch campuses, and indeed all educational institutions, Erfurth says, is that students will question having to pay onsite fees when classes are delivered solely online. When consumers are struggling, they see less value in paying fees, he explains.

Mariam Shaikh, an independent strategy consultant for higher education and former vice chancellor for enrollment of Amity University’s Dubai campus, agrees. “If students are going to be learning online anyway, they will prefer to opt for a provider that has strong experience with online learning and that can offer it more affordably,” she says.

For international campuses, says Erfurth, “the worst-case scenario would be that some might not have the financial liquidity to survive over the duration of the pandemic and potentially slower activity in the sector than before, in combination with a challenge to reposition themselves in the market.”

Looking Forward

Erfurth says diversifying the range of courses offered to address local needs, such as water and food security challenges or Arabic literacy, would give Dubai campuses a competitive advantage. “The ideal-case scenario would be that educational offerings … might be more aligned with emerging national and regional needs, combined with a broader discussion about the role of higher education in achieving social and economic progress for the country,” he says.

In the meantime, Sanjeev Verma, head of the education advisory services firm Intelligent Partners, says Dubai’s branch campuses can reassure parents and students that the U.A.E. is one the world’s most well tested countries for Covid-19, making it a safer destination than countries such as the United Kingdom, where death rates have been high. Parents may also be fearful to send children to the United States, where protests against police brutality and racism continue to rage. These are all opportunities in a challenging marketplace.

One Comment

  1. The author repeatedly refers to the reductions in fees as “scholarships”, which is unfortunate as it is not a scholarship in any merited sense, but a fee discount. Referring to a discount as a scholarship pays lip service to an abused marketing label which IBCs were strongly encouraged to discontinue using in the past (although appears to have persisted).

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