DUBAI—The United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Education has revoked the licenses of six universities and put another six on probation after it said the institutions failed to meet quality and accreditation standards.
Several of the institutions affected by the clampdown are international branch campuses. Local observers see the regulatory move as a useful international signal that the U.A.E. takes education quality control seriously. (See a related article, “A Regional Survey: How Arab Countries Regulate Quality in Higher Education.”)
The changes came after annual reviews by the ministry, which evaluates academic programs and factors such as exam performance and student services. Last week’s crackdown comes a year after the U.A.E. announced its National Strategy for Higher Education, a plan meant to enhance the quality and global competitiveness of university campuses in the Emirates. Under the plan, 11 key areas are to be considered, including health and safety, educational resources, quality of faculty, and overall environment.
The six institutions that have now had licenses cancelled are Al-Hosn University, Emirates College for Management and Information Technology, Maktoum bin Hamdan University College of Dental Medicine, University of Jazeera, the University of Modern Sciences, and MODUL University Dubai, a branch campus from Austria.
In addition, the troubled Ittihad University is currently under probation and has a history of being under review and probation dating back almost a decade, with a ban on new admissions. The London Business School in Dubai is currently under review, news of which may be surprising to many, since its home campus has done well in rankings in the United Kingdom and Europe since opening in 1964.
Another four local institutions are under tight surveillance, with pressure to raise standards before new admissions are allowed. These are: Al Dar University College, the American College of Dubai, Mena College of Management, and the College of Fashion and Design.
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The Ministry of Education’s Commission for Academic Accreditation, or CAA, has a multi-stage process of evaluations, from review to surveillance status, and then to probation, before licenses are revoked, so institutions are given time to make changes with the hope they will improve and to ensure that they can graduate existing students or transfer them elsewhere if they do have to close.
Sally Jeffery, education and skills practice leader at PWC Middle East, praised the measures.
“I think the action taken by the CAA represents a natural maturing of the market,” she said. “There were many branch campuses attracted to Dubai based on the success of some of the existing institutions and the great work of the KHDA [Knowledge and Human Development Authority] in creating an ecosystem that is admired across the region.
“Setting up a profitable educational institution is extremely challenging, though, even pre-pandemic. The operating costs are high, and if student numbers don’t increase in line with projections, then it can take a few years to break even. Without a strong balance sheet this is tough.”
“I think the action taken by the CAA represents a natural maturing of the market. There were many branch campuses attracted to Dubai based on the success of some of the existing institutions and the great work of the KHDA [Knowledge and Human Development Authority] in creating an ecosystem that is admired across the region,”Sally Jeffery
Education and skills practice leader at PWC Middle East
Universities must think long term, she said: “Good faculty attract good students, who attract more good faculty. However, it’s fundamental and essential for the credibility of the U.A.E.’s higher-education system that the CAA and KHDA and other regulators govern quality consistently, protect the interests of students, and retain their credibility worldwide.”
The U.A.E. has one of the largest—if not the largest—numbers of international branch campuses in the world, many of them with global brands, including New York University Abu Dhabi, Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, and Heriot Watt University in Dubai.
It is vital that reputation and quality are maintained, Jeffery said. “Without this, top-ranked international institutions won’t trust the system to either run a campus here or partner with existing institutions,” she said. “The U.A.E. needs more collaboration with top-ranked institutions to accelerate the research and knowledge agenda. However, these institutions won’t put their reputation on the line.”
Jeffery suggests that some of the struggling institutions have been offering programs in sectors which are relatively new, such as MODUL, specializing in tourism and hospitality, and the College of Fashion and Design, and that demand so far is lower than more popular subjects, such as engineering and business, which remain high on the list of students and parents both in the U.A.E. and in the Arab region generally.
Marvin Erfurth, head of research at Al Qassimi Foundation, agrees about the need for tough quality control, but also stresses that before allowing foreign universities to set up shop, needs assessments are necessary.
“More scrutiny is needed on the regulators’ side to prevent those cases in the future.”Marvin Erfurth
Head of research at Al Qassimi Foundation
“Students might have lost valuable time and money, and who knows what the ramifications will be for their lives and careers,” he says. “In this sense, the barriers for foreign universities to enter the U.A.E.’s higher-education sector should probably be increased. Those barriers should also be based on a needs-assessment by the U.A.E.’s government to avoid oversupply of certain programs and degrees by foreign universities. More scrutiny is needed on the regulators’ side to prevent those cases in the future.”
Greater transparency is needed, he says. “In the specific case of the six revoked licenses, it should also be considered to make information accessible to learners, families, and future students in general. How do prospective students know which universities to choose and which ones they should avoid because of these quality issues?”
Sanjeev Verma, founder of the education consultancy Intelligent Partners, also praised the move, saying the closures signaled improved standards and reassure parents and students who are making a major decision.
“Students and parents depend upon the ministry to ensure that all licensed educational institutes maintain the required standards. It is therefore not only mandatory but obligatory on the ministry to conduct these inspections objectively and inform the public accordingly,” he says. “A decision to study in a university affects not only a student’s finances but also his or her future, so it is very important students are aware of the status of the institute’s license so they can take a well-informed decision.”
Jeffery, at PWC Middle East, says the episode provides hope for the future. “Post-pandemic, there are more students staying in the region for the next academic year or two,” she says. “so maybe the extra demand will help some of these institutions get back on track.”