United Arab Emirates
Monitoring Quality in Arab Higher Education
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates, in part because of the country’s governance as a federation of seven emirates, has a complex patchwork of educational regulations. The regulatory system includes a national commission, a number of agencies that regulate educational institutions within individual emirates, and other agencies that regulate the “free zones” that exist in all the emirates. The free zones make it easier for international institutions or investors to start educational institutions or branch campuses in a designated area within an emirate and exempt them from many federal regulations. A 2016 survey by the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education (PDF download) found that the United Arab Emirates was the second largest host of international branch campuses in the world, after China.
But from the viewpoint of students, free zones sometimes offer fewer safeguards against a poor quality education. There have been calls in the past for a single national system of accreditation in the Emirates.
Potential students need to do their research in the Emirates and choose carefully to make sure that they attend an accredited institution and get a degree that will have local and international value. In particular, local academics recommend that potential students should look into the qualifications of the professors who will teach them, including their degrees and experience.
The Commission for Academic Accreditation is the national body that licenses the three national public universities and 79 private universities, including vocational institutions, that come under national supervision. The commission is also the national supervisory agency that is supposed to do follow-up quality checks every five years on educational institutions. The commission says that it will often “undertake ad hoc visits in the period between formal licensure visits to monitor the ongoing progress of the institution.”
The commission does not regulate institutions within the free zones. (The total number of higher education institutions in the United Arab Emirates is not known: It is estimated to be well over 100.)
The commission has published standards in English that cover a wide variety of topics including governance, curricula, record keeping, faculty members’ qualifications, and facilities. An institution is supposed to meet these standards to get a license. Some sample standards are:
- The institution needs to have a “distinct and clearly articulated mission.”
- Members of the board of directors—except those who are members by virtue of their position, such as the president—are not to be involved in day-to-day operations. At private universities, investors cannot hold executive positions.
- Students should have the opportunity to participate in institutional decisions and should be members of appropriate committees.
- Branch campuses need to provide a learning experience equivalent to that at their parent institutions. They must also offer a financial guarantee to the commission to prove they will not close without letting existing students finish their degrees in some way.
- Institutions must thoroughly assess “the need for any new program, determining the potential employment market, competition in the sector, prospective student interest, resource requirements, and financial implications.”
- Students are supposed to be actively involved in their own learning.
- Faculty members teaching undergraduates are not supposed to have more than 15 credit hours (approximately five normal courses) per semester of teaching responsibilities.
- No more than 25 percent of faculty members at an institution can be part-time.
- Marketing materials and recruitment activities must “accurately and truthfully portray” the institution.
Dubai’s free zones are perhaps the best known. There, the University Quality Assurance International Board [ARABIC LINK] (part of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority) [ARABIC LINK] determines whether branch campuses are offering programs that are equivalent to those of the home campuses at the parent institutions. The board has to issue a license to institutions before they can open up and has the power to close institutions down. It conducts annual reviews of the institutions that it regulates.
In Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the emirates, the Abu Dhabi Education Council has helped to bring in institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne and to establish institutions such as Khalifa University. The distinction between the role of the council and of the national commission is not always clear, though, even to university administrators.
In Ras al Khaimah, a 2016 article in The National—the English newspaper in the United Arab Emirates—stated: “A lack of proper regulation governing the setting up of universities and an emphasis on investment instead of educational quality in [the emirate’s] free zones means students are paying for worthless degrees and graduating with qualifications that are not recognized.”
Institutions that come under the Commission for Academic Accreditation’s regulation are supposed to have conflict-of-interest policies. Investors and board members (other than ex officio members such as the president) are not supposed to serve as administrators or be involved in day-to-day operations. Insiders say enforcement of conflict-of-interest regulations has sometimes been lax.