DUBAI // Private universities must focus on quality, not profit, education watchdogs warned yesterday as they vowed to weed out institutions that saw their UAE branches as mere cash cows.
"It is about quality not quantity," Dr Ayoub Kazim, head of Dubai's academic free zones told an international education conference. "In the past, we used to focus on the number of institutions. That's fine, but quality must be the priority."
A more rigorous licensing procedure has improved the quality of Dubai's universities, he said. It has forced new entrants to do their homework before setting up shop, to ensure they offered courses for which there was demand.
The 33 universities in Dubai's free zones, Academic City and Knowledge Village, have since 2008 been regulated and licensed by the University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB), part of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
That has helped, said Dr Kazim, because it means licences are now awarded by experienced academics, who inspect and review each university every year to ensure branch campuses are on par with the home institution.
"Since this scrutiny some institutions realised they wanted to move somewhere else, and they did," said Dr Warren Fox, head of UQAIB.
Those included the International Institute for Technology and Management and Mahatma Gandhi University, both Indian universities that moved to the unregulated RAK free zones after UQAIB's first round of inspections found them to be sub-standard.
Barely one in ten of the 200 applications to set up university branches in the two zones over the past six years was granted. And the proportion has declined since the advent of the UQAIB, said Dr Kazim.
Dr Bruce Taylor, a member of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research's Commission for Academic Accreditation, which accredits 75 private universities across the country as well as the three federal universities, says there is a need to remember that universities open here to make money, even if the home campus is non-profit.
"Everyone needs to know those priorities," he said. "Quality must always come before profit making. The intelligent investor or institution will always know that. The best way to make a name here is to have satisfied students who are convinced of the quality of an institution."
Those seeing the UAE as a "cash cow" will not flourish in an already "crowded" market, said Prof Ghassan Aoud, the president of the Australian University of Wollongong in Dubai, which opened in 1993. "If you start with a cash cow mentality, you are bound to fail."
To succeed, he said, universities must serve the UAE's needs. "We have to establish a niche. It's very important for all of us to understand the UAE's strategic priorities."