DUBAI // The emirate's guardians of university quality are perturbed that an institution that fails to meet their standards can simply move to a free zone in another emirate.
Roger Field, the vice chancellor of Lincoln University in New Zealand, said it is "frustrating" when institutions that fall short of the University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB)'s standards manage to relocate to Ras al Khaimah.
"I think there has to be concern in a general sense about institutions that peddle their wares internationally when they may not be meeting what we see as acceptable standards," Mr Field, a member of the board, said at tits bi-annual meeting to assess the emirate's free zone institutions.
"The issues are about meeting academic standards although there are elements of the business model that need to be met, but the principal requirement of UQAIB is to ensure that the academic standards are achieved, measurable and have equivalence with the best available internationally."
Officials in Ras al Khaimah, which has no body similar to UQAIB, defended their academic standards.
Oussama El Omari, the chief executive of the RAK Free Trade Zone, said: "We at RAK Free Trade Zone make sure that the academic infrastructure provider is controlled, monitored, audited and supervised by the parent university and the exams conducted and certificated by the university directly. The university guarantees and takes responsibility for all acts of the academic infrastructure provider."
Dubai's UQAIB, which has 10 members from countries including New Zealand, the UK and the US, has been reviewing the universities in the emirate's free zones, and new applications, for nearly three years.
UQAIB issues licences on the condition that branch universities demonstrate that their courses, lecturers and entry requirements in Dubai are as good as at the home campus. The board automatically grants a licence to schools that choose to obtain the ministry's licences and accreditation.
A number of universities have been forced to leave the emirate for failing to meet standards, most recently the International Institute for Technology and Management and Mahatma Gandhi University.
Dr Ayoub Kazim, managing director of Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City, Dubai's largest academic free zones, said there must be more federal uniformity.
"If a university can't get a licence in one emirate, they should not be able to get one in another. We need to seek this uniform policy on a federal level so there is that alignment."
Although the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research accredits more than 60 universities in the country, universities and businesses can open in an unregulated free zone such as in Ras al Khaimah with no national regulation or quality control.
Warren Fox, who chairs UQAIB, said: "We've had conversations with the Commission for Academic Accreditation and will work with the ministry on this issue. We would benefit from better co-operation between emirates."
Peter Cheung, from Hong Kong's Vocational Training Council, said the system in Dubai is being used as a model in Hong Kong.
"In Hong Kong, we have had to design a system of accreditation," he said. "There was no bottom line. It's more 'buyer beware'."
UQAIB has a strict list of criteria it uses to advise the Knowledge and Human Development Authority on whether an institution is up to standard, as well as regulating the existing branch campuses.
Many of these branch campuses are not accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, so the work of UQAIB is a vital measure for students signing up to programmes, in some cases spending Dh60,000 per year.
Universities must demonstrate a high standing in their home country, according to Mr Field, as well as showing that the Dubai campus is a priority in the university's growth strategy.
Mr Cheung said that thanks to its economic power, Dubai has a strong hand to play when foreign universities come calling.
"Dubai is rich so they can afford to be choosy. In this process, you can screen and vet the institutions. Here, the institutions are high end, offering high quality programmes. There has been a lot of interest in this system internationally. Transnational education is a hot topic."
This article has been altered to clarify that Warren Fox chaired the UQAIB meeting.