One group strives to ensure diplomas from all of its campuses are of the same value through tests, while other colleges try different approaches.
Colleges struggle for equal degrees of importance
ABU DHABI // Higher Colleges of Technology faces a constant struggle to ensure a diploma from Ras Al Khaimah is worth the same as one from Al Ain, or any of its other 14 campuses around the country.
HCT is not alone. Many of the UAE's universities and colleges are similarly fractured, with branches in different emirates sometimes having very different ideas about what should be taught and how.
While the HCT colleges provide the same curriculums, it is hard to be sure they are being applied the same way in its hundreds of classrooms.
So two years ago it introduced system-wide assessment tests (Swats) to monitor what is being taught to its 18,000 students.
A quality control officer has been appointed at each HCT college. They and the heads of department are responsible for managing the system.
Between 15 and 20 per cent of students are picked at random each year to see if their coursework matches their exam results. The Swats count for 30 per cent of their final grades.
The quality watchdogs also look for non-standard teaching methods.
"The curriculum has to be uniform," said Dr Mark Drummond, the provost of HCT. "Colleges can't just adapt their own course implementation. We need to be sure that students are getting the same basic quality from one college to another."
One campus was using local alternatives to assigned textbooks to make it easier for students, Dr Drummond said. "That was a red flag and we fixed that right away."
In Sharjah, the assessment system has paid dividends. While students' exam scores are usually lower than their marks for coursework, in Sharjah it is the other way round.
This is because the teachers are more aware of the need to stick to the guidelines, Dr Drummond said.
"That's showing that you've got tough teachers … and shows the students are learning the right outcomes," he said.
Uniformity can be hard to achieve in some subjects, particularly practical or creative subjects such as art, but Dr Drummond said there was always some way of assessing a student's understanding.
"You should still be able to write something about these subjects other than just giving practical projects," he said.
Dr Drummond said it had also made teachers more attentive to project grading. In time, he expects further benefits.
"Within three to four years, I'd expect to see very broad consistency with deviation of no more than 10 per cent between course grades and test results," he said. "We're there with standardising English and maths but not with the other subjects yet."
The initiative has not been welcomed by all campuses. Dr Howard Reed, the director of Dubai Women's College, said while it was quick and easy, it was a backwards step in educating students.
Dr Reed said the multiple-choice Swats encouraged rote learning and were "all wrong", which is why the college had scrapped rote learning.
"The teachers just teach to the tests and the students just learn that," he said. "Real-world projects and experience become the exception and students don't get a deeper learning process."
But Dr Farid Ohan, the director of the Sharjah colleges, said teachers must be trained to better compile multiple-choice tests. Sharjah HCT gives its teaching staff two weeks of training for that every year.
Dr Ohan said Sharjah colleges had the best Swats results because they were the only ones to administer final examinations on all courses, as opposed to modular assessment.
Dr Reed insisted it would be better to have a team of academics visiting departments to make sure students were producing their own work and give the students verbal assessments. He admitted, though, this would take much more time.
Zayed University uses this approach, although with just two campuses the process is much easier.
Zayed has one dean in each of its six departments who runs the courses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to ensure they are the same. The dean visits classes and hosts retreats to bring academics together.
Its new provost Dr Larry Wilson, however, hopes to give more autonomy to the two campuses, making them more tailored to the needs of the emirates.
"Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have their own needs and personalities," Dr Wilson said. "Abu Dhabi has the 2030 plan and Dubai something similar, so we need to make sure we're responding to those.
"It won't be major changes, we're just assessing what we're doing."
Professor Russell Jones, the director of the Fatima College of Nursing, which has campuses in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, said curriculum and assessment continuity were key.
"Any changes to the curriculum require approval by the curriculum committee, which is comprised of content and curriculum specialists from both campuses," he said.
Regular meetings between teachers allow the college to constantly monitor what is being delivered - and find the problems.
"In some cases we are able to use the same staff to teach courses at both campuses," Prof Jones said.