x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Heriot-Watt: from camels to a campus in just 5 years

University has doubled its intake of students in one year.

Dr Ammar Kaka, vice principal of the Heriot-Watt University.
Dr Ammar Kaka, vice principal of the Heriot-Watt University.

DUBAI // When Heriot-Watt University was set up in Dubai seven years ago, camels roamed the car park of Dubai International Academic City. There was little by way of facilities to allow anything like a campus life.

The university has come a long way since then, with a student body now numbering more than 2,500 and a swanky new 4,000-capacity campus that it moved into in January.

Chris Burgoyne, the student president, embarked on student life at Heriot-Watt when it was housed in rented rooms in two buildings in DIAC.

"When I first came in 2007, Academic City wasn't even finished and there were still camels walking around the car park," the Scottish business graduate recalls. "There wasn't even a supermarket or a canteen."

DIAC struck Mr Burgoyne as "just a bunch of universities grouped together".

The new premises, the third stand-alone campus to open in DIAC after Manipal and Bits Pilani, are far more appealing. The key is that rather than being housed in office towers - DIAC contains 27 academic institutions with nearly 20,000 students between them - it has the feel of a proper campus.

"When you think of going to university," Mr Burgoyne says, "you think of being on campus, living on campus."

The new campus will also enable Heriot-Watt to keep growing. Last year alone, it doubled its intake; in the two years before, it increased by 30 per cent.

"It shows our commitment to Dubai," says its director, Dr Ammar Kaka. "It was a significant investment and proves we are here for the long term."

Last month, the Scottish university was ranked 20th in Britain by The Guardian, which publishes one of the leading UK university league tables.

Now that it has more laboratory and classroom space, the Dubai branch has asked the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which licenses and regulates free zone universities, to let it introduce PhDs.

"It's inconceivable to have a campus of this size with no research activity," says Dr Kaka.

"The academics we bring also take it for granted they will be given time for research."

The lack of space previously meant lectures were bunched together - so students on a particular course would come in, take four hours of classes back to back, and then leave en masse. The result, he says, was very little chance for students on different courses to mix.

With communal areas, a bigger library with personal and group study space as well as sports facilities, this has all changed.

Shayamala Gandhi, a second-year student of textile design, says this is a big plus. "It brings us together," she says. "For the classes too with all this extra space, it has given us more creativity. We needed more space for our machinery and working space, so it's really improved our class time."

Hannah Brown has just finished her first year in psychology and management and was at the old campus for just three months before moving to the new one.

"It's so much more social now," she says. "We have way more events like bake sales and it's a place we want to stay for longer."

Vanessa Northway, the head of textiles and design, says students are much happier.

"It has a real campus feel now," she says. "The students all interact more and in the classroom, there's so much more space to work and be creative.

"There's more light streaming into the studios, we have separate rooms for design and machinery and in health and safety terms, it's much better."

The second phase of the development should open in September 2013, with restaurants, shops, two student dormitories, a gym and extra communal areas.

"It's now about managing those numbers, and this will certainly help us do this," Dr Kaka says.

mswan@thenational.ae