x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Heriot-Watt University plans to double student numbers

Institution will offer new degree programmes and aim to target the needs of the community

Ammar Kaka, Vice Principal of the Heriot Watt University at the site of under construction campus in the academic city in Dubai.
Ammar Kaka, Vice Principal of the Heriot Watt University at the site of under construction campus in the academic city in Dubai.

DUBAI // Only six years after opening, Heriot-Watt University in Dubai is preparing to unveil a new 4,000-capacity campus.

The branch campus of the Scottish institution, best known for its engineering programmes, has become one of the emirate's largest universities.

But with 2,000 students enrolled, the university is full.

"Last year, we reached capacity at our Academic City location," said Prof Ammar Kaka, the head of campus. "In five years' time, we anticipate our student numbers being around 3,500."

The first phase of the £200m (Dh1.2bn) campus, also in Dubai International Academic City, will include housing for staff and academics, laboratories, teaching space and offices. Phase two will include two halls of residence for 600 students and sports facilities.

This September, the institution will offer courses from all its home campus departments in Scotland, from engineering to textiles and design.

When it opened in 2005, Heriot-Watt had just 120 students, all on postgraduate courses. Since then it has added bachelor's and master's programmes, expanding to compete with older, bigger institutions such as the Australian University of Wollongong Dubai and the American University of Dubai - both of which have more than 3,000 students.

Dr Ben Hughes, of the faculty of engineering, said the new campus would make a marked difference to the experience of both students and academics.

"It will make a big difference to both teaching and research, he said. "We need better facilities."

The university is now working with several local companies to identify areas where research is needed, as well as scoping out what kind of graduates they need.

"We're trying to link with local businesses for the employability of our students," said Prof Kaka. "In Scotland, Heriot-Watt was established to meet the needs of the local community and we want to provide the same here. Our subject areas are all very job-focused."

To that end, the university is carrying out research for interest groups such as the Emirates Green Building Council.

From October, the institution will offer a master's in energy and water resources - a key concern in a country that has to desalinate almost all its water. It is also launching a bachelor's degree in interior design.

"The programmes have to be right for Dubai," said Dr Hughes. "It's not enough to be generating research alone."

As Heriot-Watt has grown, several rivals have floundered in Dubai's crowded marketplace.

Some of the emirate's 51 private universities and colleges have just a handful of students, while others - such as the International Institute for Technology and Management - have been forced to relocate out of the emirate after failing to meet the academic standards demanded by the regulator, the Universities Quality Assurance International Board. Others have failed to recruit enough students to keep them afloat.

Michigan State University's (MSU) Dubai campus cancelled its undergraduate operations last year after the economic crisis left it with too few students to justify its presence in the emirate. About 100 students had to either relocate to other universities, or go to the home campus in the US, after it cut back to just one master's programme.

Natasha Ridge, the head of research at the Dubai School of Government, said Heriot-Watt's approach was much more sustainable.

"The more successful universities benefit from taking a longer-term approach to growth," she said, "which means they start small, usually with postgraduate programmes, and then assess the needs of the market for other offerings or undergraduate once they are on the ground.

"MSU I think would have succeeded if it had followed a similar model."

mswan@thenational.ae