x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Largest campus may forsake DIAC as property prices drop

The University of Wollongong in Dubai is reconsidering its plans to move to Dubai's International Academic City because of cheaper land elsewhere.

Raymi van der Spek, vice president.
Raymi van der Spek, vice president.

The economic crisis has a major university reconsidering plans to move to Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) and instead take advantage of a drop in land prices by building an independent campus. The University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) had been looking to move from its base in Knowledge Village and relocate to the dedicated university park.

However, the financial downturn has meant land elsewhere is available at lower prices than before. The school says it may now be able to afford to build its new campus as a completely independent development. That, officials say, would give the institution a higher profile than it would have as one of many institutions at DIAC. DIAC already includes universities from India, France, the United States, Australia and the UK. It plans major expansion in the coming decade. Most universities still based in Knowledge Village are expected to move there as they grow.

UOWD, a branch of an Australian university based in Wollongong, 80km south of Sydney, opened in 1993 as the Institute of Australian Studies with just four students. The student body has grown to 3,300, making it the oldest and largest branch campus of a foreign university in the UAE. Prof Robert Whelan, the university's president, said this year that he wants the school to grow by 50 per cent in the next two years.

This term Wollongong blamed the high price of land in Dubai for its decision to house 45 students in Ajman. Since the beginning of September, 45 students have had to commute for up to two hours each way. Raymi van der Spek, UOWD's vice president for administration, said the university had not ruled out moving to DIAC, but was now looking more closely at other options. "We are considering a move to DIAC, but one of the question marks that arises with the change in the economic climate is what are the opportunities it produces," he said.

Just three months ago it would have been difficult to find land to build a university outside the academic city. "If you look at what developers are doing, they are not building as many five-star hotels as rapidly as a few months ago," he said. "The shift in development may create better opportunities for long-term steady growth for an education institution like ourselves." The property sector has been hit hard by the global economic crisis. Nakheel recently made 500 people redundant. Banks are more cautious about making loans, property prices have fallen and some major projects have been delayed.

The main advantage of having an independent campus, Mr van der Spek said, was that it would provide the institution with "its own clear and independent profile". As an example, he cited the American University in Dubai (AUD), which is next to Sheikh Zayed Road. AUD has "clearly laid the groundwork", he said, in terms of developing an independent presence. Both Knowledge Village and DIAC are designated free zones, meaning they do not require institutions to secure licences from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and course accreditation from the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation. Since UOWD has a ministry licence and programme accreditation, it can set up outside the free zones.

For many years UOWD was based on Jumeirah Beach Road; the beach next to its old headquarters is still known as Wollongong Beach. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae