x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Natural selection' at universities

The growth of universities in the UAE will inevitably lead to the closure of those that cannot attract enrolments.

The growth of universities in the UAE will inevitably lead to the closure of those that cannot attract enrolments, sometimes leaving students in limbo, a senior academic has warned. Prof Steve Chapman, the new principal of Heriot-Watt University, which has a branch in Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), said competition meant institutions that did not offer the right courses at affordable prices would shut.

"It's a natural selection of the higher education sector," he said. "If they are delivering the product the client wants and at the price, they will succeed. If they don't, they will fail." The opening of free zones, of which DIAC is one, has helped spawn a dozen universities in Ras al Khaimah and more than twice that in Dubai. Concerns have been raised that too many universities are offering the same programmes, thereby increasing competition and raising the risk of closure. The University of Southern Queensland, for example, shut its campus in Dubai's Knowledge Village in 2005, less than a year after opening.

This year George Mason University ended its Ras al Khaimah operation, which was not based in a free zone, after failing to agree with the emirate on funding. After three years, it had just 120 students enrolled in degree courses. Prof Chapman, however, said Heriot-Watt had "no problem with competition". "It keeps you on your mettle and makes you keep your standards," he said. "We are prepared to take on all comers."

Raymi van der Spek, vice president for administration at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, based at Knowledge Village, had reservations about giving free rein to competition. "It's true the successful will succeed and some will fall by the wayside, but that's not addressing the issue of what happens to students in those institutions and what process the system has for those students," he said. "If you have a model where you want this type of competitive element, you need a parachute to catch the damage."

Most institutions in free zones are not licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and their courses are not accredited by the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation. Students who leave courses at these institutions cannot transfer credits to universities that are ministry-licensed, a situation Mr van der Spek said limited their options. dbardsley@thenational.ae