x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

New start for RAK campus

The new government college replacing George Mason University will have lower admission requirements and fees in the hope of attracting more students.

Professor Sharon Siverts will be the president of the American University of Ras al Khaimah.
Professor Sharon Siverts will be the president of the American University of Ras al Khaimah.

The new government college replacing George Mason University in Ras al Khaimah will have lower admission requirements and fees in the hope of attracting more students. Officials at the American University of Ras al Khaimah said they hoped relaxing minimum English standards would help the campus grow to as many as 5,000 students. There are just 118 students taking degree courses at George Mason's RAK campus, nearly three years after they were launched.

George Mason is pulling out after a disagreement over funding with the RAK government, which paid for the project and will pay for the new institution. The new university, which takes over the George Mason premises on June 1, will require prospective students to score 500 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, compared with 570 for George Mason. The Virginia-based institution had a difficult time finding students with the requisite language skills, officials said.

But Prof Sharon Siverts, who will be president of the new university, said the other academic requirements would be the same as George Mason's. "We're very, very optimistic," she said. "All the faculty and staff remaining are very enthused about the new opportunity." She said Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, the Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras al Khaimah and the new university's chancellor, was "extremely committed" to the project.

Bachelor's degree courses will be offered in business administration, biology, and electronics and communications engineering, with more courses planned for 2010. Undergraduate course fees are Dh20,000 (US$5,400) for each of the two terms per year, which Prof Siverts said was several thousand dirhams less than George Mason charged and significantly below the fees at some other universities in the UAE.

About 50 students are expected to continue from George Mason, and they will be awarded a degree from both the new university and George Mason. Many other George Mason students will transfer to the Virginia campus. Prof Siverts said about 30 new students were expected to join when term began in September, but that growth thereafter probably would be more rapid. The current facility has space for about 500 students, and Prof Siverts said a larger campus was planned for a site near Emirates Road in about five years to replace it.

"Ultimately, to be a strong university, you would want to be between 3,000 to 5,000 [students], where you could maintain academic integrity and quality," said Prof Siverts, a former vice president of George Mason's RAK campus and currently an associate provost for international relations for the university. "Higher education is a demanding environment, as there are lots of institutions trying to stretch their tentacles out," she added. "We have got local support and the opportunity to work with international universities all over the world."

American University of Ras al Khaimah plans to work with American universities to offer some of their courses, and eventually would like to secure US accreditation. It is also applying for a Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research licence and accreditation. In the holiday period, the campus, based in the former home of Ras al Khaimah Men's College, will be refurbished. Zubair Hanslot, academic director of the RAK branch of the University of Bolton, which has grown rapidly since opening last year and has more than 300 students, said a lower English requirement would help the new university grow, although there were potential drawbacks. The University of Bolton requires students to score the equivalent of 550 on the English exam.

"They may initially attract more students, but they may have a problem retaining those students and maintaining standards," he said. He said a high English score was less important for students in science and engineering courses, but could pose problems for those pursuing business degrees where more discussion was required. Mr Hanslot said the growth of the emirate meant the university's forecasts for expansion were realistic.

"When we have a recovery [from the recession], I don't see why they cannot attract thousands of students," he said. "In the long term, it's possible." George Mason University is not the first UAE branch of a foreign university to close. The University of Southern Queensland shut its Dubai Knowledge Village campus in 2005. dbardsley@thenational.ae