x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

University chiefs call for unified standards

With different organisations responsible for each emirate, higher education, it is claimed, suffers from 'fragmentation, lack of focus'.

Raymi van der Spek, vice president of Wollongong University in Dubai, said the ministry's strategy
Raymi van der Spek, vice president of Wollongong University in Dubai, said the ministry's strategy "has a great deal of merit."

ABU DHABI // As higher education has grown rapidly in the UAE, widely divergent policies for universities have been implemented across the country, leading some officials to call for more central control to ensure academic quality and standards.

Much of the growth has been in Dubai and Ras al Khaimah, which have free zones where foreign universities can open branch campuses without licences from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Though federal universities are bound by standards set by the ministry, those in free zones are likely to follow standards set by the individual zone or the university's country of origin.

While that freedom provides students with a wider variety of institutions and courses, it also means there is no single standard for higher education across the country. In a letter to The National, Martin Prince, the registrar of the British University in Dubai, said that although the country's various higher education bodies "recognise the importance" of the sector for the development of the country, their efforts were not concerted.

"In contrast to the coherence of, for example, the Qatar higher education and research initiative, there is too often the sense of fragmentation, lack of focus and, dare I say, discord in local efforts to realise the knowledge economy and society," he said. Dubai's free zones contain more than 20 universities. They are regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which has set up a board to decide which institutions can open there and to ensure they maintain home campus standards.

In Ras al Khaimah there are another 14 universities, regulated by the RAK Free Trade Zone. Abu Dhabi, however, has more heavily restricted the opening of private universities, particularly branch campuses of foreign institutions. The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) determines in consultation with the ministry which institutions can open. The capital does not have a free zone, so all universities must obtain a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education and apply for accreditation from its Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), which looks at factors such as the curriculum and teaching resources for each course.

The British University in Dubai, where Mr Prince works, was set up by the Dubai Government and is based in a freezone, Knowledge Village. But it chose to be accredited by the ministry, since freezone institutions can voluntarily apply for a ministry licence. Mr Prince said the various bodies "don't quite seem to be pulling together" at times, adding that it was particularly important there was "coherence and a collaborative mentality" when it came to encouraging postgraduate research.

Dr Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, believes the ideal would be for all universities to be required to have a ministry licence and accreditation. "It's very important that we support the CAA because they try to maintain uniform standards," he said. "At least within Abu Dhabi, the CAA has been aware of this issue and has been trying to ensure academic quality and standards. "We hope the new universities in the freezones will be required to go through similar standards to avoid having so many different standards and systems."

The ministry's strategy has "a great deal of merit", according to Raymi van der Spek, vice president for administration at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, another freezone institution that has, by choice, secured a ministry licence and accreditation. However, he said other authorities were "in some cases undermining" what the ministry was trying to achieve by circumventing its regulations. "For many institutions, it makes it very difficult because you're not sure whose rules you're meant to apply," he said.

"We would certainly endorse the notion that strengthening the federal system with respect to tertiary education would be a very positive thing, because that's the only guarantee to ensure consistency. You cannot expect consistent outcomes when you let different areas determine what the outcomes should be." He suggested some emirates such as Abu Dhabi applied overly strict restrictions on which foreign institutions could open, while others were too readily granting universities permission to set up.

However, Oussama el Omari, the director general of RAK Free Trade Zone, said there were benefits to having different emirates pursuing different policies. The emirates had different manpower needs, he said, which meant each had its own training requirements and so should be able to determine which universities were most useful for meeting these. "Each emirate is bringing different sectors," he said. "We, for example, want to promote tourism, so we attract a hospitality school that has good curriculum standards to produce qualified manpower for the five-star and four-star hotels. We attract the universities that will feed into the industries we attract."

Prof Jim Mienczakowski, the head of higher education at the ADEC, said: "Within the emirate of Abu Dhabi, we're working closely with the ministry and some other education authorities." No one from the CAA or the Ministry of Higher Education was available to comment, and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai declined to comment. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae