x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

University principal warns of degrees of difference

International education could be brought into disrepute by institutions whose overseas branches fail to maintain the standards of the home campus, a university head warns.

International education could be brought into disrepute by institutions whose overseas branches fail to maintain the standards of the home campus, a university head has warned. Branch campuses run separately from the main campus may not offer high-quality education, according to Prof Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.

Heriot-Watt, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, has a branch in Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) where 900 students are enrolled. The aim is to increase this figure to 2,000 over the next few years. This is Heriot-Watt's only full branch campus, although it has smaller overseas operations in many countries, including Russia. "All our academic staff are employed by Heriot-Watt University. We don't view this campus as separate from our campus in Edinburgh," Prof Muscatelli said.

This contrasted with some other branch campuses that were financially separate and in some cases "franchised operations", he said. "They have the name but they are a separate legal entity and run independently. There are real issues about quality control. It raises the issue of whether the degree from the branch campus is the same quality as the degree from the home campus," he said "As soon as these doubts emerge, employers can no longer be confident, students can no longer be confident. It risks bringing transnational education into disrepute."

Prof Muscatelli said Heriot-Watt did not franchise anywhere in the world, adding that courses in Dubai were the same as those in Scotland and marking was co-ordinated in Edinburgh. "We can say that student X or student Y from Dubai was top of the class. It's the same exam. It's important for students," he said. "Employers care about whether the degree offers the same quality as in the UK or US. We can offer that guarantee. Other branch campuses may not be able to do that."

Prof Brian Smart, dean of the Dubai campus, said Heriot-Watt was "not insinuating anybody operating in Dubai is sub-standard". Branch campuses of foreign universities have opened across the UAE, with Dubai and Ras al Khaimah both setting up free zones designed to attract such institutions. DIAC and Dubai Knowledge Village between them have more than 25 branches of overseas higher education institutions, while Ras al Khaimah has attracted universities from countries including India, the US and Britain.

Many universities are expanding overseas, although Heriot-Watt claims to have expanded abroad more than any other Scottish university. It has 7,000 students in Edinburgh and 12,000 elsewhere in the world, taking its courses, either at its branch campus here or through distance-learning or tie-ups with other universities. The institution says 75 per cent of transnational degrees awarded by Scottish degrees are its own.

Prof Muscatelli said: "We have succeeded where many other quality universities have not. We've got a substantial community." He insisted setting up a branch university was "not a money-making venture" and was in line with the university's academic strategy, which includes a focus on research. "We do regard ourselves as a research-intensive university," he said. dbardsley@thenational.ae