The UAE risks undermining established universities by allowing too many new institutions to open, it has been claimed.
University warns of overexpansion
The UAE risks undermining established universities by allowing too many new institutions to open, it has been claimed. Cut-throat competition between institutions could force closures, ultimately reducing choice for students, according to the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD). Concern was also voiced that not enough was being done to protect the overall quality of courses. The comments came as the UAE embarks on a huge expansion of higher education. Dubai and Ras al Khaimah are each developing free zones with up to 40 institutions to serve close to 40,000 students, while Abu Dhabi already has the Paris-Sorbonne Abu Dhabi and, from 2010, will host New York University Abu Dhabi. Raymi van der Spek, UOWD vice president, said: "Competition is important. It helps everybody to improve. But there have got to be some checks and balances. "We run the risk that some of the new universities, in their haste to establish, undermine what the more established institutions are trying to achieve." The sector has already seen casualties. The University of Southern Queensland closed its Dubai Knowledge Village campus in 2005 after a year, and Dubai Aerospace Enterprise University shut down recently, also after a year. Some universities have struggled to attract students. George Mason University introduced degree courses at its Ras al Khaimah campus in 2006 with only 40 students, a fifth of the number expected. Student numbers have grown, but recruitment remains "challenging". Mr van der Spek said there could be further closures if "the rate at which institutions are being licensed" was too high. He added that it was an "unhealthy situation for institutions to come and go". "Universities are meant to be about the long-term. We're meant to be here for hundreds of years, not tens of months - that's not positive for anybody." The development of higher education free zones has led to changes in the regulatory system for private universities. Earlier this year saw the launch of the University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB), which licences branch campuses in the emirate's free zones - mostly Dubai Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City - and ensures they maintain the standards of their parent institutions. However, free zone-based universities have not been obliged to apply to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research for a licence or to its Commission for Academic Accreditation for approval of their courses. Mr van der Spek suggested that quality standards at non-accredited institutions might not be as high as accredited universities such as UOWD. "There would be graduates from a number of institutions licensed here that we feel would not meet the quality we would expect." Because it was CAA-accredited, Mr van der Spek said, UOWD had to prove there was demand from students and employers before launching new programmes. This restricted accredited universities from expanding their subject range. "There's a great deal of merit in looking at an approach that allows established institutions to broaden their offerings before allowing new institutions to come in and offer the same thing. Build on your strengths," he said. The risks of allowing established campuses to expand were less than those linked to the opening of new institutions, he said. If an established campus launched a programme that was not popular, it was "not a substantive risk" because the institution had other courses to generate revenue. But if a new university with fewer courses cannot attract students, "it is very expensive to keep the doors open". "It's easier for them to cut and run," he added Prof Robert Whelan, UOWD president, said some students taking courses at non-CAA accredited institutions had not been warned their degree would not be accepted by a CAA-accredited institution for postgraduate study, or by a public sector employer. "It is important that the restrictions are clear and no student is misled. Everyone would say they provide the guidance, but there are students who complete degrees without apparently being aware," he said. Prof Whelan added that, like the UAE, Australia had a mix of federal and state-level regulations for higher education, and so UOWD could help resolve problems linked to this issue. "In any federal/state system round the world, there are such conflicts. It can only be resolved by getting links between the federal and state level," he said. "There might be clashes at different levels and we would be very keen to resolve this. We've probably got some experience that would help." A senior lecturer at another university in Knowledge Village, who asked not to be named, said he, too, was concerned about the number of institutions set to open. "If they don't control that issue they will have dozens of universities fighting for a relatively small student population," he said. "Everyone is a bit worried about that. You will have so many different institutions and an unknown amount of demand." However, Prof Brendan Mullan, executive director of Michigan State University Dubai, said he "welcomed" the opening of more universities. "I would see the possibilities of collaboration. I welcome the opportunity to learn from others. I feel the competition is not necessarily to be feared," he said. Dr Peter Marsh, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Bolton, which will open a branch campus in Ras al Khaimah this month, said economic growth was typically accompanied by "exponential growth" in higher education, and so people should not be overly concerned about oversupply. "Countries that are seeking to develop their economies will continue to need a high level supply of educated workers to support their development. I can see the Ras al Khaimah development supporting the growth of the knowledge economy. "There are a lot of sectors that will develop in this area that will need high-level quality personnel." Similarly, Dr Raed Awamleh, director of Middlesex University Dubai, said he was "not really concerned" there could be too many institutions opening, saying that having more universities was "really positive". "It does create a community of higher education, which I think is necessary. It will encourage co-operation," he said. He cautioned however that universities opening branches should take a "strategic view" and "have realistic expectations and predictions". "What happens sometimes is that people see the fast development and they think higher education can follow the same model. It doesn't work," he said. "If financial returns are one of your objectives, that would be wrong. I think those that have done that have adjusted. They have come to the view it's a long-term project." firstname.lastname@example.org