Colleges get lesson on supply and demand

Some foreign universities are enrolling fewer students at their Emirates branches and it has been suggested there may be more desks than the market can bear.

Some foreign universities are enrolling fewer students at their Emirates branches and it has been suggested there may be more desks than the market can bear, Daniel Bardsley writes Under the circumstances, Dr Balasumbramani Ramjee said he was "not too disappointed" when the college he runs, the Dubai branch of the India-based Manipal University, attracted about 600 new students at the start of the latest academic year.

While the number was down on the previous year's tally of about 700, Dr Ramjee said his Dubai International Academic City campus was "a little bit more fortunate" than some nearby institutions. "I don't know, but I would guess [the decline] is due to some of the expatriates going back home." His comments are a cautionary note for a sector that has been expanding rapidly in the UAE. Fuelled by the opening of educational free zones in Dubai and Ras al Khaimah, colleges from the US, Australia, Lebanon and the UK, among others, have set up shop in the Emirates.

In the 2008-2009 academic year in Dubai alone, six institutions opened their doors, mostly outposts of overseas universities funding themselves here through tuition fees and investments by the main campus. Dr Clifton Chadwick, a senior lecturer in international education management and policy development at the British University in Dubai, said that with the UK reeling from recession and more than 50 institutions chasing students, the industry now looks saturated.

"Critically, there's much more supply than there is demand," he said. "The fact that that happens pulls down the quality because [universities] are willing to accept students that don't quite have what they need and they're not so demanding so the students can finish [their courses]." Given the tougher economic climate, it is perhaps unsurprising that interest in opening new university campuses in the UAE, or chasing what one university registrar once described as the country's educational "gold rush", appears to have waned.

At the start of the latest academic year, just one college opened in Dubai, Canada's University of Waterloo. Its enrolment figures were hardly cause for cheer. After stating before the recession that it hoped to have a first-year class of 125 students, the university began with just 25. Yet the link between the recession and recent modest student recruitment at such western branch campuses is unclear.

Even three years ago, George Mason University enrolled just 40 students in its first year of degree courses in Ras al Khaimah, just a fifth of its target. The campus closed last year after George Mason failed to reach agreement over funding with the Ras al Khaimah Government, which paid for the project. Still, some universities have expanded. At Abu Dhabi University (ADU), for example, total enrolment grew by 15 per cent to 4,400 for the academic year. In Dubai, even if the number of institutions grew little last year, the number of courses offered jumped from 363 to 423.

The hit that enrolment may have taken from expatriates leaving the UAE has been balanced by the encouragement that a harder job market gives young people to enter or continue with higher education, said the ADU chancellor, Nabil Ibrahim. "More students come to get degrees, especially higher degrees like Master's degrees, during times of economic difficulty," said Dr Ibrahim. Dr Ramjee said some western branch campuses had struggled because they insisted on maintaining the entry standards of their home campus, which can be a problem in a country where the schools sector was still developing. He believes also that high fees at some US branch campuses in particular are an even bigger deterrent.

"That's contributed to the fact that enrolment is significantly less," he said. "[Fees] can be pretty steep at US$40,000 (Dh146,920) or $50,000 a year. If you are going to pay that kind of money, I see no reason why a student who meets the standards would not want to travel to the main campus in the United States." To increase enrolment, Michigan State University in Dubai, which has recruited modest numbers since opening in 2008, recently offered half-price fees to 100 students transferring from other universities. This both neutralised the effect of higher fees and allowed MSU to overcome the school standards issue by taking into account an applicant's university attainments, not just their school-leaving results.

While interest in opening self-funded branch campuses in the UAE may have dropped, universities remain keen to work with local colleges to run joint courses or research projects, said Alison Devine, the Middle East manager for Education UK, which promotes British education providers overseas. Such ventures do not involve the heavy investment of launching a fully fledged foreign outpost. "There are certainly [British] institutions looking for partnerships," she said. "I know one that has recently been looking for partnerships with the Higher Colleges of Technology [a Government university]."

And universities are still interested in setting up branch campuses here if they are not footing the bill. Abu Dhabi does not have education free zones and most foreign universities in the capital, such as the Paris-Sorbonne and New York University, which launches next year, have done so with funding from the emirate's government. "The level of interest and approach hasn't diminished," said Professor Jim Mienczakowski, the head of higher education at Abu Dhabi Education Council.

"In fact we did notice an increase in interest from some of the world's leading institutions in partnering [with] or operating within the emirate when the recession became fully fledged. "Abu Dhabi has become a place of world interest because of the approach used in funding some of the leading institutions." But Abu Dhabi is not likely to provide a financial fillip for many universities hoping to become global brands; the emirate has repeatedly said it is interested solely in top-ranking colleges.

Imperial College London, one of Britain's top universities, has been mentioned as one that meets the emirate's strict standards. Its rector, Sir Roy Anderson, said the university was considering opening in Abu Dhabi or in Qatar's Education City. It is perhaps no coincidence that Education City, which contains six branch campuses of American universities, is also government-funded. "When the university is fully backed, you get a guarantee that the major concern - that [financial] impact of the new venture - is offset, so they can concentrate on bringing the best quality education they can," Prof Mienczakowski said.