Room to improve private universities in the UAE

Higher standards, careful inspection and a culture that expects students to work hard are all essential qualities of a solid higher education system.

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The UAE’s higher education sector has grown very rapidly since the country’s first institution of higher learning, UAE University, opened in Al Ain in 1976. Today, more than 100 universities and colleges operate here, including three federal institutions and 37 branches of overseas universities.

The number of Emirati students enrolling in the federal universities, however, has also been growing – by about 20 per cent every year. Of the 120,000 Emirati university students, about a quarter study at UAE University, Zayed University, or the Higher Colleges of Technology.

As The National reports today, a new study suggests that the federal higher institutions may soon be unable to cope with the still-rising number of Emirati candidates.

That would mean that increasing numbers of Emiratis would opt for private education. And unlike the federal schools, private universities charge tuition. That means many of the additional students entering those schools will need financial help to continue their education.

The study also highlighted another issue: the quality of education provided by some private universities. Dr Ali Bhayani of the University of Wollongong Dubai, examining the job market for graduates, found that employers have little enthusiasm for graduates from small, unregulated private for-profit universities. The 34 diverse employers he interviewed unanimously said their first choice when hiring Emiratis is for graduates who had studied abroad, then for those from UAE branch campuses of foreign schools, then for federal-university graduates. Small private for-proft schools, he said, “don’t have a good reputation”.

As more Emiratis head towards those schools, this undeniably needs attention. Higher standards, careful inspection and a culture that expects students to work hard are all essential qualities of a solid system.

The absence of uniform standards suggests an obvious place to begin. In the free zones of Ajman, Fujairah and RAK, private universities face no accreditation or licensing requirement at all.

In many countries universities are competitively ranked, on graduates’ job prospects, the proportion of faculty with doctorates, the size of the library and so on. Such published rankings would allow students to make informed choices about where they should study. The idea of introducing such rankings in this country is very welcome.