Dubai's universities defy the downturn

While overseas enrolments have dropped due to budget cuts, some Dubai colleges have increased their student numbers by up to 18 per cent.

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DUBAI // The number of students in Dubai's universities increased by 10 per cent this academic year, defying a downturn that has led universities around the world to cut their budgets.

The total number of students at the emirate's 52 universities rose to 43,212 this year from 39,127 in 2010-2011. The number of Emiratis also rose, to 18,708 from 16,805, an 11 per cent increase.

Dr Warren Fox, the head of higher education for the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), said the increase was a positive sign given the financial climate.

"In the US, there are fewer students enrolling because of the budget cuts," Dr Fox said. "Universities are getting rid of academics and are facing reductions, versus our increased enrolment."

The most notable change in Dubai was an 18 per cent rise in student numbers at the emirate's free zones.

Dr Abdulla Al Karam, the head of the KHDA, which regulates and licenses free-zone universities, said this growth was the most rapid since the authority was set up eight years ago.

Dubai's Law 21, passed last summer, will also help as it puts free-zone degrees on a par with those from institutions accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education.

That makes the free zones far more attractive to Emirati students, as their degrees will be recognised as qualification for government jobs, which they previously were not.

"The number of students at branch campuses will surpass the growth of those private institutions outside the free zones for one reason," said Dr Al Karam.

"The programmes in the branch campuses and the depth available from those universities from 11 different countries are so much richer than those existing institutions."

But the narrow range of courses chosen by students remains an obstacle. Business has long been the dominant subject and still is, albeit with a small drop this year in the proportion of students taking the subject.

While 42 per cent of students were on business courses last year, this year that figure fell slightly to 40 per cent.

Prof Raed Awamleh, the head Middlesex University Dubai, said that was down to demand rather than supply.

"At Middlesex, 50 per cent of our programmes are not business but only 25 per cent of our students enrol in those programmes," Prof Awamleh said.

"In spite of all our efforts to promote these programmes and educate the public, something more needs to be done to change this situation.

"In the UK, more money is given to sciences and there are more scholarships given to non-business subjects."

Sciences, in particular, suffered, with the proportion of students taking natural and physical science courses dropping from 1 per cent to just 0.5 per cent. Health science and medicine, meanwhile, rose from 2 to 3 per cent.

Meanwhile, other key areas such as tourism and hospitality and education remained low, at 1 per cent each.

Dr Robin Dada, the dean of education at Zayed University, said the situation did not bode well for the education sector, breeding a transient teaching population.

"This means you don't have locally contextualised people going into education, whether they are locals or expatriates who live here or grew up here," Dr Dada said.

"It makes it very hard for people like the school principals, the Ministry [of Education] or the KHDA to develop sound teaching practice."

And the number of students needing remedial courses in subjects such as English and maths before starting their degrees remains stubbornly high, increasing from 7 per cent last year to 8 per cent.

About 90 per cent of students entering federal universities have to take these courses, at huge cost. The remedial courses account for around a third of the federal higher education budget.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, says the foundation system must be abolished.