DUBAI // Employers are shunning the UAE's increasingly profit-driven universities in favour of graduates who have studied abroad, a study has found.
The UAE has more than 100 universities and colleges, including 37 branches of overseas universities - the most of any country.
This has led to an extremely competitive market - but according to Dr Ali Bhayani, from the University of Wollongong Dubai, while some have chosen to compete on the basis of quality, others have simply sought to maximise enrolment and therefore profit. Dr Bhayani fears that in some cases this has led to compromises on quality. "It might lead to cutting corners," he said.
There are several ways to assess quality, he said, which include employers' perceptions, graduate employability and students' own perceptions of their experience.
"Students do refer to league tables and rankings," he said. "These should be published so parents can make informed decisions."
So far, only three UAE universities are internationally ranked - the American University of Sharjah, Abu Dhabi University and UAE University, all of which appear on the QS World University rankings.
Several of the home campuses of UAE universities also appear on lists such as the Times Higher Education rankings, including the University of Wollongong in Australia, Middlesex University and Heriot Watt University in the UK, New York University and the Sorbonne.
However, the performance of overseas branches is not taken into account in ranking the home campuses, so it is impossible to say whether the education they offer is equivalent. The Ministry of Higher Education is hoping that a new project to improve the information available about universities - on research output and class sizes, for example, will help students and parents make more informed choices.
Prof David Woodhouse, head of the ministry's Centre for Higher Education Data and Statistics, said that while rankings are imperfect, "it is entirely valid for prospective students, employers and others to have information about the real performance of institutions and make comparisons".
"To this end, the centre hopes to give broader access to the underlying data items in a way that will allow any user to create his or her own comparisons of programmes, tailored to his or her particular interests and priorities."
Dr Bhayani said that unregulated free zones have attracted a number of "useless" institutions, some of which have been ejected from Dubai for their lack of standards.
"There can't be fly-by-night universities operating in free zones where the students have worthless degrees," said Dr Bhayani. "Sooner or later there needs to be uniform standards across the country." He wants all universities to be regulated by the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation.
Currently, only Dubai has a uniform system for its free zones, where universities are regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
Free zone universities in Ajman, Fujairah and RAK have no accreditation on licensing requirement.
For his research, Dr Bhayani interviewed 34 employers in various sectors, asking them which universities they would prefer to take Emirati graduates from. Unanimously, they said their top choice was graduates who had studied abroad, then branch campus, federal universities and in last place, local private universities.
"Private universities don't have a good reputation," said Dr Bhayani. "Branch campuses did better. Employers felt they had better quality."
Employers said graduates from overseas universities had "a more independent attitude".
"The graduates from private universities ... would stay in a job for around eight months and then leave. They [employers] were looking for employees who would be more stable as otherwise the resources of hiring someone are wasted."
Hamza Zaouli, founder of Iris Executives and GovJobs.ae, which focuses on Emiratisation, agreed that overseas education helps Emiratis to be seen as more adaptable.
"The simple fact that Emirati candidates have taken the step to live abroad for a while brings them quite naturally on top of the list, as they have shown at a very early stage a passion for their subject of choice and a willingness to invest in their career," he said. That, he said, puts them in "stark contrast with Emirati candidates who graduate and put working hours and salaries as their main criteria".
He said there is "a clearly pronounced difference in the attitude and maturity" of Emiratis who have studied abroad, even compared with those who studied at a branch campus of a prestigious university.
While private employers do consider graduates from federal universities, not all of them are at the same level. "Zayed University, for example benefits from a good reputation, others not as much," he said.