Ras Al Khaimah // A lack of proper regulation governing the setting up of universities and an emphasis on investment instead of educational quality in Ras Al Khaimah’s free zones means students are paying for worthless degrees and graduating with qualifications that are not recognised.
Lee Rensimer, a doctoral scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied the lack of regulation in the RAK Free Trade Zone and RAK Industrial Authority while at the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.
“The current model puts investment interests before educational needs,” he said. “It measures the suitability of an incoming degree provider by its viability as a business like any other licensee, not whether it fills a gap in RAK’s education and training needs.”
Profit outweighed was put ahead of quality, Mr Rensimer said, while most branch campuses were “little-known foreign degree providers”.
What was even worse, he said, was that many providers were naccredited and licensed to operate only by the free zone, rather than expert educational regulators.
After a series of lengthy interviews with educators, students and the institutions themselves, Mr Rensimer said more regulation was essential to ensure policies were enforced, and to ensure institutions and courses were genuinely what they were advertised to be.
Taner Topcu, academic zone director for the RAK Free Trade Zone, said regulation was a work in progress.
“An Emiri Decree was issued on October 29, 2014, about formalising an academic zone in Ras Al Khaimah under the name of RAK Academic Free Zone Authority. Moreover, RAK Academic Free Zone Authority is working hand in hand with a well-reputed international agency ... to put together transparent rules and regulations with students’ affairs topping the list of priorities. It is expected that RAK Academic Free Zone Authority’s rules and regulations will be set by the third quarter of the year.”
Mr Rensimer’s take on regulation was that it would mean “closely monitoring licensees to ensure that they are accurately advertising their product, that they only provide degrees they are licensed to offer, that their degrees are internationally accredited and the requirements for such accreditation are maintained, and that institutions licensed in RAK operate in RAK”.
Proper regulation would allow authorities to “immediately shut down degree mills offering fake degrees”, he said.
False or misleading advertising was rife, Mr Rensimer said. “There is definitely a culture of unscrupulousness in marketing practices. Drive down any major road in RAK and you will see advertisements for ‘top-ranking’ international programmes.”
He warned students to be more vigilant before paying to study at potentially bogus institutions.
“There are real risks for students participating in international higher education in terms of the money and time they invest, and the best remedy is to do their homework: shop around, research institutions extensively before committing.
“These are problems that enforcement can partially address, but the rest has to come from improving students’ awareness.”
But a lack of transparency means there is no data for students in RAK to consult. Being in a free zones means institutions are exempt from federal regulations set out by the Ministry of Education’s Commission of Academic Accreditation.
“There are no staff at RAKFTZ dedicated solely to enforcement as there is at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai, and the data they currently collect is not available to consumers,” Mr Rensimer said.
The KHDA collects data on costs, enrolment rates, faculty qualifications and average time to completion, all available through its website and smartphone app.
The present situation can be damaging for the small number of good quality educational institutions in RAKFTZ, Mr Rensimer said.
Franco Vigliotti, head of the RAK campus of Swiss research institute EFPL, from Lausanne, agreed the emirate’s image was being damaged.
“One of the problems is that it’s difficult to find good quality institutions here,” Prof Vigliotti said. “Where it hurts us is in the perception of RAK. The emirate has a hard time being seen as a place of excellence, not least around the UAE and the region.
“The lack of regulation harms the whole emirate,” he said.
Many students enrolled at institutions in RAK already live in the emirate and choose them based on affordability rather than quality.
“If you are surrounded by poor quality institutions, you don’t get the top students.
“There needs to be investment both from local government and institutions.”