The land surrounding the headquarters of Ras al Khaimah Free Trade Zone looks ripe for development. Just a few minutes drive from the centre of town, the flat, open area could be tailor-made for light industry or perhaps another university campus. But plants are breaking through the surface of the ground, as though teasing developers for their relative inactivity, at least in the education sector, in the past 12 months.
During that time just one new university opened under free zone rules, a marked slowdown from the frenzy of launches predicted before the global economic slump. In late 2008, free zone officials were forecasting that five universities would launch last year. Oussama el Omari, the free zone's director general, insists there have simply been delays due to paperwork and predicts several will launch this year. He insists education is more immune to recession than some other sectors.
"The economic situation is going to improve and now a lot of people are using their time to go back to school and improve their skills, so these universities are highly needed," he says. RAK does not have defined education free zones such as Dubai's Knowledge Village and the Dubai International Academic City, which between them have more than two dozen foreign universities. However, it does allow universities to open under free zone rules without a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research or course accreditation from the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation.
Eight free zone-registered universities have opened in RAK, while several others operate with ministry licences. To be successful as an education hub, the free zone has to do more than attract universities. The colleges in turn have to attract students, and some have admitted this is not always easy in RAK. Last year George Mason University closed its branch in RAK, which was funded by the emirate's Government, after poor enrolments since its 2006 launch of degree courses that were partly blamed on location.
The RAK Medical and Health Sciences University, a partnership between the RAK Government and the private sector and like George Mason a ministry licensed institution, has also found it hard to fill its nursing, pharmacy and dental courses, although medical programmes are oversubscribed. "There's a distinct disadvantage in that we're in RAK, which is away from the population. If a student is in Dubai they would prefer to study in Dubai. A student from Sharjah would prefer Sharjah," says Sindhu Suresh, the manager for admissions at RAK Medical and Health Sciences University.
But other institutions in RAK have grown faster than expected. The University of Bolton moved to a larger building last year, little more than six months after opening under free zone rules in late 2008. It launched with more than 160 students, more than a third above the number expected. It has continued to grow rapidly, helped by what officials have described as "realistic" admission standards. It now has close to 300 students.
The mixed fortunes of RAK universities and the economic slowdown raise a question mark over the likelihood that a huge education park being spoken of two years ago will be built. Construction of this ambitious US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) project for 38,000 students was previously said to be due to start this year. While he insists it is still part of the emirate's master plan, Mr el Omari now strikes a more cautious note when discussing the project, citing instead the benefits of keeping universities close to the centre of town. Institutions, including those operating under free zone rules, are scattered.
"We would rather we're doing what we're doing, making them part of the community," he says. "Maybe when they get bigger they will go to this park, but before that we'll have them here. A camp will not make an education boom. "[The education park] is for the long term. We'll keep these kids with us for five or 10 years." But, education park or not, the importance for the wider economic success of the emirate that Mr el Omari attaches to higher studies suggests the sector will remain a free zone priority.
"The FDI [foreign direct investment] is going down, so we're trying to figure out what are the key components to turning this around," he says. "One of the key factors to promote FDI is manpower. If you don't have any universities, it's not going to be [as easy to attract investment]." An example is Vatel Emirates, the hospitality college that trains students who can later work in the hotel industry. Mr el Omari says the success of the hotel industry in RAK depends upon Emiratis learning hospitality skills and taking up jobs in the sector.
"The industries that we're attracting, they will provide a good pool for them to source skilled [workers]," Mr el Omari says. Schools with foreign curricula have also opened under free zone licences to cater to the children of managers and directors in the industries, such as tourism and aviation, the free zone is trying to attract. The small business sector also benefits from a growing higher education presence, says Mr el Omari, an American of Moroccan descent.
He says business failure rates have dropped thanks to improved levels of education among Emiratis in the emirate. Before, he said people "did not know how to start a business". "The [UAE] nationals can come to the education park and [learn] some skills before they go back to the market," he says. But a potential question mark concerns the quality of the education provided by free zone institutions, since they do not have oversight provided by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Also, RAK has not introduced a panel of experts of the kind that governs Dubai's free zones to ensure universities maintain, for example, the entry standards and facilities of the home campus. Mr el Omari insists, with reputations to maintain, the universities are capable of regulating themselves. "It's in their interests [to maintain standards] in the process of their development," he says. "We're seeing these off-campus [universities] coming with their standards from their home school."