RAS AL KHAIMAH // The emirate’s free zone is trying to clean up its reputation as the “Wild West” by setting tough new standards for educational institutions that operate there.
Seda Mansour, the academies director for one of the emirate’s three free zones, is assigned with making RAK a credible education destination. She said new institutions would have to meet much higher standards, while established ones would have to improve or leave.
RAK Free Trade Zone Authority (RAKFTZA) is home to seven of the emirate’s 14 higher-education institutions, including the Birla Institute of Technology from India and the Swiss university, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL).
In January, Abbassin University from Pakistan was the latest to join under the new system, which will mean abiding by tough standards and annual inspections as of next year.
“We want the institutions to incubate well. Over the next three to five years we will probably move them so they can build a residential campus. We want clients who are long sighted in their aims to stay here,” she said.
Ms Mansour said the only way to attract more high-quality institutions was by raising standards and implementing stricter criteria.
She cited the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KDHA) in Dubai as a model to follow.
“When investors realise the quality is high they will want to be associated with that. The message will bring us the right kind of candidates we might not have had before,” Ms Mansour said. “I’m interested in cleaning things up ... RAK has been known as the Wild West, where you turn up and design your own rules. Some people have been able to do that, if not here, then in other free zones, but that’s changed. You can’t do that now.”
The next challenge will be to inspect the Indian study centres in the emirate, many of which have relocated from Dubai.
Two of these are in the RAKFTZA but there are believed to be many more around RAK. One institution claims to have US and UK accreditation and is owned by an Indian business. Ms Mansour said these fusion systems were “very hard to quality assure”.
She said: “They offer a very cheap product and for some people who live and work here it could be the only way they can get into higher education. We want people to have different economic options but not at the expense of quality.”
Although she is prepared to close the substandard institutions, she fears they will simply move to other less-regulated emirates.
The authority is working closely with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research as well as Dubai’s KHDA. “It’s been really helpful. There’s a lot of good stuff from the KHDA model and we will contextualise this for RAK.”
Prof Vigliotti Franco, head of EPFL in RAK, welcomed the change in policy.
“Raising the academic standards sends a signal: the Government wants to consolidate its efforts around institutions that perform at international level and wants to attract talents with corresponding aspirations and strengths.
“Top-ranked institutions, such as EPFL, are able to attract top graduate talent to RAK and the UAE ... Having other institutions around us that have similar core values and provide high-quality undergraduate education will strengthen the position of RAK and the UAE and will add to our own effect as a graduate-research institution.”
Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at the Al Qassimi Foundation for Policy Research in RAK agrees.
“We really need better regulation, not only to attract better institutions but to attract the talent to come to them and build capacity in areas like health and education.”
Dr Warren Fox, head of higher education at the KHDA, although had not been in direct talks with RAKFTZA, welcomed the news.
“I think it’s commendable that RAK is looking to improve its quality assurance and we’re happy to work with them.”