The mark of academic success

In a country where the number of colleges and universities is expanding at a breathtaking rate, the University of Wollongong in Dubai is an old-timer.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - September 4:  Professor Robert Whelen, President of the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), on campus in Dubai on September 4, 2008.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  To go with story by Daniel Bardsley.
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In a country where the number of colleges and universities is expanding at a breathtaking rate, the University of Wollongong in Dubai is an old-timer. When it started 15 years ago as the Institute of Australian studies it had just four students, but UOWD has become such an institution in Dubai that the area beside its old headquarters on Jumeirah Beach Road is still known as Wollongong Beach. Now based in Dubai Knowledge Village but considering moving to Dubai International Academic City, Wollongong was the first branch campus of a foreign institution to open in the UAE. Unashamedly, it describes itself as the top international university in the country.

"On almost any tangible measure, we'd be by far the most successful," said Raymi van der Spek, UOWD vice president. Student numbers - there are 3,000 undergraduates and postgraduates - longevity and number of graduates are among the measures cited as evidence of its success. UOWD was opened by its parent university, which is based in a town 80km south of Sydney. It is ranked in the top 14 institutions in Australia and is among the top 400 worldwide in the Academic Ranking of World Universities published last month by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Prof Robert Whelan has just been appointed UOWD's new president and he is keen to offer a "more comprehensive coverage" of subjects. He believes companies here do not just want graduates in finance, accountancy and business, which currently dominate. "When I read comments of the Minister [of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak], there is a desire to see that broadening, to see the emirates as a hub for high-quality education, just as it's becoming a business and commercial hub," he said.

"[Employers] want their staff not just to have a good technical knowledge. That includes the humanities. There will be increasing demand and we're well placed to respond to that." Prof Whelan is also keen for UOWD to increase its research, something the authorities are anxious to see. "My appointment, as someone with a strong research record, shows that is one of our aspirations," he said. Related to this, he wants UOWD to begin offering doctoral degrees, such as doctor of education. However extending this to research-based PhD degrees "would not be appropriate for the demand" yet, he said.

"It would be a great thing for the region to have a strong university with strong doctoral programmes. It would be from a small base, but it would be very exciting," he said. Mr van der Spek said offering doctorates would help the UAE to become "less reliant on entirely imported talent". "You could train Emiratis to take positions in the tertiary structure. It makes it self-sustainable," he said. As part of that vision, Mr van der Spek would like the Government to offer scholarships for Emiratis to study at private universities.

Currently, UAE nationals receive free tuition at federal institutions, and each year hundreds are given scholarships to study abroad. Those taking degrees at private universities in the UAE, however, pay their own fees. By offering scholarships for courses at private universities, Mr van der Spek said pressure on the federal institutions - the number of Emiratis of university age is set to accelerate rapidly in the coming decade - would be relieved.

A similar system in Australia, in which the government provided funds for students at private secondary schools, worked well, he said. Prof Whelan said he would like to see UOWD expand by 50 per cent over the next two years, although Mr van der Spek is more circumspect. "They [other universities in the UAE] all start trumpeting how many thousands of students they will have in a few years and you have to be somewhat sceptical. It takes a long time. It's taken us 15 years," Mr van der Spek said.

"We're not running around talking about the numbers some of the new players are talking about. "We have institutions saying they will have 10,000 students in five years. We've been here 15 years and we're not talking about 10,000 students. A more conservative approach and attitude might be better advised."