Tuition fees checked by universities' expansion

The rapid opening of universities in Dubai has kept tuition fees down, says the head of the emirate's education authority.

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DUBAI // While a dearth of primary schools has driven fees higher, the rapid opening of universities in Dubai has kept tuition fees down, the head of the emirate's education authority says. Dr Abdulla al Karam, chairman and director general of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), said the growing number of university spaces was "working for the students". He was responding to concerns that too many universities have been opening, risking closures of those that fail to attract enough students. The situation with universities contrasts with that for schools, Dr al Karam said, where there was a supply and demand "mismatch". This has caused heavy fee increases and led to caps on the rises schools can impose. "We don't see that happening at universities because the supply-demand formula is being managed very well," he said. "If there is a supply and demand matter, it's working for the students and parents because you get more choices and different curricula from different countries. In higher education it's working very positively." Dubai and Ras al Khaimah have free zones where overseas universities can open without a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Abu Dhabi has not gone the free zone route, insisting instead that all institutions have a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. In Dubai's free zones, institutions need a licence from the KHDA's University Quality Assurance International Board, which aims to ensure branch campuses maintain the standards of their home institution. Dubai's education free zones, Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), contain more than 25 branch campuses of foreign higher education institutions serving 16,000 students. An administrator at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, based in Knowledge Village, is among those concerned about rapid growth in the sector. Raymi van der Spek, the vice president of administration, recently suggested the authorities should "take a more active role in providing a regulatory environment that ensures the numbers are right". However, Dr al Karam said the situation was keeping fees at "a modest level" and ensured there was a "diversity" of institutions. "What we are doing is setting up Dubai not to be a regional destination for higher education, but an international destination," he added. One example is Michigan State University (MSU), an American institution that recently opened a branch in DIAC, attracting students who might not travel to the United States to study. "We can bring people from Syria, from Pakistan, from Iran, from everywhere to give them an American education," he said. "It's the American global dream that can only happen in Dubai because it's such a global city." MSU Dubai serves as "a template for what can work" for the other US institutions Dr al Karam predicted would open in Dubai. While Abu Dhabi is not going the free zone route, Dr al Karam said there was no conflict between the different strategies employed in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. "We're not saying one model is better or worse. They're just different," he said. His comments echoed those of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, who recently said it was not for the Government to limit the number of universities that can open. Prof Brian Smart, the executive dean of the Dubai International Academic City campus of Heriot-Watt University, a Scottish institution, said most fees for students in Dubai were lower than those charged to international students at the main campus in Edinburgh. The university's fees in Dubai were pegged according to what other institutions were charging, with little room for further reductions. "If you look at the cost of the operation, at present there's very little we can do to bring the fees down, because we're right on the edge," he said. "Rents are high, salaries are going up, housing is going up." Although more than 25 foreign higher education institutions have commenced operations in Dubai's free zones, the emirate has rejected many universities that were keen to open, last year approving just five of 54 applications. While there may be a growing number of spaces, Denis Ravizza, the art director and associate dean of the French Fashion University Esmod, also in DIAC, said there was not enough variety in the courses they are offering. "What we see so far is so many institutions focusing on the same segments - business and management - which is probably related to market demand," he said.