Universities on their own

The minister of higher education and scientific research says the government will not regulate the number of universities.

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DUBAI // The Government will leave it to market forces to decide how many universities the UAE needs, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research has said, indicating that those that cannot compete would have to close. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak said it was not for the authorities to restrict growth in the tertiary sector and insisted universities should be free to open and compete for students. If growth is too rapid in the sector, it would be checked by the closure of unsuccessful institutions, he said. Speaking outside the 17th meeting of presidents, vice presidents and directors of GCC higher education institutions, Sheikh Nahyan said branch campuses of overseas universities represented "healthy competition" for government institutions.

"It's like everything else in the UAE - it's open and the market determines supply and demand," Sheikh Nahyan said. "It's not for us to say how many we need. If there are too many, they will stop. "Hopefully the UAE will become a hub for good quality education for not only the UAE, but for the region and the Indian subcontinent, and will have many students from different parts of the world." In a speech introducing the conference, Sheikh Nahyan said the continuous growth in student numbers meant maintaining university standards was a real challenge that had been accompanied by rapid growth of private universities. "Here lies another challenge, which is to ensure the standards of quality in the performance of these private universities." The higher education sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, partly due to the opening of free zones where branches can be set up without a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Dubai's free zones contain more than 25 local branches of foreign higher education institutions catering to 10,000 students. Within a decade, there are expected to be 40 institutions with 40,000 students in the zones, while Ras al Khaimah hopes to have similar student numbers in its education free zone. Some institutions have expressed concern about the rate of growth, warning that too much expansion could be detrimental to existing institutions. Raymi van der Spek, vice president of administration at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, said the recent financial crisis showed the risks of unregulated markets, in whatever sector. With 3,300 students at Knowledge Village, the university's branch campus is thought to be the largest in the UAE. "That's an unregulated market coming to extremely poor decisions and outcomes," Mr van der Spek said. "With the same model in terms of the tertiary education sector, I don't believe it would be remiss of Government to take a somewhat more active role in providing a regulatory environment that ensures that the numbers are right. "No regulation will produce boom and bust and there will be no winners." Prof Jim Mienczakowski, the head of higher education at the Abu Dhabi Education Council, said Sheikh Nahyan was right to suggest the Government could not place a limit on the number of universities. "We will always need institutions to meet the current and future needs of the economy and the emirate. It's an expanding nation and it will need growth," Prof Mienczakowski said. Prof Brian Smart, executive dean of the Dubai International Academic City campus of Heriot-Watt University, a Scottish institution, said that "even within this free zone there were checks to ensure quality was maintained". "One word of caution we would give is that to start up is one thing, to be sustainable is another," Prof Smart said, adding that when institutions failed it meant students would have to find another university. "That's the one down side to letting the market decide." dbardsley@thenational.ae