Study calls quality of UAE’s higher education system into question

The quality of the UAE’s higher education system has been deemed 'debatable' in a new paper examining the country’s efforts in research, teaching and student recruitment.

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ABU DHABI // The quality of the UAE’s higher education system has been deemed “debatable” in a new paper examining the country’s efforts in research, teaching and student recruitment.

In the paper titled “Factors favouring or impeding building a stronger higher education system in the United Arab Emirates”, its lead author Dr Sanaa Ashour said: “Despite the many quality and regulatory bodies in the UAE and regardless of its performance indicators in the Global Competitiveness Reports, the state’s quality of higher education is still debatable due to the quality of graduates and the level of programmes being offered in some private institutions.”

Dr Ashour, an assistant professor of mass communications at Khawarizmi International College in Abu Dhabi, wrote the paper based on an extensive literature review. It was published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

The Emirate’s first university, UAE University in Al Ain, was founded in 1976. There are two more federal institutions, Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology, plus more than 70 licensed by the Ministry of Education and a further 40 or more in free zones.

“Private institutions play a major role in providing higher education, with only three public universities and the other 75 are private higher education institutions,” said Dr Ashour, adding that the private sector is “mostly profit-driven” and having a more harmonised quality control system would help the diverse, international market.

There are 30 branch campuses in Dubai alone, representing universities from countries such as Australia, the UK and India.

Co-researcher Syeda Kauser Fatima, a lecturer in the education department at Khawarizmi International College, said although the UAE aims to be a knowledge-based economy, there are still many challenges related to the quality of graduates.

“Students believe they join the college or the university for the sake of marks rather than increasing their knowledge and experience and meeting the demands of the market. It has become a culture among students to plead for marks just due to peer or parents pressure whereas the real essence of knowledge and practical skills that are required for the industry is hardly seen.

“There is a great difference found between what is being given in the classrooms and what the industry needs.”

Dr Ashour said investment in graduate programmes and PhDs is vital to help the system move forward.

“The programmes being delivered at universities should have a direct connection with research and not simply aim for educational purposes..”

“In recent years universities have moved towards their concerns in research, which was totally neglected earlier”

Dean Hoke, education consultant and co-founder of Edu Alliance, agreed. “In order to be considered a top tier university in world and regional rankings, research is a major component. More direct funding is needed from government as well as industry partnerships and foundations to maintain and increase research.

“We are seeing more support coming from emerging foundations but other grant sources are needed.”

The researchers note that with so many universities in such a small country “supply surpassed demand” which has led to the closure of several institutions such as the branch campus of Michigan State University in 2010. There is also an oversupply of business and IT related courses.

“The UAE has too many colleges for its population base and the competition to get students is fierce,” Mr Hoke said. “This leads at times to lower standards or reducing budgets which diminishes the quality of education a student should receive and deserves ... We will see a consolidation of a number of current schools due to economic pressure, enrolment size and quality of programmes. This is already happening and we should expect more.”