After two decades of explosive growth of its higher education sector, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has become the biggest international higher education hub in the world. But a new study points to serious shortcomings in the country’s universities and colleges.
The lead author, Sanaa Ashour, an assistant professor of education at Khawarizmi International College in Abu Dhabi, writes: “Despite the many quality and regulatory bodies in the UAE … the state’s quality of higher education is still debatable.”
More specifically, Ashour says many graduates lack the quality and skills required by employers, and many private institutions—which make up the overwhelming majority of the country’s colleges and universities—are of poor quality.
The study, titled “Factors Favouring or Impeding Building a Stronger Higher Education System in the United Arab Emirates,” was published by The Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, a peer-reviewed periodical.
The paper was based on an extensive review of existing studies and involved no new empirical research. According to Ashour, in numerous surveys, employers have complained that graduates of the country’s colleges and universities lack required skills.
Instead of being irked by the paper’s critical conclusions, Emirati authorities were interested to hear more about the findings. Ashour was welcomed by the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, where she met with the vice minister as well as advisors to the minister.
“They know these are problems,” says Ashour about the weaknesses she reported in her study, and the authorities are working on a strategy to fix them.
Since the discovery of oil there in the 1960s, the United Arab Emirates has become one of the world’s richest and most rapidly developing countries. Yet its efforts to develop a higher education system reflect problems similar to those faced by many other countries in the developing world.
The emirates’ first university was established in 1977, and most higher-education is in English. Professors say the students struggle both in classical Arabic and in English, and as a result it can be difficult to teach complex content.
Senthil Nathan, co-founder and head of Edu Alliance, an Abu Dhabi-based education consulting company, says “the vast majority of students who graduate from the public high schools are not ready for higher education.”
To prepare them, most institutions provide “foundation programs” for entering students. These typically last at least a year and are designed to increase students’ competencies in English, math and other core subjects before they start their academic studies.
According to Ashour, foundation programs eat up some 30 percent of higher education spending.
Federal authorities have announced plans to end the foundation programs at the country’s three public institutions—which enroll about 30 percent of all students—by 2018. Observers say the aim is to pressure the country’s secondary schools to graduate better-prepared students. But it remains unclear whether the goal is feasible.
Observers say higher education quality in the Emirates appears to have made some gains in recent years as the authorities have taken steps to strengthen oversight. This summer, the federal Ministry of Higher Education put three more private universities on probation. They join two other private universities that are barred from enrolling new students due to various shortcomings.
But poor quality among the numerous private institutions remains a core problem. In addition to the three public higher education institutions, as of 2013, a further 70 private ones were licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education and seven more are under construction. From 2008 to 2013, enrollment at all licensed institutions increased from 52,926 to 128,279.
The United Arab Emirates is the leading host country for international branch campuses, with some 35 branches of foreign colleges and universities. The country is made up of seven autonomous emirates, and each sets its own education policy. Abu Dhabi has partnered with several prestigious foreign institutions, including New York University, and the Sorbonne, in Paris, both of which have opened highly-regarded branch campuses there.
But the emirate of Dubai has followed a different approach, creating “free zones” where foreign institutions have been allowed to set up wholly owned branches with a minimum of oversight. Echoing other critics, Ashour says many of these institutions hire largely part-time faculty with weak qualifications and overburden them with both heavy teaching loads and administrative tasks. “They don’t have time to develop their teaching or do research,” she says. “Usually, owners (of private institutions) prefer profits over quality.”
There were an even larger number of private institutions, but during the financial crisis that started in 2008 at least nine closed after being unable to recruit a sufficient number of students.
Ashour and other critics are calling for a strengthening of the oversight of higher-education institutions. The Commission for Academic Accreditation, an agency of the higher education ministry, licenses and accredits colleges and universities. But accreditation is voluntary for the large number of institutions in the free zones.
The scholar says that in her meetings at the ministry, officials admitted the accreditation commission is understaffed. “They cannot deal with the high number of requests from higher-education institutions.”
Ashour is calling for a number of reforms, including supplementing self-reporting with campus visits by the accreditation commission; raising the minimum qualifications for teaching staff; and guarantees of academic freedom.
Also needed, she says, is harmonization of the three existing quality assurance mechanisms: the federal ministry’s accreditation commission; accreditation agencies set up by Abu Dhabi and Dubai (along with a new one being established in a third emirate, Ras al-Khaimah); as well as a University Quality Assurance International Board that provides very weak oversight of institutions in the free zones.
The United Arab Emirates has a number of the strongest institutions in the Arab world, including the American University of Sharjah, as determined by such international comparisons as global rankings. But rankings are not generally considered to be a good measure of teaching quality, and experts say the relatively low average quality of education, along with the very low level of research, compare unfavorably internationally.
Still, observers point out that a lot has been accomplished in the four short decades since higher education began in the UAE. “[Developing] a culture of Ph.D. study and research is a matter of evolution,” says Nathan, the consultant. “I believe we’ll see much more in 10 to 15 years. It took Harvard one hundred years to get out of just divinity, and start doing academic research.”