Dubai’s learning curve gets smoother

Rising student numbers and a broader range of academic choice are driving expansion in Dubai’s private university system; however, institutions are being forced to tackle issues such as affordable student accommodation to drive further growth.

Institutions based in Dubai’s main higher education hub, the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), are seeing student numbers swell. Enrolments in the 2014/2015 academic year were up 20% year-on-year, according to data issued in April by DIAC. In total, the zone’s student body grew to more than 24,000. “These increases can be directly attributed to a series of student recruitment and sourcing initiatives ... in the last 2 years,” stated DIAC.

Some of the impetus for the increase has come from Russia, with a 129% rise in enrolments over the past three years, while Chinese and Filipino student numbers are up by 60% and 50%, respectively, over the same period, DIAC data showed.

This forms part of a wider trend in the emirate where institutions are looking beyond the traditional markets for growth. "Dubai is increasingly being seen as a global higher education destination, as well as a regional one," Randa Bessiso, director of the Middle East, Manchester Business School, told OBG. "Universities see a lot of potential for expansion here and from our perspective as a global business school, we see growing interest in Dubai from institutions in China and Asia," she added.

Expansion plans

Expansion is set to take a number of routes. Higher learning will progress, with more courses being offered and more advanced degrees being added to the curriculum, according to Mohammed Salem, acting president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai. However, universities need to ensure the quality of programmes remains high.

“In Dubai, the trend is going toward more comprehensive education,” Salem told OBG. “Many universities now offer PhD and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) programmes, which is good for research but can be risky if those programmes are of poor quality because it can really affect the reputation of the university.”

DIAC data shows a 20% increase in the number of students taking masters degrees and a 12% rise in the number of doctorates being undertaken during the last academic year.

Demand for places and a wider course range has seen a number of universities unveiling plans for expansion. On June 1, DIAC’s Murdoch University Dubai announced plans to double the size of its campus to accommodate 1800 students at full capacity, up from 900 expected this September. This increase comes on the back of a 44% surge in enrolments in the university’s January intake.

However, the high costs in Dubai associated with student accommodation are a potential constraint to the growth of international student intake. Plans by the authorities to build housing facilities for students across universities have not materialised. Additionally, low cost places for those studying in DIAC and in other institutions across the city are limited.

“Providing reasonably priced student accommodation is a challenge for all universities in Dubai if they wish to expand,” Cedwyn Fernandes, director of Middlesex University Dubai, told OBG.

A similar sentiment was echoed by the Manchester Business School’s Bessiso. “The cost of living in Dubai is what you would expect in any major global city, and the provision of affordable student accommodation is important,” she said. “We have no doubt that Dubai will respond accordingly and facilitate investment and develop facilities to meet this growing demand,” she added.

Some universities are taking matters into their own hands. The Heriot-Watt University Dubai developed the second phase of its Dubai campus in 2013, which features on-campus accommodation. The Dh100m ($27m) expansion includes a 700-seat auditorium as well as 160 rooms. Others universities are considering relocating to less costly areas of Dubai to give students a better chance of finding affordable housing.

Creative growth

Another attraction for foreign students is the potential for finding employment in the emirate’s expanding economy after graduation.

A number of universities are tailoring their programmes to better meet the expected future needs of the local economy, in areas such as tourism, art and design, and media studies. That drive could shift up a gear with the creation of the Dubai Creative Clusters Authority, formally established on June 15 to act as the managing and licencing agency in charge of ten of the emirate’s free-zone clusters, including DIAC. One of its mandates is to attract and develop creative businesses in Dubai to help position the emirate as a regional and international destination for industry leaders and talent.

This would help open up more employment doors for graduates of the emirate’s universities and in turn boost the appeal of Dubai as an education hub.

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