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Campus outposts boost education in the Middle East

Posted on 27 January 2020

The University of Birmingham in Dubai will next year open a purpose-built campus for 2,900 international students, three years after welcoming the first entrants to its Middle East outpost.

Birmingham, a world top-100 university and a member of the UK’s elite Russell Group, is one of the latest international entrants to a growing higher education market in the region, with expansion focused in the high-income, high-spending Gulf.

The new Dubai campus will offer identical qualifications as those available to Birmingham’s students in the UK and is even designed to echo the home campus in Edgbaston. It will operate alongside more than a dozen local and foreign higher education institutions located at Dubai’s International Academic City.

In a higher education market in which the US and the UK have traditionally predominated, growing numbers of institutions are responding to increased demand in the region by putting down permanent roots.

In Abu Dhabi, New York University’s outpost will this year begin offering full-time master’s degrees for the first time at a purpose-built site near the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, just a decade after it started giving its first undergraduate courses at a makeshift site in the Gulf emirate.

In the prosperous Gulf, the market has been driven by a population able and willing to spend on quality education at international schools. Investment on education is enshrined in the development plans of Gulf governments.

There is also substantial demand from expat families who have made the Gulf their long-term base and want high quality English-language education for their children.

The rising population is also a factor in a Gulf region that must cater to the needs of more than 15 million school and college students in the current year.

The challenge of meeting that growth is being taken up by a range of prestigious overseas institutions such as Birmingham and NYU as well as by regional “edupreneurs” who are adopting new technology to expand the horizons of local students in an environment where rote-learning has traditionally predominated.

Birmingham Dubai last year awarded its first certificates to a cohort of local professionals planning a career change to primary and secondary teaching.

Western educational institutions have a long history of involvement in the Middle East. The forerunner of the American University of Beirut opened in 1866, with Arabic used as the language of instruction for its first decade. AUB, which still operates as a non-sectarian independent university, earned the top regional spot in the 2018 world university rankings.

The British-founded Victoria College in Egypt opened in 1902 to cater to expatriate and local elites, while the Jesuits and other Catholic orders provided schooling to Christian communities and others.

In contrast to such colonial-era enterprises, the modern education boom is driven by regional enterprise and local funding, linked to the readiness of established Western institutions to extend their international brands. This is furthering the “soft diplomacy” and spread of Western capabilities in the region, as well as helping to build long-term ties.

NYUAD, for example, was founded exclusively on funding from Abu Dhabi which also subsidises many of the 1,500 undergraduates. Student numbers are set to rise to 2,200 within the next four years. Regional governments have actively promoted such transnational partnerships to meet educational demand.

As leaders in the sector, UK universities saw enrollments in locally provided courses more than double in the first half of the last decade to more than 45,000 students, representing twice the growth of Gulf students opting to study in the UK over the same period.

Some universities, such as Liverpool, another Russell Group member, have meanwhile pioneered distance learning via online courses that provide post-graduate degrees to working professionals.

Campus outposts offer a similar range of subjects to those available at their home institutions. The number of accredited business schools in the region has risen from 13 to 20 since 2015.

The United Arab Emirates, which includes Abu Dhabi, is by far the main regional host for international campuses. It is just behind China on a worldwide basis, with around 30 institutions currently operating in the UAE.

Qatar has established an Education City that hosts six US branch campuses and one each from the UK and France.

Students are drawn from a wide range of origins and backgrounds and not just from the host countries. France’s Sorbonne University campus in Abu Dhabi, for example, boasts an intake from more than 90 countries.

The UK’s Middlesex University, with a branch is Dubai, offers its international students the opportunity to transfer between there and its campuses in London and Mauritius during their studies.

Aspiring filmmakers at Middlesex’s multinational Dubai campus recently secured the rights to adapt a short story by Stephen King, while a young Sri Lankan student became the first girl to play in the UAE qualifier of Red Bull’s world campus cricket finals.

Some of the outposts are highly specialised. The newly-opened campus of the University of South Wales in Dubai has teamed up with the local aviation authority to offer courses in aeronautics. Schools such as the American University in Dubai are offering 21st century courses in artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D design.

For both secondary and college students in the region cross-border co-operation has been boosted by so-called “edtech” projects that use innovative methods to enable distance learning and other interchanges between campuses. With many study texts now available online, physical books no longer have to be shipped across the world.

UK providers are also active in the edtech market as education expands and evolves.

At an edtech conference in Dubai last year that included representatives of 600 brands and institutions, an executive of Century Tech, a British AI business geared to education, revealed that the Middle East was now its second largest market after the UK. According to Charles Wood: “The advanced nature of the schools in the region means that it’s an enormous growth market for our company.”

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