Closing the accreditation gap in the UAE

09 May 2011

Differences in accreditation rules by the federal government and free zones in the UAE are creating a two-tier higher education system in the country

Students in non-federal institutions, 2009

(Area of study, percentage)

  • Business and management: 37
  • Other: 35
  • Engineering: 14
  • Health sciences: 8
  • Computer science/info technology: 6

Source: UAE Ministry of Higher Education

Accreditation is a contentious issue in the UAE’s higher education sector. While many overseas universities, colleges and business schools come to the emirates with impressive international credentials, the federal government accredits only those that it deems to be governed locally.

The accreditation issue is a barrier. Students’ vocational qualifications are often not recognised

Amanda Kelleher, City & Guilds Group

Like Qatar, the UAE is aiming to position itself as a centre of excellence for education. The past decade has seen an influx of international branch campuses to supplement local institutions such as the University of the UAE, Zayed University, American University of Dubai, University of Sharjah and the University of Al-Ain.

Dubai has pursued this strategy vigorously, launching education free zones that offer incentives to foreign providers. Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai Academic City, Dubai Healthcare City and Silicon Oasis have all positioned themselves as centres for training and education.

Rapid expansion in education sector

Other emirates have devised their own strategies. Sharjah has focused on developing higher education facilities such as the American University of Sharjah and the University of Sharjah. Ras al-Khaimah has launched the RAK Education and Academic Zone. Abu Dhabi has used generous endowments to lure renowned institutions such as France’s Paris-Sorbonne University and UK business school Insead.

We are talking to the CAA and to the ministry of higher education about solutions to this problem

Warren Fox, KHDA

The rapid expansion of the education sector brought fears that in opening its doors to profit-driven education providers, the UAE would sacrifice quality for quantity. In 2000, the Federal Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research created the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) to implement quality control.

The CAA reports directly to the ministry. It awards federal licences to higher education bodies, accredits individual degree programmes and helps colleges, universities and business schools to set up quality-assurance initiatives.

Today, the UAE’s higher education sector comprises three types of facilities: institutions established by royal decree such as Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology; government-accredited bodies under CAA supervision; and free zone entities.

Dubai has taken its own steps to regulate free-zone-based higher education bodies. In 2006, it created the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) to licence free zone institutions. In 2008, KHDA launched the University Quality Assurance International Board (Uqaib) to assess tertiary education in free zones.

“Uqaib’s role is to ensure that programmes here are equivalent to those offered in the home market,” says Warren Fox, KHDA executive director for higher education.

“It uses an equivalency model to ensure that the quality of courses run out of Dubai’s free zones matches that of the home campus.” Despite moves to tighten quality control, problems remain. Leading foreign universities come to the UAE with international accreditation. Yet the government does not recognise this.

Top business schools hold accreditation from the Association of MBAs (Amba) in the UK, Equis in France or from the New England Association of Schools & Colleges and/or the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in the US.

The CAA only licences institutions that are locally governed. In other words, only those prepared to make a financial commitment to the UAE, setting up a local board and budget.

Accreditation gap in the UAE

Major federal bodies – government departments, the police and the military – only recognise qualifications from CAA-accredited colleges. While many private sector employers in the UAE recognise international accreditation, the Labour Ministry does not.

Dubai higher education sector, 2010
Higher education institutions50
Free zone institutions34
Free zone business schools20
Number of students, 200736,000
Number of students, 201039,000
Source: KHDA

This means extra red tape for non-CAA graduates who apply for UAE work permits. A non-Emirati job applicant, who has completed a non CAA-approved course in the UAE, will need a certificate from the school’s home country campus to persuade the Labour Ministry to issue a work permit.

The accreditation gap affects vocational training too, according to Amanda Kelleher, regional manager for City & Guilds Group, which works with employers to train young nationals at local companies such as Etihad Airways, Dubai Aluminium and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.

“The accreditation issue is a barrier,” Kelleher says. “Students’ vocational qualifications are often not recognised. The UAE army uses City & Guilds courses to train its personnel. Someone leaving the army with a level three technician qualification will find that the ministries do not recognise this, yet firms like Abu Dhabi National Oil Company snap them up.”

Meanwhile, CAA-accredited universities and business schools do not recognise first degrees from non-CAA schools and colleges. Every year, CAA bodies reject hundreds of applications from international branch campus graduates seeking to continue their studies. Universities have urged the federal government to raise awareness of the issue among high school students and to find new ways to transfer credits between the two systems.

Because the UAE has fewer than a million nationals and a total population of less than 8.3 million, few foreign higher education institutions recruit solely Emiratis. Most target expatriates working in the UAE and nationals from neighbouring GCC states, the wider Arab world, and Iran, as well as globally. They are reluctant to pursue UAE-specific credentials.

Two-tier higher education system

Over the past decade, international universities and business schools have looked to global expansion to generate new revenues, as home governments cut state funding for education. Under pressure to maximise their earnings overseas, foreign schools are reluctant to invest in the UAE and to operate the local board and budget that the CAA requires.

UAE higher education demand
YearPublic institutions Private institutions
f=Forecast. Source: UAE Ministry of Higher Education 

“Many very reputable overseas schools are reluctant to make that kind of commitment,” says Nick van der Walt, Dubai dean at the US’ Hult International Business School. “But without federal accreditation, many Middle East nationals will find that government employers do not recognise their qualifications.”

Leading international schools support moves by the government to address quality and get tough with players that fall short. But many feel the CAA’s approach will create a two-tier system of higher education with free zone bodies targeting international students and CAA colleges enrolling nationals and long-term residents.

KHDA says it is talking to the federal authorities about ways to improve the system. “We are talking to the CAA and to the ministry of higher education about potential solutions to this problem,” says Fox. “At this stage, we are not sure what the solution will be. We have a quality-assurance process in place and this offers consumer protection.

“Between us, we share a common objective. Free zone bodies are accredited in their home market and for many students what matters is to get that international degree. What matters is that we operate a system that is transparent.”

Moves are also afoot to improve the transfer of credits between courses accredited to GCC ministries of education. “There is a new agreement between GCC countries to provide cross-accreditation to each others’ citizens, which came into effect in late 2010,” says Rob Whelan, president of Australia’s CAA-accredited University of Wollongong. However, the new initiative has achieved mixed results so far. “Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry will only accredit GCC bodies that have completed the full cycle of accreditation, that means those accredited at start-up and again once the first intake of students has graduated,” says Whelan.

“Because the regulatory environment is changing fast, few universities have completed that cycle. In many cases, generic agreements [between states] have yet to be tested. We are not accredited in Saudi Arabia. But we are accredited at undergraduate level in Iran and at undergraduate and postgraduate level in Jordan.”

The University of Wollongong has invited the Saudi Education Ministry to send an independent team to evaluate its Dubai programmes.

Dubai School of Government (DSG), meanwhile, attracts students from across the region through government-level memorandums of understanding (MoUs). “We are accredited to the CAA, but that doesn’t mean a lot to students outside the UAE,” says Wayne James, DSG director of student affairs. “What matters is our courses are accredited by the UAE authorities.

“Most overseas students come to us through their own ministries and government agencies, who encourage their employees to apply to DSG’s public administration programmes. Under MoU agreements, students who gain a DSG qualification receive accreditation from the home country’s education ministry.”

Natasha Ridge, acting director of research at DSG, says that the CAA has successfully created a baseline for education quality in the UAE. “Its standards are quite rigorous and it has successfully upheld them,” she says. “There have been several reported cases of colleges being shut down for falsely claiming to be accredited. 

“But the universities that operate out of Dubai’s free zones do not need CAA approval and we will see a two-tier system evolve. The free zone players will recruit expatriates and international students, who do not plan to work in the UAE.”

Raising accreditation awareness

That the UAE needs quality control is not in doubt. The unwitting student can lose thousands of dirhams to schools that make false or misleading claims. 

Ridge urges the CAA and KHDA to promote their lists of licensed and accredited colleges and to campaign more vigorously to raise awareness of why accreditation matters. Both need to translate Arabic and English information into Asian languages to protect vulnerable low-income expatriates, she says.

There is also a potential conflict between KHDA’s remit to supervise quality and the pressures it faces, as a body that earns its income from licensing, to attract as many higher education players to Dubai as possible.

“Perhaps the problem is not so much quality, but sustainability,” Ridge says. “We have seen a number of UAE-based institutions shut down, having failed to enrol sufficient numbers of students. The real issue is to ensure that the UAE’s free zone-based operators stick around. It’s all very well to encourage competition, but with a limited pool of students here in the UAE, it’s not necessarily true that more equals better.

“Long-term, the UAE urgently needs more emphasis on research and postgraduate studies, but it is a real problem attracting high quality faculty to deliver such courses.”

“There is little incentive for high-powered faculty to come to the UAE, when the market is dominated by short-term contracts. But attracting high-quality faculty would make a huge difference,” says Ridge.

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