Knowledge hubs grow in numbers in the Middle East

04 November 2010

With global operators setting their sights on Asia, can the new, purpose-built education cities springing up throughout the Middle East change the way learning is delivered?

key education fact

Fewer than 55 per cent of primary school children enter secondary education

Source: UNDP

In the past decade, several Gulf countries have launched knowledge hubs or education cities aimed at attracting leading foreign universities, colleges, training companies and business schools. Dubai and Qatar led the way, followed by Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Bahrain.

There hasn’t been a rush of overseas schools entering the Middle East market … most have focused on Asia

Naufel Vilcassim, London Business School

Education cities house single or multiple university campuses, research centres and training bodies. Many are duty-free zones that allow 100 per cent foreign ownership, tax incentives and freedom of hiring, as well as letting teaching bodies set their own curriculum content.

Today, the Middle East is home to some 500 business schools. Figures from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) suggest that 38,000 students are enrolled in higher education in Dubai alone.

Global education tenants in Dubai

Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) claims to be the world’s only higher education free zone. It houses more than 30 tertiary education bodies teaching some 16,000 students. They include Hult International Business School, Herriot-Watt University Dubai, Manchester Business School and the French School of Fashion.

Global MBA rankings, summer 2010
1London Business SchoolUK
2University of Pennsylvania, WhartonUS
3Harvard Business SchoolUS
4Stanford University, GSBUS
5Insead  France/Singapore
6Columbia Business SchoolUS
6IE Business SchoolSpain
8MIT Sloan School of ManagementUS
9University of Chicago, BoothUS
9Hong Kong UST Business SchoolChina
11IESE Business SchoolSpain
12Indian School of BusinessIndia
13New York University, SternUS
13Dartmouth College, TuckUS
16Yale School of ManagementUS
16University of Oxford, Said Business SchoolUK
18HEC ParisFrance
19Esade Business SchoolSpain
20Duke University, FuquaUS
Source: Financial Times

Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) has more than 400 tenants, including Middlesex University, Wollongong University and Iran’s privately owned Islamic Azad University.

Neighbouring Abu Dhabi has lured major players in global education, including French business school Insead, the Paris-Sorbonne University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT provides research and education for Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar).

Qatar’s Education City houses six US heavy hitters, including Carnegie Mellon University, Weill-Cornell Medical College and Texas A&M University.

Across the GCC, more education projects are in the pipeline. Saudi Arabia plans to build education zones in its economic cities. Between 2010-14, Saudi Arabia will allocate 50.6 per cent of its $384bn five-year plan to education and training to support 5.3 million school students and 1.7 million university students.

The most advanced project is King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), where the education zone includes a university for 18,000 students. Medina Knowledge Economic City, due to open in 2020, will specialise in hi-tech industries, medical sciences and biotechnology.

Created through private-public partnerships, the cities will generate more than $150bn a year and promote private investment in industries including education and training.

“The government is committed to significant spending on education infrastructure,” says Sagia director, Kim Pringle al-Sahhaf. “It is giving priority to upgrading existing facilities and building new ones. With our growing population, health and education will be a priority until 2030 at the very least.”

Bahrain plans to build a $1bn Higher Education City to promote internet and communications skills. Currently, it is reviewing its existing colleges and universities to improve quality and weed out existing bodies that underperform.

“Education cities are a very successful model for development,” says Warren Fox, executive director of KHDA. “For universities and business schools looking to set up international branch campuses, education cities offer incentives that shape the business decision. For Gulf countries, they promote education development. Dubai’s approach is based on fitness for purpose: branch campuses offering degrees that reflect Dubai’s entrepreneurial spirit.”

“Joint ventures will benefit foreign business schools. If done well, this can be a win-win solution

Eric Cornuel, EFMD

Traditionally, Arab students have travelled to Europe or the US to study specialist and scientific subjects, particularly at postgraduate level. Education cities will make more courses available in the local market and address shortages of technical skills in the Arab world.

But the Middle East is not necessarily the first choice for global operators. Education cities in the Gulf face stiff competition from Asia, where nearly half the world’s 12,600 schools are based. “There hasn’t been a rush of overseas schools aggressively entering the Middle East market,” says Naufel Vilcassim, Dubai faculty director for London Business School. “Most top schools are North American, and most have focused on Asia.”

Attracting schools to the Middle East

Growth in the Middle East depends on the willingness of local authorities to welcome foreign business schools, says Eric Cornuel, Brussels-based director-general and chief executive of the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD). “It also requires good local partners or joint venture opportunities. Market size is another prerequisite, and countries such as China and Japan support large populations.”

Cornuel praises Gulf education cities, but believes they do not solve all the region’s education needs. “It takes time to realise an education development strategy,” he says. “Governments must be resilient, and ensure that they deliver sustainable programmes.

“It is important for countries to change their mindset and generate their own research and learning, rather than import everything from overseas. Decision-makers must find their own way forward too. Joint ventures will benefit foreign business schools. If done well, this can be a win-win solution.”

Aberdeen University has been reluctant to open a regional campus. “We have had so many meetings with potential sponsors who have offered to build a Gulf campus for us,” says Dominic Milne, acting head of Aberdeen University’s international office. “Aberdeen will not go down that road unless it can ensure an identical student experience on any other campus … Some overseas universities can be complacent about this. We offer distance-learning programmes in specialist subsea engineering and petrochemical studies, but we want genuine partnerships that add value in the Middle East.”

Equipping students in the Gulf

Vilcassim puts the argument more explicitly. “My personal view is that Gulf countries put too much emphasis on tertiary education,” he says. “The challenge facing the Gulf is not [the] ability to attract a Carnegie Mellon or a Texas A&M. The challenge is to create primary and secondary education that will deliver a high calibre of student. Gulf countries are not producing high-school graduates with the skills to benefit from entry into top management or engineering schools. They are not producing high levels of competence in physics, biology or chemistry … this remains a long-term problem.”

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) studies support this view. In October 2009, UNDP published the first Arab Knowledge report with the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation. The findings were depressing. In 40 years, regional governments have spent 5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and a fifth of their general budgets on education. But 60 million people – more than a third of the Arab world’s population – are illiterate. Two thirds of these are women.

Nine million primary-school-aged children do not go to school. Fewer than 55 per cent of primary school children enter secondary education. Just eight Arab countries – Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE – gave children “the fundamental knowledge necessary to participate in the knowledge society,” reveals the report.

Only Bahrain and Libya achieved high levels of university enrolment. Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE ensured “a reasonable level of opportunity”. But three countries – Algeria, Oman and Saudi Arabia – needed “additional effort” to equip young citizens for the knowledge economy. The report urged Arab governments to make education more relevant to their citizens’ needs.

Analysts attribute shortcomings in Arab education to wider social problems. “Numbers and more numbers told the story,” notes report contributor Ramzy Baroud. “Finland spends $1,000 per person on scientific research, while less than $10 is spent annually in the Arab world … The number of published books averages one for every 491 British citizens; in the Arab world, it’s one [published book] for every 19,150.”

The issue is highly political. As commentator Brian Whitaker notes in What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East: “A knowledge-based society is essentially non-authoritarian and open to new ideas. It favours transparency and encourages a spirit of enquiry. It acknowledges unwelcome realities and addresses them. It is flexible and adapts quickly to changing circumstances. These are all traits that Arab societies … actively discourage.”

Baroud and others argue that education cities should not be detached from wider society. Yet many of these purpose-built establishments are physically distant from the communities they claim to serve. Without a reciprocal relationship that taps into the host society’s needs, education cities could become ivory towers.

Separation issues for educational institutions in Dubai

“The idea of education cities is fine,” says Nick van der Walt, academic dean of Hult Business School in Dubai. “Clustering can be useful, depending on universities’ resources … But education should also be part of the wider society. There’s a risk that these cities may separate schools from the community they aim to serve.”

This, perhaps, is why one of the newest, most prestigious market entrants will operate from the heart of the business community. Initial announcements suggested French business school HEC would open the first graduate school campus at Education City. Instead, HEC will operate from Doha’s West Bay business hub. This summer, it became the first to join Qatar Foundation’s Management, Education and Research Centre (QF-MERC).

“We will have teaching facilities in West Bay,” says Joshua Kobb, Paris-based director of international development and strategic partnerships. “[This] gives proximity to our executive participants.”

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