Three of Scotland’s most well-known universities – St Andrews, Aberdeen and -Glasgow – may be among the oldest in the world, but the country’s higher education system has always been distinctly modern.

In the 18th century, the Scottish enlightenment, centred on Edinburgh University, gave the world the first work of economics – Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – and some of the first works of sociology, developed by David Hume.

A hundred years later, as the industrial revolution took root, some of the first universities to teach engineering were set up in Scotland, with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow a ‘place of useful learning’ where the skills taught were practical rather than purely academic. In 1964, the school became the first in the UK to be designated a technical university.

The education and research opportunities offered in the country are “fantastic” says Leo Koot, managing director of Taqa Bratani, an -offshoot of Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa).

Scottish universities remain a draw for international students largely because of the quality of education they offer. In a 2008 ranking of the world’s best universities by the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement, the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh were all placed near the top.

Population decline

With Scotland’s population falling because of lower birth rates – it is forecast to drop below 5 million people in 2025 from the current 5.1 million – the government has been seeking foreign students to boost its workforce. The universities, meanwhile, have been looking further afield for new opportunities. The Gulf, with a young and rapidly growing population and a thirst for knowledge beyond pure academia, is an ideal destination.

Strathclyde University was one of the first institutions to take advantage of the burgeoning demand for further education in the Gulf. In 1995, the university set up a satellite school in Dubai. In doing so, it became the first European university to teach an MBA course in the emirate.

Strathclyde’s MBA programme has a strong pedigree – it is one of the 1 per cent of business administration programmes offered globally to be accredited in the US, Europe and the UK.

The university now offers MBA courses in Oman and Bahrain, working through local partners. To ensure the quality of teaching, the staff who lead the courses are all faculty members at the main university.

“We are permanent here,” says Melissa McCrindle, marketing director for the univer-sity’s business school. “We aren’t just in the region to make a quick buck and get out, as some schools are. We don’t have a bricks and mortar campus, but we do have roots. We have put a lot of work into being there, and we are seen as a very credible MBA in the market.”

The school is living up to its motto of useful learning. Alongside the MBA course, it is offering masters degrees in marketing, entrepreneurship, and supply chain and operations management. These are part of a more dynamic and market-facing approach to education, says McCrindle.

“Part of Strathclyde University is the Hunter School for Entrepreneurship, and we are really trying to formalise the study of entrepreneurship,” she says.

Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University became the first overseas school to set up its own campus at Dubai International Academic City in 2005. Again, rather than offer traditional academic courses, the university is offering more practical degree courses such as petroleum engineering and fashion design.

That both schools offer vocational courses is no surprise, says Brian Smart, executive dean at the Heriot-Watt Dubai campus.

“Heriot-Watt was created at the time of the industrial revolution to help develop the Scottish economy, and that is what we have been doing ever since,” he says.

“Useful education, practical education, is older in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Mechanical [engineering] institutes started there in the 19th century, and were very much aided by the higher level of education, which was mandatory then as now.”

The Gulf now desperately needs the kind of education Heriot-Watt and Strathclyde have to offer, he says, and that will allow Scottish universities in their mould to grow.

“The world is all about two things,” says Smart. “Growth and difference. From this point of view, we have a good reputation for getting our students jobs and a good research reputation, and that is a good difference.”

Attracting students

Smart wants to double the number of students on courses at the Dubai campus over the next three years. If the university hits this target, it will be half the size of the home campus in Glasgow. The school has already grown from 175 pupils in 2005 to 1,700 in 2009.

Next on the agenda will be research. “The usefulness of the degrees we teach is underpinned by research,” says Smart. “Institutional research combined with degree studies is what makes Scottish education what it is.”

Both Smart and McCrindle are already looking at their next move in the region. Qatar, home to Doha Education City, is an attractive option.

It is not just universities that are making their way from Scotland to the Gulf states, thanks to Scotland’s unique education system, which allows students to take a series of qualifications that lead up to a degree rather than demanding that students must move directly from strictly structured secondary education to the university level.

In Oman, Caledonian University College, which is affiliated with Glasgow Caledonian University, offers foundation courses teaching students the basics of engineering, and allowing them to move on to degree level courses as well as a variety of MSc and BSc courses in engineering.

Heriot-Watt offers a similar course, which allows students with high school education to progress to the degree programmes it offers. It also acts as a buffer, allowing students to prepare for the teaching style, which is often different from their earlier experience.

Abu Dhabi is home to the international office of Opito, the UK’s Aberdeen-headquartered oil and gas academy, instituted by businesses working in the oil and gas industry.

More Scottish universities are likely to make their way into the region soon, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai seen as the major locations. Edinburgh College of Art, one of the UK’s most reputable and successful independent schools, is in talks with potential partners in Dubai and hopes to start running degree courses in 2010.

Frank Henderson of the Middle East Business Club, a consultant sponsored by the  Scottish Chamber of Commerce, says he is in talks with several schools that want to set up in the UAE.

The education link goes both ways. In Dundee, Dubai’s ruling Al-Maktoum family has invested an estimated $2m a year in the Al-Maktoum Institute for Islamic Studies, a school that has grown exponentially since its inauguration in 2004, says Mallory Nye, the principal of the institute.

With certifications provided by its partner Aberdeen University, the institute offers masters degrees in Islamic studies; Islamic-jerusalem studies; Islam, globalisation and the West; and Islamic education. In 2010, Nye hopes to offer a course in Islamic finance – a hot topic, and one he expects to be enthusia-stically received.

Although the Al-Maktoum institute has no designs on entering the Gulf market, it does offer biannual summer and winter schools for UAE nationals. “We get about 55 students for each course,” says Nye. “The programme we ran this summer was all about getting to know Scotland. In the winter we do a course in multi-culturalism and leadership.”

Nye sees the service as offering an invalu-able opportunity for Scots to get to know more about Islamic culture, and for Emiratis to get to know more about other cultures.

“They really enjoy it,” he says. “And a lot of people talk about coming back over here to do things like setting up businesses.”

In the future, says Smart, a key issue for Scottish universities offering the highest quality of education will be the question of status. He has been in talks with some countries over potential link-ups, but has found that without a famous name, it is difficult to attract interest.

“We don’t quite have that big-name repu-tation yet,” he says.

In the future, Scottish institutions may have to work together to develop their global brand. “If you wedded another Scottish school then their cachet and our grunt would allow us to become truly global,” he says.