By Dr Warren Fox

02 June 2015 - 05:52

Dubai attracts students from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond
Dubai attracts students from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Image ©

Jaffar Hussain, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original (removed from Flickr).

Nine UK universities operate in Dubai, but how can students be sure they get what they pay for? We asked Dr Warren Fox, whose organisation, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), oversees the quality of many international branch campuses in Dubai, to set the record straight.

What is the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC)?

DIAC is the world’s largest free zone dedicated to higher education. It has a large selection of International Branch Campuses (IBCs) and a community of more than 20,000 students studying on more than 400 higher education programmes.

DIAC attracts students from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

Over the last two years, there has been a 37 per cent increase in the number of students studying for UK qualifications in Dubai.

What ensures that students get the high-quality education they pay for?

As regulator, Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) both grants and renews institutional permits and academic registrations. It also uses a specially developed Equivalency Validation Model to assess the quality of higher education programmes.

This model ensures that the transnational academic programmes on offer in Dubai broadly meet the standards of those on the home campus – whether in the UK, India, the US or any other country. This effectively makes sure that the home institution is responsible for the quality of academic programmes they provide in the Emirate of Dubai.

If this is a new model, how have you tested it, and how do you know that it is an effective measure of quality in higher education?

Although the Equivalency Validation Model has been in place for around seven years, it was only in 2014 that KHDA was able to evaluate the model against a standard quality review. This was carried out by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as a way to assess the quality of the nine UK campuses that operate in Dubai.

Why did you choose the QAA over many of the other international quality agencies?

QAA is respected internationally for its work to ensure quality in higher education. This was an opportunity for the agency to put into practice its mandate to ‘protect the interests of everyone working towards a UK higher education award, within the UK or overseas’.

It was also a chance for KHDA to develop its relationship with the QAA and learn from its assessment procedures and techniques.

KHDA has said that the outcome of the QAA review supports its Equivalency Validation Model. However, media coverage of the review has been more critical. How can UK higher education providers in Dubai justify the official label of 'branch campus' when some of these providers only administer a small number of programmes taught by faculty who fly into and out of Dubai?

On its website, KHDA refers to all transnational education providers in Dubai as branch campuses, regardless of their size. The issue here is not one of transparency or lack of it, but of definition. The term 'branch campus' is internationally used for a wide range of different transnational offerings. These include all those that offer upwards of one programme.

The 'branch campus' label that we use at KHDA is based on a broadly recognised definition that describes a branch campus as a '...higher education institution that is located in another country from the institution which either originates it or operates it, with some physical presence in the host country…'.

If KHDA uses such broad terminology, how do students know what they are signing up for?

KHDA takes transparency very seriously, providing full information about all the programmes on offer. All advertising by, and about, Dubai’s higher education institutions has to be cleared with KHDA before it goes out to the public.

What is most important is that students are happy with their higher education programme. The QAA review shows that this is the case. For example, at London Business School, students stated that they were very satisfied with what they get and the quality of the staff running the programme, even though the school offers only one course.

If the term 'branch campus' is used internationally in this way, how can we make sure customers of transnational higher education (TNE) are protected and know what they are getting?

To make sure that customers are better protected, the international community needs to be more aware of the language and the definitions it uses in TNE.

Although the QAA report queries the use of the term 'branch campus', it does not say that Dubai branch campuses have marketed themselves incorrectly. It just cautions that they should be careful not to. The market in Dubai is very diverse, and while KHDA tries to lead it, we cannot control it.

The different higher education options on offer in Dubai are a response to the needs of an international community in a place that is growing and changing. The variety of courses on offer in Dubai reflects the diversity of student requirements, and the need to meet the demands of the business-based economy of the emirate.

How will the QAA report about UK TNE in Dubai help the regulator ensure a higher quality of TNE in future?

We learned a lot from the UK reviewing teams, which were very skilful in talking to faculty and used lots of successful techniques. This allowed our KHDA staff to learn more about teaching methods, moderation, grading and data-gathering on the home campus.

But the real value of the review was that it demonstrates that a quality education is being provided by the Dubai campuses, that this is being sustained, and that our own model of equivalency is working.

Dr Warren Fox will be presenting on the subject of transnational education at Going Global on 2 and 3 June 2015.

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