Bouncing over sand dunes in a 4x4 Land Rover in 40°C heat is certainly the most unusual journey you could take to a UK university.
Admittedly, this bumpy desert short cut by taxi is not the route used by most students at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus, but it highlights the inescapable fact that this is a very different experience from that enjoyed by most students at UK universities.
However, once inside the new campus, you could be excused for forgetting that you are 7,600 miles away from Heriot-Watt’s native home of Edinburgh.
Behind the lobby reception hang large oil paintings of two Scottish luminaries, the 16th-century financier George Heriot and the 18th-century inventor James Watt, who give their names to the institution, which was founded in 1821.
Nearby a coffee bar is teeming with noisy students, male and female, all blithely ignoring a 6ft tall photo cut-out board that allows people to pretend to be a tartan-clad Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Scenes inside the classrooms are also familiar as many of the campus’ 3,300 students - mostly from the Indian subcontinent - take part in tutorials and lectures.
The fashion studio hums with the sound of sewing machines, every single station in the electronics lab is occupied, while a group of young engineers bustle around an undeniably impressive dune buggy they have built themselves.
In a new building that opened in September, Mervyn George, a fourth-year civil engineering student from India, is testing a new type of reinforced concrete with classmates.
“The labs are much bigger here than at the old site,” he says. “We’ve got more materials to play with, and we can do what we want in the lab.”
The buzz of activity at Heriot-Watt’s campus is surely exactly what was planned when the Dubai Knowledge Village, the first “knowledge free-zone” opened in Dubai in 2003. Like the country’s “media free-zone” and “business free-zone”, it was set up to allow organisations to operate without the constrictions of Islamic-based Emirati laws.
There are now 52 universities with a presence in the Gulf boom city. Of these, 26 academic institutions and their 16,000 students are based at Dubai International Academic City, which was founded in 2007 and now houses overseas campuses of five UK institutions - Heriot-Watt, Middlesex University and the universities of Exeter, Bradford and Manchester.
Knowledge importers still bullish
Ten years into this educational experiment, those running this cluster of global universities on the outskirts of Dubai are still bullish about the project’s future despite recent worries about a local economy whose strength has traditionally been a key attraction for prospective students.
“The downturn is behind us,” insists Leigh Ann Jones-Khosla, director of business development for TECOM Investment’s Education Cluster, which includes DIAC and the Dubai Knowledge Village.
“We are not recession-proof, but Dubai never really saw the dip that was seen elsewhere.
“We’re now starting to recover too - the construction sector has bounced back and there is good growth in the tourism and engineering sectors,” says Jones-Khosla.
However, post-2008 economic concerns have forced DIAC and its international branch campuses to re-examine the course portfolios on offer.
Formerly, graduates were more or less guaranteed employment in an economy that boasted double-digit growth for more than a decade. But the new economic reality of growth at a lower (if still impressive) 5 per cent is forcing DIAC to consider whether a broader range of courses - beyond the popular and, for institutions, lucrative MBAs and similar business degrees - is required.
“They are being far more selective in the universities they are admitting here,” says Daniel Adkins, academic director at Murdoch University Dubai, an overseas campus of the Australian institution.
“If a university came in and just offered an MBA, I seriously doubt they would be accepted. If they also offered to do petroleum engineering, [DIAC] would look very differently on the application,” he says.
“It would have to be a university with some prestige offering something that is in demand here.”
To this end, DIAC commissioned a study by the consultancy Deloitte to see how its universities can help to fill some of the skills gaps in the Dubai economy; it concluded that the growth areas of tourism and engineering require extra graduates to meet demand.
With signs that the economy is rebounding and with new courses on offer, student recruitment will grow in coming years, Adkins believes.
“We started in 2008 with just 30 students and we now have 600 students. We’ve trimmed our growth rate, but we still expect to have 1,000 students by 2015 and 2,000 students by 2020.
“We have good demand from India and Pakistan, where parents feel safer sending their children here.
“It’s a way of getting a Western education without the visa hassles of the US, the UK or Australia. We’ve also had quite a few students who had intended to go to the UK but came to us instead because of the visa clampdown in the UK.”
The tougher post-study visa conditions introduced in the UK last year has also helped India’s Amity University to snap up several UK-bound students for its Dubai campus, says Mariam Shaikh, its assistant vice-president for marketing and recruitment.
“Visa regulations in the UK have definitively had an impact [on recruitment],” she says.
“Getting a visa in the UK is a long drawn-out process, and several students realised they could not stay on to work. The work opportunities in Dubai are much larger, and students want the exposure to the international companies based here.”
There is certainly demand: the Education Cluster has 19,000 students (44 per cent of them women), and nearly 45 per cent hail from the Indian subcontinent.
Many international flavours
The city-state’s openness to foreign workers attracts not only Indian and Pakistani students, although they make up more than half of DIAC’s student population.
Ambe Diom, 21, from Cameroon, is studying commerce and management at Amity. He says that the twin attractions of good employment prospects and an international student body drew him to Dubai.
“Students here come from lots of ethnic backgrounds, so it’s been a really good experience for me.”
Some of the benefits, he continues, were unexpected. “I didn’t realise that I’d make a lot of Kazakh friends. It’s helped me understand other cultures, while we’ve been encouraged to meet international employers here in our lunchtimes.”
While the international branch campuses at DIAC appear confident of attracting more foreign students - the hub aims to have 25,000 students by 2015 - the relative lack of home-grown students has been noted.
Emirati students in their flowing white robes are very visible in DIAC’s main quad, but only about 15 per cent of students come from the UAE. Other local students appear to have shied away from the international universities because not all of them comply with the rules laid down by the United Arab Emirates’ accreditation body, which requires some element of Islamic study.
International employers in Dubai may be happy to accept courses offered via the free zone’s own independent accreditation scheme, which is overseen by international quality review, but the powerful Emirati government is believed to favour courses that follow its own accreditation model.
It is clearly a factor in deciding which institution to attend, according to one student.
“I want to study at one of the UK or US universities at DIAC, but it’s very hard to get a civil servant job with these qualifications,” she observes.
Nonetheless, Warren Fox, the US-born executive director for higher education, knowledge and human development for the UAE government, believes that the soundness of the higher education qualifications offered in Dubai is one of its key attractions.
The country’s higher education project “will not be a success unless we have a reputation for quality and rigour that shows our validation [model] works”, he insists.
More branch campuses of foreign institutions are due to open in Dubai later this year to meet the economy’s demand for more graduates, he says.
“The population of the UAE was 4 million in 2009. This year, it is 8 million. More hotel rooms will be built in Dubai this year than in any other place in the world.
“That kind of growth is amazing - there are very positive signs for Dubai.”