RAK, UAE: A council has been set up to oversee and regulate the emirate’s colleges and universities.
The council, established by order of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, has been welcomed by academics, many of whom feel they are being tarred by low standards at some of the emirate’s universities.
Tertiary institutions in RAK do not need to meet any quality standards, leading to claims of several institutions relocating there after failing inspections in Dubai.
That has hurt its reputation, making it even harder to attract students away from the draw of big city life in Dubai and its 53 universities.
The council will consist of academics working in the emirate and will have the power to expel underperforming institutions, said the head of the free zone, Oussama El Omari.
“The concern is that institutions which were not qualified had thought they could come here,” Mr El Omari said. “But we have some great institutions such as the University of Bolton and the American University of RAK.”
The council would regulate teaching staff and curriculums, hopefully reassuring fee-paying students and parents.
Dr Natasha Ridge, the head of the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in RAK, said it would protect students from poor institutions and malpractice.
“If the education council goes ahead it will be very good, but there needs to be more oversight, especially in the free zone,” Dr Ridge said.
There are nine universities and colleges in the RAK free trade zone and three others with Ministry of Higher Education accreditation.
In June, the University of Bolton, a branch of the British university that opened in 2008, had its engineering degrees approved by a panel of two academics from the home campus and two independent British academics.
Its campus director, Dr Zubair Hanslot, said he was concerned many universities in RAK lacked similar oversight.
“We do things the same as British universities, which have good governance and aren’t allowed to do things without going through the due process of approvals from the home campus,” Dr Hanslot said.
He said the issue of RAK becoming a home for those institutions refused by Dubai because they failed to meet the standards of their home campuses had been raised at several meetings with the emirate’s ruling authorities.
Dr Hanslot said he had been assured those institutions would now face greater scrutiny.
At Dh25,000 a year, Bolton’s fees are about Dh10,000 lower than similar institutions in Dubai, but it still struggles to attract students and convince employers of the value of a RAK education.
“Employers we speak to still see RAK as some sort of backwater, where the education isn’t as good quality,” said Dr Hanslot. “That’s not the case.”
Mr El Omari said better universities would help the local economy.
“The graduates from the Vatel school of tourism, for example, are now going to the local hotels so it’s important to upgrade the standards of service by providing that education,” he said.
“We can’t just keep bringing investments without having enough variations of universities here to really support these industries.”
The proposed council would include academics from all of the major institutions, such as Bolton and the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University, similar to the regulatory system in Dubai, said Dr Hanslot.
“It would give some confidence to students and parents, and would allow us to check on our standards. Any new player would have to be scrutinised,” he said.
“If the committee gets this right, RAK could be a very attractive study destination without the distractions and high costs of Dubai.”
In Dubai, the University Quality Assurance International Board’s 10 members, from countries including New Zealand and the US, reviews the universities in the free zones and those wanting to establish in the emirate.
Licences are automatically granted to institutions with Ministry accreditation.
Dr Gurumadhva Rao, the vice chancellor of Ministry-certified RAK Medical and Health Sciences University, said the council would help sort the wheat from the chaff.
“Some of the foreign universities here are not reputable in their own countries,” Dr Rao said. “There is so much variation in the educational quality.”
This makes recruitment in RAK a challenge, he said, because the negative reputation sticks to all those beyond the unregulated free zone.
“There is no kind of control,” Dr Rao said. “For everybody, it should be the same level playing field.
“If there were a good panel of experts who understood both education and the local environment, this would be a very good step.”