While experts have praised Dubai's education free zones as a commendable model among international hubs, the lack of university collaboration and knowledge production are its weaknesses, they said.

They were speaking at a panel discussion, which was part of the International Finance Corporation's private education conference in Dubai last week.

Dr Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and expert in the field of international education, questioned whether education hubs were "fads and branding exercises or new development and centres of innovation worthy of serious attention and investment". Hubs should be looking at knowledge production in addition to teaching as the next step of their evolution, she said.

Exemplary model

She added that despite challenges, the UAE, and Dubai in particular with 27 branch campuses, is regarded as "an exemplary model" among the world's education hubs, according to Knight. The UAE is home to 37 branch campuses — the highest number among 200 worldwide — followed by Singapore with 18, China with 17, Qatar with 10 and Malaysia with 7, she said.

Education providers, regulators and hosts agreed that collaboration was the next step for higher education hubs. Anand Sudarshan, CEO of Manipal Global Education, Dr Warren Fox, executive director of higher education at the Knowledge Human Development Authority (KHDA), and Ayoub Kazim, managing director of the Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village, the education clusters part of Tecom Investments, were on the panel.

Fox said the barriers to becoming a true education hub is the proprietary nature and unwillingness of higher education providers to collaborate, allow credit transfers or share students. "It's one of the things we are working on and would like to achieve in the future. I do think eventually, once the market works itself out and we have a large number of successful campuses, we'll find it is the ticket to success."

Sudarshan admitted that this was the case and that the institutions were business ventures and naturally in competition with each other. "Dubai has been a sterling success for us. There is an enormous opportunity for growth globally and mobility is taking on a whole new meaning, which is why we are working on multiple models."

Evolving institutions

Kazim also pointed out that the UAE's education hubs were less than a decade old and still evolving. "Private sector enrolment has been growing at a robust seven per cent per annum over the past decade."

"In a short span of time, the cluster has attracted foreign institutions from diverse parts of the world and has also seen tremendous influx of students from this region and beyond," he said.

Kazim cited a recent report by the Parthenon Group that stated 120,000 students are currently enrolled in the UAE higher education sector, of which 78,000 are registered in private institutions.

Quality challenges

Quality is another significant challenge for private higher education hubs in the UAE, Fox said.

High school graduates who are unprepared for university level education, programmes that are not culturally relevant and the lack of a national framework to regulate the quality of private institutions in the country's economic free zones are part of the problem as well, he added.

"The biggest challenge is to sustain and improve the quality of institutions in the free zones. Eventually, we want to see programmes more attuned to the economic and cultural needs of the region that we're in."

Fox explained that when the KHDA was established five years ago, and its University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB) was established four years ago, all universities in the Dubai free zones were assessed. At the beginning of that process, some campuses did not meet the UQAIB's standards and were asked to leave.

"In fact, in one case, there was no home campus, which they described in great detail, so the education permit was denied and they moved quickly. Unfortunately, they opened up elsewhere in another emirate, which calls for more national planning," Fox said.