Dubai sets its sights on becoming international education hub

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Oct 4 22:15:18 UTC 2007  Thursday, October 4,

Dubai Sets Its Sights on Becoming International Education Hub

By ZVIKA KRIEGER <z.krieger at>

Michigan State University announced last week that it will open a campus in
Dubai's newly created International Academic City, becoming the first
American university to open in this emirate after the country's years of
efforts to compete with its wealthy Persian Gulf neighbors in becoming a
regional hub for higher education. Classes are set to begin as early as fall
2008. The campus, which plans to initially offer bachelor and master's
degree programs that come with Michigan State diplomas, will be housed in a
new $3.27-billion, 25-million-square-foot complex for universities,
colleges, and research centers.

Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has had difficulty attracting American
universities -- particularly in competing with Qatar's Education City, which
has put out billions of dollars to open branches of such top-tier American
universities as Cornell, Georgetown, and Carnegie Mellon. While Qatar pays
for almost all aspects of operation in Education City -- ranging from
buildings to salaries, and even grants for projects on the participating
universities' campuses back home -- Dubai will be providing loans to foreign
institutions in the hopes that the universities' future revenue will cover
the costs.

Though Dubai has attracted nearly 20 higher-education institutions from
around the world to its Knowledge Village complex, none of them are
particularly well known and none are from the United States. "American
universities thought we were going to do the same as Qatar did, which is
just spend money on whatever they ask," said Ayoub Kazim, the executive
director of Dubai's academic city.

"But this is not a true partnership. We didn't want just the funding to come
from one, and the other will provide academic programs. We want it to be
mutually beneficial, for both sides."

Many American universities have balked at this self-supporting model. Mr.
Kazim contends that it is a matter of sustainability. "This is higher
education, so we have to be thinking 20 to 30 years ahead at least," he
says. "We can't just be thinking short-term."

The creation of International Academic City last April marked a new stage in
Dubai's development strategy, one in which planners hope to focus the
seemingly haphazard development of its Knowledge Village over the past few
years. Their goal is to gather top-tier institutions into International
Academic City while reserving Knowledge Village for technical institutes,
vocational schools, and other educational programs.

The new academic-city complex, which Dubai is touting as "the world's only
free zone dedicated to international higher education," is offering
universities 100 percent foreign ownership, tax-free status, and, full
repatriation of profits, as well as abundant student and staff housing,
state-of-the-art facilities, and services such as visa support.

Dubai also hopes to differentiate itself from Education City by attracting
universities from a broad range of countries rather than just top-tier
American schools as was done in Qatar.

"We encourage them to work together -- exchange information, faculty," Mr.
Kazim says. "Ten years ago nobody could have envisioned a university from
Australia and one from Scotland working right next to each other. This is a
true internationalization of academic programs."

The major question is whether Dubai has become an attractive enough
destination in and of itself to draw American universities without offering
the lavish incentives dangled in places like Qatar. "Qatar is an amazing
model, bringing proven institutions to the Arab and Middle Eastern context
and letting them slowly adapt to the new culture," said Shafeeq Ghabra, the
former president of the American University of Kuwait and the author of a
recent report about higher education in the Arab world. "Ten to fifteen
years ago, Dubai would have had to pay just as much money to bring them. But
now Dubai has become an exciting place in its own right, so they can offer

Michigan State , which had also explored sites in Qatar and other Arab
countries, was attracted to Dubai's larger pool of qualified students and
its position as a regional hub, said John Hudzik, vice president for global
engagement and strategic projects. "If we really wanted to be a globally
engaged university, we needed to expand our presence in the region," he
said. "Dubai is envisioning itself as a capital for higher education for a
region that includes not only the Middle East but as far as India and
Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and even East Africa. It is quickly becoming a
regional and global capital on every level."

Dubai's "breakneck development" also provides a fertile environment for the
university, Mr. Hudzik said. "We used to hear of boomtowns -- well this is a
boom emirate," he says. "At a certain point they need to take a step back
and ask, 'What are we really doing?' and we want to be a part of that

Michigan State, which is in a state of "financial risk," according to Mr.
Hudzik, was also attracted by the generous line of credit offered by Tecom
Investments, a government entity that owns International Academic City. The
new campus will be supported by its own revenue rather than drawing on the
university's resources.

The problem is that Dubai may have missed the boat on appealing to top
American universities. "Qatar certainly has the advantage of having been
first and having attracted a lot of big names already," said Philip G.
Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston

"Qatar is the gold standard until somebody does it better, which frankly
would be difficult to do." And as more countries in the region clamor to
open American campuses, the oversaturation may undermine all of their
efforts. "There are a lot of bright people in the world, but you can't have
a country full of Harvards and expect to have bright kids filling all the
seats, especially in these smaller countries with fewer qualified people,"
Altbach said. "I'm not saying that schools like Michigan State won't be able
to maintain the same standards as at home, but it is certainly a major


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at

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