Two weeks ago, Jason and one of our graduate students, Christine Farrugia, were in the United Arab Emirates working on a survey of the country’s educational system. Jason’s been to the country several times over the past few years, and Christine has been there since January on a fellowship to study the legitimacy of branch-campus policies. For obvious reasons of wealth and an existing international reputation, Abu Dhabi and Dubai tend to capture most of the attention of those interested in the exciting developments in UAE education. However, those are only two of the seven emirates that comprise this small nation. In other regions of the country, things can look very different.
According to most estimates, 80 percent of the UAE’s population is expatriates. Some of these are wealthy westerners, but the vast majority represents lower socioeconomic classes from Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Many have resided in the area for two or three generations, but because of very strict laws about who is considered a “national,” they remain expatriates and are excluded from many public services. For example, public schools and universities enrollments are mostly restricted to nationals, forcing all others into private education. This has resulted in an interesting patchwork of educational offerings that includes, by some estimates, about a dozen different national curricula being offered at both the k-12 and postsecondary levels. The impact of branch campuses, then, is directly related to this private sector demand for access; particularly in the smaller emirates where branch campuses tend to serve a local population that has few other options.
As an example, while doing site visits in the Emirate of Ajman, Jason and Christine encountered Preston University. Preston is in the UAE as a branch campus of a Pakistani institution (they were also once associated with the diploma mill Preston University in Wyoming; but that’s for another posting). The facilities were plain and basic, but it was obviously an educational institution. The halls were full of students. Bulletin boards were covered with flyers announcing student activities. The trophy case was full of awards for both athletic and academic merit. Even during Jason and Christine’s meeting with the director of the institution, students were coming in asking about grades and course schedules. It was not clear how the institution compared in terms of size or quality of academic offerings with the home campus, which remains an important issue in assessing such institutions. But the director emphasized that this institution’s mission was to provide access to higher education to those students with no other opportunities. From that respect, it does a better job than the much higher profile—and better financed—New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, which is designed to provide a liberal-arts education to a highly selective group of students from around the world.
While much attention is often paid to the economic and reputational effect of branch campuses, we often fail to account for the much more important consideration about how these institutions integrate with and serve the local environment. The prestigious institutions from Western countries garner most of the press and are the focal point for critics, but these are not typically the ones that serve important societal functions such as providing access to those who don’t otherwise have it.
Not all international branch campuses are alike. What consideration should be given to those institutions that serve a valuable local purpose? What metric should we use to evaluate their academic worth?