Quality starts to blur with quantity

It is the proud boast of Abu Dhabi University, in the United Arab Emirates, that it hosts two Starbucks coffee shops on its campus in Khalifa City. It is not heavy sales that necessitate the duplication, rather that there is one café for male undergraduates, a second for female.

Gender segregation in education is just one of the distinctions in a region that has proved to be a magnet for western universities, business schools and training companies over the past decade. So much so, that from a real lack of management education a few years ago, the difficulty these days is determining quality courses among the quantity.

In Abu Dhabi, it is just one huge competition, says Annette Burke, director of executive education at Adicoe, the chamber of commerce’s centre for organisational excellence. “We went from no training to such an amount that we’re saturated.”

In Dubai it is a similar story. “Oversupply is the main problem,” says Ehsan Razavizadeh, regional director for Cass, the UK business school that set up in the Dubai International Financial Centre in 2007.

In a rush to grab a slice of what has been seen as an increasingly lucrative market, European institutions such as London Business School, Manchester, Bradford and Strathclyde have set up facilities in Dubai, while Insead has teaching facilities in Abu Dhabi and HEC Paris in Qatar. Executive education specialists such as Ashridge and Cranfield are also jockeying for business. Indeed, on one floor in the DIFC three normally competing business schools – LBS, Cass and Duke, from the US – sit cheek by jowl.

And in spite of the recent financial crisis, which has clearly affected Dubai, and the uprisings in the region, most notably in Bahrain, little seems to dent enthusiasm among business education providers. What they are competing for is a market quite unlike any other, with two different streams of students. On the one hand there are management programmes designed specifically to promote the local Emirati population, usually working in the public sector, to senior management positions; on the other there are those designed for the expatriate community, who make up 80 per cent of the UAE population.

For the former there are the local public and private universities – the three federal universities, which are free to the local population, include the women-only Zayed University. In a policy that echoes France’s business school network, degree programmes are also taught by the chambers of commerce. In Abu Dhabi, the chamber has recently set up a school of management that will focus on entrepreneurship and launch an EMBA in October with Babson College, the US entrepreneurship specialist.

“We are starting a new entity but we are using the Babson DNA,” says Mohamed Rashed Al Hameli, director-general of the chamber. “The idea is not to compete with LBS and Insead but to bring something new.”

In Dubai, the chamber of commerce has been offering degrees for years and started an MBA last September. Indeed, its University of Dubai is accredited by the AACSB, the US accreditation body. Mohamed Ibrahim, dean of the college of business, is clear about the driving force in the higher education market. “The government is creating the market for education. The government wants to encourage local people to work for private companies.”

On top of this smorgasbord of local universities, the UAE authorities are encouraging world-class business schools to set up programmes and campuses. In Abu Dhabi, Insead has a 12-storey building, courtesy of the government, and New York University has a campus for undergraduate programmes. In Dubai, the authorities are creating a series of educational zones, such as Knowledge Village and Academic City, to attract universities and training companies. In the past five years, there have been nearly 180 applications, says Ayoub Kazim, managing director of the education cluster.

The aim of the zones is to help turn the UAE into a knowledge economy, he says, and points to Boston in the US as Dubai’s role model. “Boston is an education destination because they have more than 70 multi-tiered educational institutions, not just because they have Harvard and MIT.”

He sees his brief as bringing in everyone from PhD providers to those who conduct vocational training. “Some models attract only the Ivy Leaguers. They are catering for only 2 per cent of the population. What happens to the other 98 per cent? We don’t want to leave any student unable to pursue opportunities.”

While some complain of oversupply, others are unperturbed by the growing competition, particularly in MBAs. “The more providers of quality MBAs here, the better for all of us,” says Randa Bessiso, Middle East director of Manchester Business School, which runs its Global MBA in Dubai.

But the increasing competition, coupled with the financial crisis and the recent unrest in the region, has led to uncertainty in Dubai, and this means many business schools are cautious about future enrolment. LBS, for example, has seen enrolment on its EMBA programme drop this year.

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One of the big problems, says Rahul Dhadphale, LBS’s regional director for the Middle East, is that many in the region do not understand the value of business school programmes as they would in North America or Europe.

“Here people are still learning the value of education. They are still trying to learn the difference between an EMBA and a full-time MBA.”

This means they often find it difficult to differentiate between different quality products, says Mr Kazim. “The biggest challenge is that most of these universities are under the perception that they are well-known in this area. This needs to be corrected. They need to promote themselves, they need to do their marketing. This is one of the mind-shifts needed.”

But no one doubts that the thirst for business education in the region will continue. Mr Razavizadeh believes it will not stop with the MBA. “I’m predicting Emiratis will all have PhDs. It will be the fashion.”

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