Melanie Swan. In the ever-more competitive higher education scene, universities are increasingly looking to their counterparts in the West for a badge of quality.
While most are already recognised by the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), which is compulsory for universities outside the free zones, many in the free zones choose to obtain it too. The CAA, part of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, has inspectors who go through the details of each course to ensure it meets international standards. They check paperwork, and make campus visits at least once a year. All of a university's proposed courses must meet these standards before it can start enrolling students, and maintained for it to continue to do so.
If they fail, they can be put on probation, as has happened for both individual degrees and whole institutions, such as Ittihad in Ras Al Khaimah. The American University in Dubai, for example, is accredited by the CAA and by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), one of the six regional accrediting bodies in the US. Several of its individual degrees are accredited by separate professional bodies in the US, too. The US International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE) accredits its business degrees, while the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) recognises its computer science and engineering degrees.
"For students and parents, external accreditation is recognition of the degree itself," said Dr Jihad Nader, the provost of AUD.
The university wants to do the same for other courses, and is applying for accreditation from the National Architectural Accrediting Board, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation and the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Such recognition makes the degrees a far better passport to employment, says Dr Nader. "The Arab Association of Engineers won't employ you if you're not accredited by a recognised institution," he said.
"When students apply, they and their parents are aware of these things. These are the questions we get. People do their homework so it's becoming increasingly important."
The Institute of Management Technology, a business school, was accredited last month by the IACBE to supplement its CAA accreditation. That competitive edge is particularly important in subjects like business and IT, which between them account for about 60 per cent of Dubai's students, says the institute's director, Dr Farhad Rad-Sachet.
"All reputable institutions worldwide go through accreditation," he said. "What we notice as a pattern is that they go for triple accreditation, that of the local body, and American and European accreditation - allowing students the flexibility to work or study elsewhere in the world."
It is vital, too, for establishing formal ties with universities in other countries, he said.
The University of Dubai, which opened in 1997, was one of the first to realise the importance of such recognition. It was accredited by ABET in 2006, and by the American Association of Colleges and Schools of Business in 2009. The application process can take up to five years, but is worth it, according to Dr Omar Hefni, the university's director.
"There are many business schools here, some good, some not so good," he said. "This accreditation shows we are providing the best service."
It is not just private universities taking the path of international accreditation. UAE University, one of the three federal universities, is accredited by bodies including ABET, the British Royal Society of Chemistry and the Agricultural Institute of Canada. Zayed University has been accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, another of the six regional bodies, for five years, and is now preparing for its first review. Although not expensive, the process requires commitment. "We pay annual dues and send delegates to the annual meeting in the US," said Dr Tom Cochran, head of Zayed University's Abu Dhabi campus.
"The indirect costs are in personnel time. Staff spend significant amounts of time preparing the self study. It is a year-long process to prepare the documentation and then several months writing up the final document. Fortunately after this year we will not have to do another for 10 years."
He said that while students are often unaware of the value of internation accreditation, academics saw it as vital. "It's the good housekeeping seal of approval, and validates that our programmes are on a par with universities in the US at least.
"The accreditation says the academics are in a first rate institution. For the students, it certifies that anybody who's looking at a transcript, it meets the standards in the US."