The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is rapidly growing as an international hub for higher education, with a wide array of international branch campuses, as well as national public and private institutions. While a majority of this growth in international students and institutions is concentrated in the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the tertiary education sector of Ras Al Khaimah has also expanded through a combination of public investment and educational zoning policies designed to attract foreign providers who are offering affordable higher education opportunities to the UAE’s expatriate residents.
The increase in commercialized international providers, however, introduces a range of regulatory issues, including the need for quality assurance, data reporting, accountability, and sustainability. In the absence of robust monitoring and regulation of institutions operating within economic free zones,1 students must navigate a commercial higher education market without access to impartial information. As a result, students are vulnerable to misinformation and misleading claims by institutions and may unwittingly pursue low-quality degrees that may not meet the needs of potential employers.
Drawing on survey data from students studying in the educational free zones of Ras Al Khaimah, this policy paper provides insight into who these students are, why they choose to study there, and what factors influence their decisions. It finds that students attending international institutions in Ras Al Khaimah make choices based on educational cost, convenience, and location over institutional quality and reputation and that a large majority of these students are Ras Al Khaimah residents who have few educational alternatives. It argues that Ras Al Khaimah’s higher education sector is being populated by a number of low-cost commercial institutions, which may not aid the emirate or its students in their development. The paper makes several policy recommendations concerning data collection and dissemination in order to increase institutional transparency and accountability.