BIRMINGHAM TO DUBAI

Dubai 2020 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | DOUBLE INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Professor Sir David Eastwood, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Glyn Watson, Provost of University of Birmingham Dubai.

Professor Sir David Eastwood
PROFESSOR SIR DAVID EASTWOOD
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
University of Birmingham Dubai
Professor Glyn Watson
PROFESSOR GLYN WATSON
Provost
University of Birmingham Dubai

How do you assess the University of Birmingham's role in Dubai's higher education ecosystem and broader economy?

DE: The University of Birmingham is the first UK Russell Group university to establish a campus in the UAE, and the first Top 100-ranked institution to open in Dubai. As a research-led university, our vision and ambition for our academic mission is complementary to the UAE and Dubai's vision for the future development of the knowledge economy. We chose Dubai to establish our first international campus because we recognized Dubai as a place that supports the kind of academic endeavors that we pursue, because of its intersections with the rest of the world and because the Dubai government's mission aligned with ours. We hope that our commitment to Dubai will act as a catalyst for other institutions of our quality and ranking to see Dubai in this way in order to start the next tier of quality, credibility, and support of the Higher Education environment. The UAE knows it needs to build its own research capacity in order to tackle underlying challenges facing the region and its people. To realize Vision 2021, Vision 2030, and Vision 2071, the advances that need to happen in scientific understanding and in the knowledge economy are fundamental. Attracting more research-led universities of Birmingham's calibre will help Dubai to tackle these big challenges by bringing more specialist knowledge and expertise to work together and focus on the challenges and opportunities facing the country, the region, and its strategic partners. As a global university with a civic outlook, the University of Birmingham is committed to playing our part in supporting the UAE as we drive economic progress through knowledge and innovation, whilst contributing to the development of a growing international education hub in Dubai. Our commitment to the region is perhaps best demonstrated by work underway to create a purpose-built, 50,000m2 campus in Academic City. Set to complete in 2021, it is designed to encourage collaboration across all academic disciplines, with flexible learning spaces and formal teaching spaces ensuring teaching and research can work in tandem to benefit students and the wider society. There will be a 300-seat lecture theater, a similarly sized auditorium and three laboratories accommodating 200 students, along with seminar and tutorial rooms. The innovative and iconic buildings have been designed by Hopkins Architects, and will be located opposite the city's first purpose-built student housing community.

What unique contributions does the Dubai campus bring to the University of Birmingham's global operations?

DE: The University of Birmingham is a global University. We have been delivering teaching internationally for many years, particularly in China and Singapore and have welcomed international students to our UK campus since we were founded in 1900. While our primary competitive base is in the UK, increasingly we are looking at our global competitiveness in developing our academic mission. The establishment of our first large-scale and fully rounded university campus (teaching and research) in Dubai cements this global ambition. As a research-intensive university, the volume, scale, and level of our research means we can contribute to advancing knowledge on big global challenges whilst enhancing our reputation, improving our metrics, and continuing to compete in a global landscape. It is strategically important for us to ensure that the University of Birmingham continues to grow our international influence and reputation in developing and delivering on our academic mission.

How did you decide to enter Dubai's higher education landscape?

GW: The University of Birmingham already has a global reach through research partnerships and teaching happening in different parts of the world. However, it has never had a physical footprint outside the UK. For us, this was the right time to take this next step for a number of reasons. Significantly, we cannot underestimate the extent to which this is both a business decision and an academic mission decision. We wanted to go where our impact would be maximised. Dubai, and the UAE more broadly, have an approach centred around diversification and developing a knowledge economy. In addition, Dubai offers a strong credible educational hub and is well positioned for us to reach out to our key strategic recruitment markets. The UAE and Dubai show strong long-term market growth potential, as well as offering a safe and attractive location for students to study. It is interesting that since our entry into the market, a number of other UK universities have also begun to actively look at the UAE as a possible destination. This gives us confidence about our early thinking.

How does your proposition differentiate you from other universities?

GW: The University of Birmingham Dubai is 100% owned and managed by the University of Birmingham. This offers us a level of autonomy over the academic mission, and over the student experience that we create, that we would not have if we had gone with a partner. It also gives our stakeholders confidence that they are dealing with the University of Birmingham, and not a franchise partner. Second to that is our research focus. The University of Birmingham is renowned for research excellence. Since being founded in1900, 11 Nobel Prize recipients have walked through our doors. Five of the winners have received their award since 2001. We have established our research excellence in a wide range of different fields, from pioneering organ transplants, to playing a significant role in the detection of gravitational waves, to improving our understanding of Shakespeare (through the work of our Shakespeare Institute back in Stratford-upon-Avon). Our commitment to research forms the foundation of everything we do. Finally, there is the quality of our educational offer. We were very clear when we decided to set up our Dubai campus that we would not compromise on quality. For this reason, the standard entry criteria for the two campuses is the same. We teach the same programs, with the same modules. Often, it is the same academics teaching on both sites. This is important for maintaining the credibility of our offer. Essentially, this is the first time that students living in and around the Dubai have been able to access a Russell Group education from a UK campus based in the UAE.

How does University of Birmingham leverage the research-led approach to enhance collaborations?

GW: All research-intensive universities collaborate, whether it is with government, industry, the third sector, or other universities. It is how we deliver against our core mission. It is how we deliver our big discoveries and how we make our contribution to the societies in which we are embedded. During the first phase of our operation, many of the early collaborations are likely to involve our home campus. We also have a tremendous amount of research capability in Birmingham and many research interests in the region match well with areas of our expertise. In fact, many areas of the UAE's vision for 2021 and beyond are aligned with aspects of the University's research endeavour. Already, a number of academic colleagues from the UK campus have been over to the UAE to explore opportunities to collaborate. We have been assessing the possibilities and a number of discussions have developed in key areas, some at the more advanced stages. However, research takes longer to establish—in building the partnerships and the funding streams—to build impact, and we are therefore looking carefully at how we grow our in-country research capacity as well as draw on our expertise from our UK base. A key part of the vision for the Dubai campus centers on developing our local research capacity. Even though the year-one priority for the Dubai campus was the successful launch of our new programs, we have also been focused on growing our research capability. For example, we recruit someone we are not just looking at their teaching experience but also their academic track-record, including their research pedigree. We want to understand what problems have they been working on? How do they plan to develop their scholarship going forward? How do they plan to generate those networks that are so important for the evolution of their disciplines and for making that broader social contribution?

What are the University of Birmingham Dubai's plans for growth?

GW: We have made a long-term commitment to Dubai—our ambition is to develop at scale and comprehensively in terms of our education, research and civic contribution to the region. In our first year, we recruited at least as strongly as any new international branch campus in Dubai, but we are not complacent. It is year two and we are focused on growing our student numbers. This ambition to grow is not just about maintaining our financial sustainability. Universities thrive on their student body; having vibrant cohorts make for a dynamic and exciting student experience. We are investing sensibly to grow from a relatively small scale at an aggressive pace but to do so in line with a managed plan in order to deliver a sustainable business result. To support this growth we are investing in our people and our physical infrastructure. We started with 11 programs and have already extended that to 18 for the coming academic year. We are delivering programs all the way from Foundation level to Masters' level to postgraduate talks and programs. Over the next few years, we want to develop our reputation in four key areas: engineering and the physical sciences; business, management and law; healthcare and well-being; and, of course, education. We are keen to make sure we offer the brightest and the best all the opportunities available, no matter their level. Meeting the University of Birmingham's mission and ambition of building a Russell Group university at scale in Dubai, expanding and developing our research base informed by the needs of the region, and making a civic contribution that is connected to the UAE, is equally as important as the role of the campus in continuing to grow our global impact and influence. We are actively pursuing Ministry of Education accreditation. This is important to us as a civic university and if we embed the University in the fabric of the place in which we are working, we are far more likely to be successful. Ministry accreditation is important part of this process and opens up the possibility of government research funding to work in partnership on some of the challenges here. In order to be a driver and engine of an economy, the research and academic endeavor is coupled with the funding and the innovation of industry and the policy context of government in order to make the advances that the nation needs on its policy direction. This is the influence strand of our work, as we seek to be that partner to government and industry to create longer-term, harder-won innovation. That civic part of what we do is an incredibly important part of our mission, and when our Vice-Chancellor talks about the 30-year lease on our new building, we are already communicating our length of investment and commitment. We are not only looking at Vision 2030 but also aligning ourselves with the UAE's Vision 2071.

Why do more students from the region choose Dubai over other international universities?

GW: Some of it has to be to do with quality, and some of it will be to do with the environment. For example, we have seen some students who previously only considered going overseas but, for a whole host of reasons, have found the idea of living and studying outside the region challenging. They now can access the highest quality overseas education in a GCC country. The other factor is the Ministry of Education and accreditation, which would mean Emirati, Saudi and other GCC students can use scholarships in order to study, which is an attractive proposition—as is the Dubai lifestyle. A postgraduate student can spend the weekend in Dubai studying International Business or International Commercial Law, and then return to work for the rest of the week. This is a great mix, which many students are keen to take advantage of.