A lesson from Dubai on how to build on Scotland's reputation

THESE are challenging times for the higher education sector. Government funding is under intense pressure. Budgets are having to be pared. The Scottish Government's policy of "free" tuition fees is increasingly being called into question. What reason can there be to look to the future with confidence?

A strong reason indeed if you are Heriot-Watt University. Work has just begun on its 35 million new campus in Dubai. The new campus is growing out of the success of the campus building it has been operating there since 2005 and is responding to strong demand. This development will treble its student numbers.

Heriot-Watt has long been an international university. Its response to the challenge of globalisation is a model of enterprise and entrepreneurship, and one from which the university sector can usefully learn. Some 45 per cent of the students who are awarded a Scottish degree overseas obtain that degree from Heriot-Watt. Its new campus in the entrepot of Dubai is not a venture into the deep unknown but the latest, if most ambitious, progression to a university with truly global reach.

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Current facilities will be enlarged and expanded to accommodate a further 3,000 enrolments, with state-of-the-art infrastructure, a multi-purpose auditorium holding 800 people, video-conferencing facilities and world-class fashion and design studios. The campus, being developed in collaboration with Eikon International Holdings and due to open next year, will offer an expanded range of courses including architectural engineering, interior design, logistics and supply chain management, applied psychology, food science, financial risk management; actuarial science, graphic design, international law and computer sciences.

If it sounds very business-orientated to some, it's meant to be. Here at home Heriot-Watt has been building up an outstanding reputation in business and management studies. Of particular note in this context is its growing academic expertise in the field of financial risk - arguably the most compelling area of knowledge and research given the dramatic meltdown of banks and financial markets in the global crisis of 2007-8.

That is a wholly natural development for a university with an international history dating back to 1821. It has established a reputation for world-class teaching and applied research, which has made it one of the top UK universities for business and industry. Its degree programmes are delivered to 11,800 students from 150 countries around the world.

The broader significance of this development is threefold. First, it shows how established universities can internationalise themselves and export their academic prowess and expertise to developing country markets. This is indisputably a growth area and where the appetite for higher education courses with relevance to a fast changing world is very keen.

Second, it is an excellent means by which universities can cast the net wider for the best academic and teaching skills available and offer their existing staff global experience.

And third, it could pave the way for Scottish universities to explore and exploit alternative funding to that provided by the state. This has to be of relevance, given the urgent need of the British government to bear down on its unsustainable level of debt. It may promise continuing financial support for higher education here. But its ability to deliver has never been more in question.

At home, Scottish education, faced with serious social and cultural challenges which have brought a fraying of academic values and standards, has struggled to maintain its reputation. But overseas, that reputation remains a powerful magnet.

The Dubai campus is a development of which Scotland can be proud, and one from which the higher education sector as a whole can draw inspiration.x