Sun, sea and students - Heriot-Watt set to build £35m seat of learning in the desert

IT might look more like a shopping centre but this building is an outpost of Scottish academia which will soon rise from the deserts of Dubai.

• How the 35 million campus in Dubai will look - Heriot-Watt hopes to treble its student numbers in the Middle East from 1,500 to 4,500 next year when the facility opens

Construction has just begun on the first Scottish university base to be built in the Gulf state.

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Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, has decided to create its own bespoke 35 million campus, to treble its student numbers in the Middle East after growing demand for its courses there.

Since 2008 the scientific and business focused seat of learning has rented a building in the country's academic "village".

But it has now found its degrees and postgraduate courses so popular it plans to expand its student numbers from 1,500 to 4,500 next year.

The new Dubai campus will include student accommodation, with a food court and banking facilities, a multi-purpose auditorium for 800 people, engineering laboratories, ICT labs with video-conferencing facilities and world-class fashion and design studios.

Smart card and fingerprint technologies are also set to be used. It is hoped the new base will be completed and ready to accept students by September next year.

Heriot-Watt is still the only Scottish university to have a formal base in Dubai. And it will be the first to have its own custom-built base in the country.

Ruth Moir, director of International Development at the university, said the courses were popular with the ex-pat community there.

Provision at the campus had been tailored to local demand with courses in construction, engineering and related to the oil industry. But the campus will allow academics to expand into new areas for the region including architecture and fashion.

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The move could prove a crucial part of future funding for the institution with swingeing cuts to education expected in coming years in Scotland.

Ms Moir said: "Part of what all universities are having to do is find more than one stream of funding and we cannot rely on public funding."

This is the university's only overseas campus but it has arrangements with institutions to offer education provision in 60 countries around the world.

Key nations with a Heriot-Watt link include China, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Ms Moir said the Dubai campus, where all students must pay the full going rate for tuition fees, could bring in an income which could be used to boost its Edinburgh headquarters.

"But providing high quality education is our priority," she said. "We don't treat this as a way of bank-rolling the campus back in Edinburgh. This was something that we have been planning - it was not done in reaction to the recession."

The project could act as an example to other universities in Scotland who are desperate to find alternative funding streams outwith the state.

Scottish universities have had a real-terms freeze to their funding this year but widely expect cuts in future. With tuition fees, payable by students in England, effectively ruled out politically in Scotland, that is an option closed to Scottish academic leaders.

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One suggested alternative has been to create a "graduate tax" which could see everyone with a degree paying an extra penny in income tax to help pay for universities.

Professor Steve Chapman, Heriot-Watt principal described it as a "very special milestone".

He said: "Some 45 per cent of the students who are awarded a Scottish degree overseas obtain that degree from Heriot-Watt University and our Dubai Campus is the jewel in the crown of our international activity."x

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