Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Building castles in the sand…..

What an amazing place Dubai is, built from almost nothing in barely a couple of decades, with tall buildings, supposedly 7-star hotels, and incredible infrastructure. The latter includes 6-8 lane superhighways, and a newly finished extremely elegant looking metro system – only one line at present, more to come when the economy picks up speed again (sadly, this all makes the endless delays in Edinburgh’s little tram system seem extremely petty). And how did all this massive development in Dubai take place? Was it the result of cautious investors doing the sort of expected profit calculations we teach to our students? Surely not! Rather, someone had a vision, allied with the will to make it all happen and the ability to raise the needed finance. It’s all about what Keynes long ago, and quite rightly, termed the ‘animal spirits’ of investors.

So here I am, over here to spend a week teaching research methods to a small group of students at Heriot-Watt’s Dubai campus, part of the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). DIAC is located at the edge of Dubai city proper, and is mostly surrounded by desert – so very much a case of building castles in the sand. The first picture was taken from just outside one of our buildings, looking across the road.

The two buildings we use in DIAC are both more attractive and actually feel more solid than many of our buildings back home, interestingly. The second picture shows the one where I was doing my teaching. And our staff out here are unfailingly friendly and helpful, making for excellent conditions for the short-term visitor such as myself. True, it’s a bit warm, with outside temperatures in the low 40s Centigrade, but as I’m here to work that doesn’t really matter, as indoors everything is air conditioned. In any case, I don’t think this is a place I would especially want to visit as a tourist, though clearly lots of people wouldn’t agree with me. The tourism business here apparently does very well.

Becoming an advanced education hub for the Middle East is just one of Dubai’s ambitious goals, and a number of western universities have signed up to the concept and established facilities out here. It’s not an easy business, as students have to be recruited, good quality courses offered and run, and academic standards maintained. At the same time, costs obviously have to be kept down so the whole operation can be viable. Getting all this right is quite tough, but having been here several years already, Heriot-Watt seems to be managing. For our students out here, getting a good British degree still carries a certain cachet, and that definitely helps. So much so in fact, that we’ve just started work on some new buildings that will, in not much over a year, boost our capacity in Dubai to 4500 students. Indeed our own Principal was so enthusiastic about the whole thing that he recently came out here to operate a digger to get the construction properly under way. Perhaps even academics can experience just the same ‘animal spirits’ as other investors.

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