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The University of Waterloo is shuttering its branch campus in Dubai after only three years thanks to low enrollments that fell far short of the school's targets.

UWaterloo launched the campus in the fall of 2009 as part of an ambitious strategy to have hundreds of students complete two years of undergraduate engineering or mathematics in Dubai, followed by their final two years in Waterloo. At the time, school director Peter Douglas promised "we will be a real going concern in the region in a couple of years."

But the campus, a partnership with the United Arab Emirates Higher Colleges of Technology, had only 140 students signed up this fall. To be sustainable, the business plan called for nearly 500 students, and a spokesperson would not discuss the extent of financial losses the university may have suffered.

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"We've had a slow build," said Ellen Réthoré, UWaterloo's associate vice-president of communications and public affairs. "So that was certainly a very critical factor in us sitting down and saying, 'OK, what do we want to do here?'"

Students at the Dubai campus – who hail from the local region as well as countries such as India, Pakistan, China and African nations – will finish their school-year before moving to Waterloo's main campus next September for the remainder of their degrees, while a dozen UWaterloo faculty who had gone overseas to teach will also return.

UWaterloo says it still has strong interest in international partnerships and outreach, but plans to take "a more strategic approach" that involves more research linkages and graduate studies.

"We're actively exploring opportunities in the UAE, probably looking at Abu Dhabi," Ms. Réthoré said. "Primarily in Dubai what we found is that we weren't able to fill the complement of 480 to 500 (students), so we'll look at UAE just through a different lens."

Efforts to establish global branch campuses have produced several cautionary tales, and UWaterloo is not the only school struggling to find its footing. In 2007, Michigan State University launched a branch campus in Dubai, only to close all but one program three years later after low enrolment led to losses of $4-million.

But one of the first students to enroll at UWaterloo's Dubai campus in 2009 says his education has been "fantastic," and worth the program's nearly $20,000 per year in tuition.

"It is a bit saddening that it's closing down," said Ashaal Dabholkar, 21, who is now at the university's main campus in Waterloo for his third year in civil engineering. "I think it's just come as a shock for all of us."

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