How oversight and competition are impacting education quality in Dubai


The education sector of Dubai is shaped by a population that was 3.2m in early 2019 and around 90% expatriate, making it multinational, multi-ethnic and multicultural. According to data from the 2017/18 academic year from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) – a local governing body with the remit to advance private education in the emirate – Dubai’s student body included 182 nationalities, with students from India comprising around 33.9% of the total, followed by those from the UAE (11.7%), Pakistan (8%), Egypt (5.5%) and the UK (4.7%), while the emirate’s most diverse school included 114 different nationalities.

Legislation reserves public school seats for Emiratis, meaning that this large percentage of foreign students attend private schools and colleges, which offer a variety of opportunities and incorporate 17 different national curricula. In the higher education segment as well, international and private institutions dominate, with increasing competition facilitating a growing number of academic entities, including many famous international names that see Dubai as an ideal location for initiatives targeting the Middle East and Africa.

At the same time, initiatives developed by local authorities and on a national level, such as the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030 launched in 2017, are shaping the sector, with aims to ensure that the country’s students are provided with the technical and practical skills necessary to drive the economy in the private and public sectors. This dovetails with the philosophy behind Dubai’s overall long-term development plans, which seek to make the emirate a knowledge-based economy, with innovation, creativity and problem-solving the new academic standards.

Structure & Oversight

Modern education in the emirate began with the formation of the country in 1971. Under Article 17 of the constitution and Article 1 of Federal Law No 1 education is mandated as both free and compulsory for all citizens. In addition, every Emirati child is granted the right to education, with the state ensuring equal opportunities are provided for all. The Ministry of Education (MoE), based in Abu Dhabi and the main national oversight body, was also formed at this time. The ministry helped shape the original public system, which was drawn from a combination of Egyptian, Kuwaiti and indigenously planned curricula. Over the years that followed the MoE has frequently had to adapt to the changing conditions in the country, as the population expanded dramatically, with large numbers of expatriates moving to the country and the economy growing substantially.

One important development was the establishment of the KHDA by royal decree in Dubai in 2006, with a mandate to ensure that the emirate’s private schools maintain the best international standards. The KHDA exercises an inspection role over private institutions in Dubai via its Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB), while also developing policy, ensuring its implementation and standards in both the teaching and student body. Meanwhile, public schools remain under the MoE.

Range of Opportunity

Public schools in the emirate are segregated by gender, and free of charge for nationals. Most lessons are taught in Arabic; however, there is also a strong emphasis on English. For non-nationals – and many citizens as well – the private sector is the predominant choice for their children. According to latest available data from the MoE, during the 2016/17 academic year the number of students attending private schools in the Dubai Education Zone – which is one of nine districts in the country made up of one for each emirate plus Al Ain and Al Garbia – numbered around 260,000, while attendance for public schools was just under 30,000. Comparatively, on a national level these figures reached approximately 777,000 and 281,000, respectively.

The country mandates a compulsory starting age of six for both public and private kindergartens. Primary education then continues for six years, while prep schools run from age 12 to 15 and secondary education from 15 to 18. There are also technical secondary schools, which run from age 12 to 18. In terms of tertiary education, both higher and vocational studies at universities and colleges are available, as well as vocational training schools and technical colleges.


The MoE continues to develop education policy for the UAE as a whole, in tandem with other governmental bodies and the UAE’s short-, mediumand long-term development initiatives: Education 2020 Strategy, Vision 2021 and the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030, as well as others that may not target education directly but outline increases in knowledge-based, sustainable and innovation-focused expertise, such as Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030, that will require an influx of well-educated human capital from the sector. In addition, each government department, including the MoE, has been mandated to plan for the implementation of the UAE’s strategies for the future, via a dedicated unit.

Perhaps the most instrumental ongoing national strategy has been Vision 2021. Originally launched in 2010, the blueprint targets development of the country around six pillars, which include elevating the education sector’s quality and status in terms of international benchmarks. Initiatives launched in line with this have included the provision of smart systems and devices in all schools, colleges and universities; a boost to enrolment in pre-school; and competitive global ranking for Emirati students in maths, science and reading exams, as well as a high standard of proficiency in Arabic and a 98% high school completion for Emirati students.

The MoE has implemented a series of programmes to facilitate achieving these aims, with the most recent being Strategic Plan 2017-2021. The five-year blueprint lays out a number of goals for the nation’s education system that cover areas such as inclusivity, excellence in leadership and efficiency, the establishment of a culture of innovation, greater administrative transparency and the building of practical expertise in order for students to meet future labour market needs.

In addition, the KHDA has taken these goals very much on board, developing programmes such as the Dubai Inclusive Education Policy Framework, which aims to create emirate-wide integrated services for those with impairments or disabilities.


On the issue of quality and excellence, in 2015 the UAE as a whole adopted a common framework for inspection for all private schools, with this now being implemented in Dubai, where regular inspections have been running since the formation of the DSIB in 2007. These have undoubtedly helped improve schooling in the emirate, with a 2018 report from the KHDA showing that 66% of all students and 62% of Emirati students in Dubai now attended a school judged by DSIB to offer “good” or better quality of education, and that 86 schools had shown increases in performance since first inspection. Better methods of inspection have helped with greater administrative transparency.

The results of the KHDA’s visits to schools have been made publicly available, enabling parents to gain valuable insights into the teaching methodologies and success rates of the institutions their children attend or may be considering. This transparency has also helped schools concentrate on boosting standards and improving areas of deficiency. “School inspections helped to change the culture of education in Dubai,” Abdulla Al Karam, director-general of KHDA, told OBG. “Parents had objective, evidence-based insight into their children’s schools, and schools could use the reports to compare themselves with other schools. Inspections helped to give us a common language to use when we talked about quality education.”

Given the large number of different curricula and cultures among the student and teaching bodies in Dubai, this task can be particularly challenging. The KHDA’s answer is to concentrate on foundational quality indicators in making assessments and examine factors that can cut across national frameworks; for instance, asking questions that determine how well a school supports a child or adapts to meet the child’s needs, as well as investigating the levels of progress.

Preparing for the Future

Preparing students for the future workplace is also an area the KHDA has given a great deal of thought to, in particular as schools face a major and perhaps unprecedented challenge in doing this. According to a report from the World Economic Forum released in 2016, some 65% of children in primary school will work in fields that do not yet exist. For the KHDA, preparing students for a landscape constantly changing with new innovations, means that school curricula, and philosophies, should focus on building a different set of skills to the traditional, testbased, forms of education that focus on memorisation and were created in another era. “The world of the factory has gone,” Al Karam told OBG. “So why keep testing kids for this? Creativity, resilience, innovation and communication are more important now.”

The KHDA also believes that under such circumstances education should reflect goals other than merely academic success, and include emotional fulfilment and happiness as important targets. In February 2018 the KHDA announced the results of the first emirate-wide survey of student well being, which was conducted in partnership with the government of South Australia and incorporated data from some 64,686 students from 162 nationalities in grades six to nine at 168 schools. The results were generally impressive, ranging from 88% of students in the sixth grade reporting high or medium levels of happiness, to 78% by grade nine. The authority plans to repeat the survey annually over a five-year period, aiming at finding ways to nurture these aspects of educational development.

Practical Skills

At the tertiary level authorities have set aims to develop practical skills needed in the workforce, while raising the overall quality of the segment through the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030. Approved by the UAE cabinet in December 2017, this nationwide programme recognises the major growth in university numbers that has occurred in recent years, and seeks to elevate the country’s institutions in the ranks of the top 100 worldwide, while also preparing graduates for a rapidly changing work environment. Incorporated in the strategy are some 33 initiatives that promote improvements in key areas such as institutional transparency, career training, vocational training, postgraduate support and collaborations with the private sector.

Budget & Pricing

In early 2019 Dubai announced its budget for the year, with expenditure set at Dh56.8bn ($15.5bn), which was only a marginal increase over the previous year’s Dh56.6bn ($15.4bn) allocation; although the 2018 figure marked a significant 19.5% increase over 2017. Social development – which includes health, education, housing, community development and innovation – has remained a key priority in the emirate, receiving 33% of the total in both 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, the federal budget for 2019 reached a total of Dh60.3bn ($16.4bn), with social development programmes receiving Dh25.5bn ($6.9bn), or 42.3% of the total, and Dh10.3bn ($2.8bn) of this allocated to the country’s education sector. This was only a slight change from 2018 when social development and education were allotted Dh26.3bn ($7.2bn) and Dh10.4bn ($2.83), respectively.

Private schools, on the other hand, set their own budgets, with these now operating under a system that tries to match fee increases with rising costs and standards. The Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC) estimates an annual education cost index (ECI) – taking into account teaching and administrative salaries, electricity and water charges, rents and a variety of other factors – which, in conjunction with a rating performance issued by the DSIB, determines the level of fees that each schools is allowed to charge. For the 2017/18 academic year, DSIB inspectors found that 14 schools in the emirate ranked “outstanding”, 27 “very good”, 68 “good”, 51 “acceptable” and six “weak”. Those designated as “outstanding” were able to amend their fees at a rate of twice the ECI, which was 2.4% for this year, while those in subsequent two categories were allowed to increase fees by multipliers of 1.75 and 1.5 times the ECI, respectively, and those in the lower categories could raise fees at the ECI rate only.

The pricing index targeted providing an incentive for schools to improve overall performance, while also ensuring that there was some control over the upper level of fees. However, it also seems to have resulted in some price inflation, with the fees charged by upper level schools increasing quickly. Given this, and the overall economic slowdown in the region, the Executive Council of Dubai placed a freeze on private school fees in the emirate for the 2018/19 school year, according to a mid-2018 report by regional media.

Fees in the sector have shown consistent increases in recent years. According to July 2018 data from the DSC, the consumer price index for the sector revealed an inflation rate of 3.6% year-on-year, driven by a substantial increase in tertiary education fees of 8.1%, while in 2017 and 2016 overall costs grew by rates of 4.9% and 6.4%, respectively. Figures for the index are calculated using a base line of 100 points set on 2014 figures.


At the same time, schools’ profits are showing consistent growth as the sector continues to develop. According to the KHDA’s “Dubai Education Landscape 2017-18” report, private institutions were able to generate approximately Dh7.5bn ($2bn) in revenues in 2017/18 through tuition fees, which represented an expansion of around Dh700m ($190.5m) over the previous academic year. The average fee was Dh26,865 ($7310) per year, with 53% of students paying less than Dh20,000 ($5540) – indicating the exponential nature of the fee curve, with several schools charging more than Dh100,000 ($27,200).

Private institutions also may experience support in reducing overhead costs, as the emirate’s Knowledge Fund – an organisation founded in 2007 to attract investment into Dubai’s education sector – announced in July 2018 that rents on school property would be frozen during the coming academic year. However, the year ahead will likely also see some price competition and market consolidation developing, as the economic slowdown makes parents more price conscious. The publishing of data on school quality and services by the KHDA may also assist parents in selecting better value for money. In the 2017/18 academic year there were 182 private schools operating in the emirate, of which 79 followed a UK curriculum, while the next two most-popular styles of study were Indian and US, each with 34. The three most popular courses of instruction attracted the majority of the total 281,432 private school students, with 101,402, 79,705 and 48,282 attendees, respectively divided among them. Unsurprisingly, institutions are doing moving to take advantage of the increased market demand.

“Although curricula are a fundamental source of value, the criteria to determine an investment in a school should be based on the quality of teaching and the institution’s focus on helping the student succeed. A curriculum may be great, but if it is not taught well, the institution has failed in its raison d’être,” Sajida H Shroff, CEO of Altamont Group - Education Investor and Advisory, told OBG. Schools that are able to deliver a good standard in the medium price range are likely to find success in this environment. By economising on features, such as sports facilities and new technologies, they can keep fees in the Dh25,000-40,000 ($6810-10,900) range, attracting more cost-conscious parents, while also maintaining upper KHDA rankings.

Primary & Secondary

Under MoE regulations all children must go to school from five years of age until the ninth grade, which is generally aged 14-15. Emiratis have the option of state school study, while expatriates must attend private schools. Many of the latter combine primary and secondary within one establishment, which has led to the sector tending to be organised around two segments: K-12; and higher education.

In the K-12 private school segment the 2017/18 academic year saw 145,642 boys and 135,790 girls enrolled, 2.9% up on the year before. The emirate’s schools were operating at around 85% capacity that year, with some 330,000 places available and 11 new schools opening in this period. Some 32,911 Emirati students were enrolled in private education, indicative of the prestige that the segment enjoys. Only 8% of students in the 2017/18 academic year changed institutions. According to the KHDA, over the past decade general private school standards have risen: the number of schools ranked as “good” or “better” grew from 38 in the 2008/09 academic year to 109 in 2017/18.

According to the most recent available data from the MoE, in the 2016/17 academic year the Dubai Education Zone had a total of 75 schools, comprising 14 technical schools and 30 devoted to boys education and 31 to girls. A dozen of the total were kindergartens, 23 primary, 18 middle, 21 secondary and one religious school. The public school population reached 29,597 students, which was made up of approximately 54.1% girls – in contrast females made up around 29.8% of the emirates overall population in 2017, according to the DSC. This highlights a long-standing concern in Dubai and the wider UAE over lower male attendance rates in education – with male achievement also often lower than female. The MoE is working on addressing this issue, to ensure more Emirati boys complete their full schooling and go on to higher education.

Dubai’s students are generally successful in terms of academic assessment. The most recent data available, in a report from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment showed an average score across Dubai in science of 480 points for 2015, while its private schools scored 497 points. In maths Dubai’s score was 467 overall and 484 for private schools – again, higher than the UAE average of 427 – and in reading, the overall score was 475 – 493 for private schools and for the UAE, 434. OECD averages were 490 for mathematics, and 493 for reading and for science.

Tertiary Learning

According to the KHDA, in the 2017/18 academic year the emirate was home to 32 universities, 26 of which were international branch campuses located in free zones: Dubai Knowledge Park and Dubai International Academic City, which hold a total student body of around 30,375 students. Institutions operating in free zones are allowed 100% foreign ownership. A variety of private sector colleges teach specialist areas such as aviation, dentistry and medicine. The public sector consists of five schools: Zayed University; Afraaz University; Dubai Medical College for Girls; Higher Colleges of Technology; and Emirates College for Management & Information Technology.

Needed Improvements

One issue facing both private and public higher education in Dubai is accreditation. The KHDA oversees the sector, and although it is not an accrediting body, through the University Quality Assurance International Board, it quality assures programmes and institutions, and attests degrees. According to stakeholders in the industry, efforts were under way in late 2018 to address the issue of accreditation and implement a single, standardised system; however, no updates had been announced as of early 2019. This is perhaps indicative of the current state of the tertiary segment as a whole, which is relatively young and still developing in terms of framework as well as public awareness of the concept. Nouf Al Khalifa, director of external affairs in the Middle East at the London Business School, told OBG, “Since higher education in the Middle East has been introduced relatively recently in comparison to Western countries, public awareness campaigns are a very important part of increasing enrolments.” In line with this, expansion in the variety of university programmes may be needed, as many institutions have placed more focus on business offerings, with competition increasing between universities and MBA programmes in particular. “This means there’s a gap for offering courses such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and health-related subjects, such as pharmaceuticals, nursing and physiotherapy,” Ismat Abu Shihab, director of the University of Bradford’s regional campus, told OBG.

IT is an area where the emirate may be in need of an expansion in learning opportunities; given that it is the regional base for a wide variety of tech companies, yet there are few courses in the field available locally.


Education has seen some robust growth in Dubai in recent times, with both K-12 and higher education expanding both in numbers of institutions and students. Now, however, the market is maturing, with consolidation on the cards for the period ahead, that is driven by the overall economic slowdown, as well as parents and students recognising their expanded options, better information and transparent processes which allow them to shop for better value. This puts the onus on institutions to boost performance and offerings, ensuring higher quality teaching and facilities, along with more relevant courses and skills acquisition.

While the rapid gains that characterized the early days of the sector may be over, the market is still developing with new entrants, more in-depth oversight and expanding public awareness. Both national and local authorities have shown a strong commitment to the sector by lifting standards and improving education overall, with a view to meeting their long-term goals.

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The Report: Dubai 2019

Education chapter from The Report: Dubai 2019

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