Abu Dhabi's education system pushing ambitious and concrete goals


With the UAE’s 2021 Golden Jubilee celebrations just four years away, the education sector in Abu Dhabi is closing in on achievement targets that will be used as key performance indicators of national transformation. Launched in 2010 the UAE’s Vision 2021 set a challenge to create a competitive knowledge economy and a first-rate education system that is ranked among the best in the world by international indices.

While these targets may serve as useful reference points for educators, those administering the education sector in Abu Dhabi also have broader aspirations to ensure that the emirate’s growing numbers of classrooms, lecture theatres and laboratories nurture the skills, aptitudes and attitudes that today’s pupils and students will need in tomorrow’s world.

Innovation Focus

A student-centred model encouraging innovation, creativity and communication has been adopted from kindergarten through to postgraduate study. There has also been a renewed focus placed on science, technology and maths throughout the curriculum, as a large number of the 375,000 children attending the emirate’s schools in the 2016/17 school year will join Abu Dhabi’s workforce in an increasingly diversified economy.

As the emirate opens the GCC’s first civilian nuclear power plant and develops cleaner fuels based on its natural endowments of oil, gas and solar energy, Abu Dhabi will require staff with new skills and who are able to flourish in what Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a new era of rapid and disruptive technological advancement fuelled more by talent than capital.

Sector Governance

The responsibility for administering, assessing and reforming kindergartens, schools, colleges and universities in Abu Dhabi is shared by both federal departments and administrative bodies within the emirate itself. In 2016 there were significant changes at the federal level with the merging of the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR). The new combined entity retained the title of Ministry of Education, headed up by Hussain Al Hammadi, minister of education and cabinet member.

Following the creation of the UAE in 1971, the original MoE was tasked with overseeing schools in the seven emirates. The ministry formulated policy, set standards for teaching and assessment, and steered strategy towards national goals. The MoE’s 2017-21 strategic plan was designed to ensure that national standards meet the aims of the UAE’s Vision 2021. The tertiary sector in the UAE includes federal institutions such as the UAE University (UAEU), which was founded in 1976, Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), which was created in 1988 and has a total of 17 campuses, and Zayed University, which was established in 1998 with twin campuses at Abu Dhabi and Dubai.


UAE citizens are entitled to free education at public schools and universities within the country, and they can apply for government scholarships to cover the cost of studying at foreign universities. The MHESR created the Commission of Academic Accreditation (CAA) to develop standards for licensing and accreditation of higher education institutions in the UAE. In 2008 it also set up the National Authority for Scientific Research to support innovation and development. In 2010, a royal decree established the National Qualifications Authority (NQA), which produced a framework of standards, QFE mirates, as well as the Qualifications Framework for the Emirates Handbook, which provides information about credentials in the UAE and their equivalence to other countries.

The NQA is the principal federal body accrediting all qualifications in the UAE. In addition, the federal government established the Vocational Education and Training Awards Commission (VETAC) as the NQA’s operational body to manage and coordinate technical and vocational education across the emirates.


The administration of primary, secondary and tertiary education in Abu Dhabi is the responsibility of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC). In 2010 ADEC reflected the significance of independent schools in the emirate’s education system with the establishment of a new division to uphold standards, known as Private Schools and Quality Assurance (PSQA). All private schools are required by law to register with ADEC and must meet its criteria before they open.

ADEC is also responsible for overseeing tertiary education in the emirate, which is home to 23 higher education institutions. The importance of work-related training was subsequently addressed when a vocational counterpart to ADEC was created. In 2014 the NQA and VETAC approved the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ACTVET) as the awarding body for vocational certification in Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates. Collectively, ADEC and ACTVET are responsible for driving development in the emirate’s education and training sectors and ensuring in the medium term that its schools, colleges and universities support the UAE’s Vision 2021 goals.

Generation Z

The emirate’s demographic profile gives those responsible for education a vital role in shaping its future. In Abu Dhabi 48.5% of nationals and 21.8% of the entire population belong to Generation Z – that is to say, there were 605,852 residents, including 260,420 Emiratis, who were under the age of 19, according to the most recent population estimates from the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD) for 2015.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs, in a Global Investment Research paper published in December 2015, predicted that Generation Z, which it classified as those born after 1998, would be a more influential group than Millennials in the US. “Never before has there been a generation incapable of remembering a world without the internet,” the report said. The bank argued that this generation, born “device in hand”, should be well-equipped as “digital natives” to find their way in an increasingly digital workplace. However, the challenge for educators in Abu Dhabi is ensuring that these young people become creators rather than simply consumers of content, and transition into proactive innovators prepared find ways to adapt applications and technology to suit domestic conditions.

Young Scientists

One way to ensure that Abu Dhabi’s children can participate in, and contribute to, the technological revolutions sweeping many industries globally is to give them firm foundations in science, maths, engineering and technology (STEM) subjects. Efforts to improve their performance in these areas are enshrined in the UAE’s Vision 2021, which explicitly states that by 2021 the country as a whole should be among the top-15 countries in the world on the International Association for Evaluation of Education Achievements’ Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test.

The UAE is also aiming to be in the top 20 on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. The TIMSS system uses a score of 500 as a mid-point for the average score of pupils from participating countries. The countries with the highest scores in maths and science in both age groups typically include Singapore, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and South Korea. In 2015 students from Singapore came top in mathematics in both grades 4 and 8, with average scores of 618 and 621, respectively. TIMSS tests are taken every four years, while PISA operates on a three-year cycle. Both exams coincided in 2015, with the results released in November and December 2016, respectively. This means children in the UAE have one more chance to take each test before 2021, with TIMSS testing recurring in 2019 and the PISA in 2018.

The UAE first participated in TIMSS in 2011, and the 2015 results showed an improvement in each category for the country. Students take tests in both maths and science when they are in the equivalent of grades 4 and 8 in the US, or years 5 and 9 in the UK and UAE systems – two cohorts aged 9-10 and 13-14, respectively. Grade 4 students in the UAE saw their international rankings in maths improve from 42nd to 39th between 2011 and 2015, with scores themselves rising from 434 to 452.

For the same cohort, science rankings rose from 43rd to 40th, with scores going up from 428 to 451. In grade 8, the maths ranking remained stable at 23rd, although scores rose from 456 to 465. For grade 8 science the UAE moved up one place from 24th to 23rd, with scores rising from 465 to 477. These results suggest that, while there is an upward trend in the UAE as a whole, there is still some way to go to be among the best in the world.

In Focus

Separate results are also published for Abu Dhabi under a sub-heading of benchmarking participants. Grade 4 maths pupils in the emirate scored two marks more on average than in 2011 and saw their rank increase to 44th, while in science the same cohort scored 415 points, up from 411 in 2011, and saw their rank improve by one place to 44th overall. In grade 8 the average marks in both maths and science fell from 449 to 442 and from 461 to 454, respectively, which meant Abu Dhabi fell slightly from 25th to 27th place in maths and from 25th to 30th in science. Based on their performance in 2015, Abu Dhabi’s pupils were on a par with Indonesia in maths and science in grade 4 and doing as well as students in Lebanon and Chile in maths and science, respectively, in grade 8. 

   Gender Gap

In another striking result, the latest TIMSS exams for Abu Dhabi show girls outperforming boys in both maths and science in grades 4 and 8. This disparity is particularly strong in grade 8, where the gap in the emirate between boys and girls is wider than in many countries taking part in the global survey. Indeed, when TIMSS produced a league table measuring the margin between high grades achieved by girls in grade 8 science and lower marks scored by boys, the seven countries with the greatest disparity were the six GCC states plus Jordan. Abu Dhabi girls in grade 8 scored 481 in science, while the average mark for boys was 428. In the same year group, girls scored 457 in maths, compared to the boys’ average score of 427.

The pattern has persisted since the last TIMSS tests in 2011. The gender divide in Abu Dhabi narrowed slightly for grade 4 students when comparing 2011 results with 2015, but that is only because the girls’ average grades fell from 425 to 422 in maths and from 427 to 423 in science. Marks for grade 4 boys improved but remained below those of girls, with these increasing from 409 to 417 and from 396 to 408 in maths and science, respectively. In grade 8 the gender divide widened between 2011 and 2015 in both maths and science, as girls’ average grades increased, but boys’ marks slumped by 21 points in maths and 30 points in science.

In other parts of the world, the gender divide is often reversed, with boys outperforming girls in both science and mathematics. However, there is also some gender disparity in the education system, with girls outnumbering boys overall and in almost every age group, which may be a factor in the differences in scores between male and female students. By Cycle 3, the first year that students take the PISA, the number of boys enrolled in state schools across the final three years was just 12,090, compared to 13,338 girls.

These international tests were devised to help teachers and educational administrators identify patterns of learning behaviour and achievement. Globally, the survey found that students in grade 4 had more confidence in STEM subjects than those at grade 8. The challenge for Abu Dhabi’s educators is to find ways to instil and nurture additional confidence in maths and science for children of all ages and genders. If they can succeed in doing this through curriculum reforms being introduced, such as the Abu Dhabi School Model (ADSM) programme, then a new generation of technologically savvy scientists and mathematicians, both male and female, may begin to emerge in time for the next TIMSS tests, which take place in 2019.

Measuring Performance

The other international index used to benchmark school performance under the UAE’s Vision 2021 is PISA. In 2015 over half a million students – who represent a proxy for measuring some 28m, 15-year-olds in 72 countries – sat the two-hour PISA test, which covered science, maths, reading, collaborative problem-solving and financial literacy. The results in science, reading and mathematics, when compared to the last test, in 2012, showed a decline in the UAE as a whole, with the performance measured in Abu Dhabi consistently trailing the national score by several marks. In 2015 the average score for 15-year-olds in OECD countries was 493 in science, 493 in reading and 490 in maths.

Between 2012 and 2015 the average science results fell from 448 to 437 in the UAE and from 440 to 423 in Abu Dhabi. In reading the UAE’s average score fell from 442 to 434, and Abu Dhabi’s declined from 431 to 419. In maths, the UAE’s average score dropped from 434 to 427, and in Abu Dhabi it fell from 421 to 413.

The stated aim of the UAE’s Vision 2021 is to become a country in the top 20 in PISA tests. Reporting on the results in December 2016, Abu Dhabi-based daily The National stated that, among the 72 countries in the survey, the UAE ranked 48th in reading, 47th in maths and 46th in science. Pupils in Abu Dhabi will have an opportunity to sit these tests in 2018 and again in 2021. In preparing students for them, educators may be able to draw some inspiration from Singapore, – a small, multi-lingual island nation that occupied first place on the PISA league table in 2015.

Capacity Planning

While performance on these international indices may help to measure the quality of education in Abu Dhabi, ADEC is also tasked with ensuring there is a sufficient quantity of school places for the emirate’s fast-growing population. According to PSQA figures, in the 2015/16 academic year 11 new private schools opened in Abu Dhabi, providing an additional 20,000 seats. There were 186 private schools in Abu Dhabi in 2015/16, educating 64.5% of the 375,000 schoolchildren in the emirate.

Private schools are playing an increasingly significant role, according to SCAD’s “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2016”, which reported that by 2005/06 independent schools educated 49.3% of schoolchildren. PSQA data show that in the 2015/16 academic year 116 of the private schools were in the Abu Dhabi region, 58 in Al Ain and 12 in Al Dhafra. The MoE curriculum was offered at 49 private schools, followed by 45 with US, 42 with UK and 27 with Indian systems, as well as 19 schools following other curricula and four with that of the European Council of International Schools, or SABIS. The US curriculum was the most popular, with 24% of pupils enrolled in its schools, followed closely by UK education with 23%, MoE with 22% and Indian with 18%. The four systems collectively accounted for 87% of all private school enrolment.

Capacity planning for investors in the sector is challenging in Abu Dhabi for several reasons. Estimates from the period 2011/12 to 2015/16 show more than 77,000 new school seats and 55 new schools were built, representing an investment of Dh3.6bn ($981.6m). It predicts that another 47,687 seats will be added in the five years leading up to the 2020/21 academic year, when there will be 283,798 private school pupils in the emirate. However, demand for places in 2015/16 was uneven across age groups. In Abu Dhabi post-kindergarten education is divided into three cycles, with Cycle 1 catering for Years 1-5, Cycle 2 comprising Years 6-9 and Cycle 3 covering Years 10-12. In 2015/16 PSQA data showed enrolment of 42,530 children in kindergarten; 105,167 in Cycle 1; 59,464 in Cycle 2; and 28,950 in Cycle 3. This means 70% of pupils are enrolled in Cycles 1 and 2.

Expats & Students

This pattern reflects, in part, the background of the students attending private schools. In the five years up to 2015/16, the 2015/16 PSQA annual report shows a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6% in the number of Emirati nationals attending private schools, compared to a CAGR of 5% for expatriate children. However, even by 2015/16, Emirati nationals accounted for 24% of students in private schools. The remaining 76% of pupils were the children of expatriates residing in Abu Dhabi.

Children from non-GCC Arab countries are the biggest single group in private schools, accounting for 37% of the total, followed by Asians (29%), Westerners (8%), children from other GCC countries (1%) and those of other nationalities (1%). School enrolment numbers suggest that a large number of these expatriate professional families may be happy for their children to attend primary schools, but may be more cautious about them starting their secondary education in a system where residence is contingent upon employment in the emirate. “The education sector in Abu Dhabi is like a pyramid, because as expatriates leave the pyramid for older children narrows and becomes smaller,” Nilay Ozral, CEO of Aldar Academies, told OBG.

This factor became particularly acute in 2016, when austerity measures triggered by two years of lower oil prices resulted in redundancies at a number of large companies and a wider uncertainty in the expatriate jobs market. The tapering of enrolment with age also means that entrants to international tests such as PISA and TIMSS at the age of 13-14 are drawn from a narrower pool of pupils than is the case for the earlier TIMSS test taken by pupils in Year 5. This pattern is apparent in figures available for the private school sector, but is also mirrored in Abu Dhabi’s 256 government schools, according to data for the 2014/15 school year from SCAD. In that academic year, there were 127,698 students in government schools, with 48,291 in Cycle 1, falling to 38,491 in Cycle 2 and 25,428 in Cycle 3.

As they progressed through the three cycles of the school system, the proportion of students attending government schools, where the principal language of instruction is Arabic, increased for both non-citizens and citizens, according to SCAD data for 2014/15. Through Cycles 1, 2 and 3 the proportion of all Emirati pupils at state schools rose from 59.6% to 71.2% to 77.1%, while the proportion of non-citizens enrolled at government schools across those three cycles was 11.8%, 17.9% and 25.4%, respectively. The net school enrolment ratios in 2014/15 were 96.6% in Cycle 1, 83.5% in Cycle 2, falling to 58.9% in Cycle 3. This significantly lower net enrolment in the final cycle of schooling comes despite new legislation introduced in July 2012, which made schooling for pupils in the UAE compulsory to the age of 18.

Knowledge Economy

One phenomenon that SCAD’s statistics reveal is that 40% of 16- to 18-year-olds in Abu Dhabi often choose an alternative to the emirate’s schools. Contributing factors may include some of these teenagers already having found jobs, or parents choosing to continue their education overseas. However, for those who have left school without an offer of employment, additional training or further education may improve their chances of contributing to Abu Dhabi’s growing knowledge economy.

The UAE’s Vision 2021 talks of developing a competitive knowledge economy by “unlocking the potential of nationals”, enabling them to become a driving force in the private sector by instilling an entrepreneurial culture in schools anKnowledge Economyd universities. The stated aim of the UAE’s leadership agenda is to secure “a good life for its citizens,” as well as improve the country’s performance in international indices of entrepreneurship, innovation and ease of doing business.

Education plays an important role in the UAE’s performance in one of those international benchmarks: the WEF’s global competitiveness index. The 2016/17 report saw the UAE place 16th globally, up from 17th the year before. The WEF also noted that the UAE was leading the field in oil-exporting countries in the MENA region and so preparing itself well to meet the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its rankings for technological readiness and innovation climbing from 30th to 18th and from 26th to 25th, respectively, since 2015-16.

However, the relatively low school enrolment rates in the country are weighing on educational aspects of its performance. The UAE ranked 100th out of 138 countries for its primary school net enrolment rate, 71st for its secondary school gross enrolment rate and 96th for its tertiary education gross enrolment rate of 22%. Overall, though, the quality of primary school education ranked 12th, the quality of maths and science education 10th, and internet access in schools fourth.

Sleeping Giant

The OECD spelt out the downside risk for these young people and for the wider economy in a special report on the UAE titled “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Education and Skills Policies for the United Arab Emirates”. Under the sub-heading “Skills Are Infinite - Oil Is Not”, the report pointed out that if the UAE could boost the performance of its lowest-performing 15-year-olds to PISA Level 2, they would be capable of generating economic output over their working lives worth $2.36trn, or three times the country’s GDP.

Furthermore, achieving gender parity in PISA results, so that boys performed as well as girls, would generate the equivalent of $660bn in economic value over the working lives of the students, according to the OECD. “Even if those estimates will always entail considerable uncertainty,” the report stated, “they indicate that the likely gains from improving educational outcomes dwarf any conceivable cost of educational reform. Importantly, they also indicate that the current deficits in schooling outcomes in the UAE and other countries are the equivalent of a permanent economic recession.”

Steps are being taken to address these issues. A reformed model for all three cycles at public schools was introduced for grades 10-11 in August 2015 and for grade 12 students in the 2016/17 academic year. The reformed system emphasises links between learning outcomes and labour market needs, with STEM subjects accounting for 50% of the curriculum for all students, and staff stressing the continued importance of humanities, languages and social sciences. Links between science and entrepreneurship are also explored through new ICT enterprises. Lower down the system, the ADSM scheme was rolled out for all grade 9 pupils in government schools in 2016. Under ADSM, students are taught STEM subjects in English, then starting in 2016/17, digital technology and innovation.

Widening Appeal

Abu Dhabi has also established several vocational education and training institutions at both the secondary and tertiary levels. Under the guidance of the federal VETAC and the control of ACTVET, are the Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), founded in 2005, and the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (ADVETI), established in 2007.

IAT offers career-based technical education in English at secondary and tertiary level at 20 campuses across the UAE, including 14 schools, four Fatima Colleges of Health Sciences and two colleges for Abu Dhabi Polytechnic. IAT also delivers higher learning programmes in aviation, logistics and nursing. Among IAT’s initiatives are Applied Technology High Schools, which are open to Emirati or GCC nationals. The schools accept pupils aged 13-15 in grade 9 and 14-16 in grade 10 if they have passed the previous grade in the regular school system, an entrance test and an interview.

There are also opportunities available for school-age students under the ADVETI umbrella. ADVETI comprises a total of five technical institutes providing post-secondary education and training in a wide range of industry and business programmes.

In addition to this, ADVETI also manages 14 secondary technical schools (STSs), which provide enriched technical vocational programmes that are part of the curriculum to allow students to have broader career pathways when they graduate. ADVETI also has a specialised Vocational Educational Development Centre for young Emiratis who have previously been disengaged from the mainstream education system.


Abdulrahman Al Hammadi, the managing director of ADVETI, told OBG, “There are two main issues for vocational expansion. One is the cultural component that makes UAE nationals shy away from technical and vocational education as they have a belief that it is unglamorous and of little value. The second issue is to ensure that technical vocational provision in the country is specialising in programmes that will promote social and economic growth by enabling skilled Emiratis to enter into private sector sustainable careers.” According to Al Hammadi, there is still a lot of work to be done in bringing together government support and the private sector’s needs so that technical vocational education becomes a more attractive option for today’s youth. The NQA has established a technical and vocational qualification framework that is internationally recognised. This enables organisations such as ADVETI, who are recognised training providers, to deliver qualifications that have been developed in conjunction with industry to meet the growing skills shortage that exists in the UAE.

Industrial Partnerships

Students who enrol in an ADVETI institute have the option to study a wide range of programmes, including electronic and electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and environmental health and safety. These programmes are endorsed by industry, which enables them to access sponsorship opportunities that both provide a financial initiative and allow students to gain work experience. ADVETI has a wide range of industrial and business partners that also provide graduate career opportunities for students who successfully achieve advanced diploma qualifications.

Fatima College, under the IAT umbrella, has offered a bachelor’s course in nursing in association with Griffith University, Australia, since 2006, as well as nine other degree and diploma courses offered to women up to the age of 23 in physiotherapy, pharmacy, emergency medicine, and radiography and medical imaging.

Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, founded in 2010, offers Emiratis aged 17-22 applied bachelor’s degrees and higher diplomas and is modelled on the German dual-education system, which places a high value on skills-based learning, as well as academics.

At its Abu Dhabi campus, Abu Dhabi Polytechnic offers a higher diploma in advanced energy engineering technology, and applied bachelor’s degrees in electromechanical engineering technology, information security engineering technology, meteorology and petroleum engineering technology. At its Al Ain campus, meanwhile, enrolled students can work towards a higher diploma in aircraft maintenance, aircraft engineering technology and air traffic management.

Higher Colleges Of Technology

HCT provides applied education programmes in English in areas including applied communications, computer information science, engineering technology and science, business, health science and education. HCT is headquartered in Abu Dhabi City, from where it operates 17 different campuses for students across five emirates. Just over 23,500 students were enrolled during the 2016/17 academic year. With a 43% share of the UAE market, the colleges offer 71 different applied programmes, with the highest enrolment being in business and engineering technology and science. A major focus for HCT is its graduates’ readiness for the workplace, and it seeks to align curriculum with NQA and industry standards. HCT encourages its students to maintain practical knowledge and keep up with developments in industry, with an emphasis on ensuring there is flexibility for students who may have to leave and pick up their studies at a later time. According to figures from HCT, 71% of the school’s graduates are employed, with the institution aiming to increase this to 81% by 2021.

The campuses at Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ruwais and Abu Dhabi are undergoing major expansions and renovations at a cost of Dh142m ($38.7m), with construction half completed by February 2017. The facilities include classrooms, labs and workshop areas for a variety of specialisations, as well as an auditorium, conference spaces and a cafeteria. This development process is in line with HCT’s strategic plan to introduce new programmes and improve the skill requirements of students. The campus in Ras Al Khaimah has received a new engineering building, completed in mid-2016, with eight engineering labs, eight classrooms and a high-tech engineering workshop. Construction at the Ruwais campus has also commenced, with two new buildings planned, one of which will have 12 classrooms, labs, a library and a learning resource centre.

HCT’s plans also expand beyond infrastructure, with a new vision and strategy for 2017-21, referred to as HCT 2.0, which is focused on four primary themes: graduate employability, student success, innovative learning and academic excellence. Under the employability theme, HCT aims for 100% of its 2021 graduates to receive employment offers within one year of graduation. Important initiatives currently in place to make this happen are the establishment of innovation centres in areas supporting the development of the UAE’s strategic sectors, preparing students for future jobs, as well as encouraging competition and achievement via exhibitions that showcase student and faculty innovation projects, and compete for both local and international innovation awards.

Initially, Dh47m ($12.8m) has been allocated to the construction of four innovation centres at HCT campuses based in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. The centres are expected to be operational by the start of the 2017/18 academic year. HCT is also working on aligning the curricula of all its programme offerings with recognised international professional certifications and aims for 50% of its 2021 graduates to earn a professional certification upon graduation.

In terms of the innovative learning theme, HCT also recently launched an initiative adopting a smart learning environment wherein all of its course offerings feature interactive multimedia content with online assessment accessible through smart devices. The student success theme will entail redesigning programme curricula to allow students exit points at the diploma and higher diploma levels.

HCT will also seek to review programme matrices to ensure students are provided with more study options. HCT has also recently shifted towards applied research as part of its academic excellence theme, allocating Dh10m ($2.7m) in funding for faculty-led research from within the school’s budget.

The institution is also looking to secure more research and development financing from industry. International and national accreditation are key priorities under HCT 2.0, and in October 2016 six of HCT’s engineering programmes received accreditation from the US Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission.

Investing In Education

The aims of Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 include ensuring that more UAE nationals are equipped to participate in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. This will require the continuation of private sector companies providing technical and vocational career opportunities to Emiratis. Al Hammadi told OBG, “We are now in a position where we need to look at the realities. UAE nationals are a small portion of the population, and because of this, each must be made unique and contribute to the overall well-being of the country.”

Even at a time of falling revenues as a result of the lower oil prices, the government has continued to invest in the education of its citizens. In October 2016 the UAE Cabinet approved a Dh248bn ($67.6bn) budget for the next five years. The budget for 2017 is Dh48.7bn ($13.3bn), slightly up on Dh48.57bn ($13.2bn) in 2016. Most notably, 20.5% of spending in 2017, or Dh10.2bn ($2.8bn), has been set aside for the education sector. This is an increase of nearly 56% compared to 2016, when education accounted for approximately 13.44% of the budget, or Dh6.53bn ($1.8bn).

Abu Dhabi has also attracted some notable investments and partnerships with international universities in recent years, with campuses opened by Paris Sorbonne University, New York University and the international business school INSEAD. In the 2013/14 academic year, CAA data showed 630 students were enrolled at Paris Sorbonne, 618 at NYU and 46 were taking courses at INSEAD’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Tertiary Sector

When it comes to higher education, there is some disparity in enrolment rates between Emirati men and women – though the gap closes somewhat when looking at only private universities. The most recent data published by UAEU shows that 2439 women from Abu Dhabi enrolled during the 2015/16 academic year, compared to 584 men.

The most popular area of study for female students was the humanities, with 3537 women enrolled, followed by business and economics, with 1727 women, and engineering, with 1570 women. The three most popular subjects for male students from Abu Dhabi were engineering, business and economics, and humanities and social sciences, with 679, 539 and 265 students, respectively, registered in those departments at UAEU. At the graduate level, 483 women in Abu Dhabi were undertaking graduate studies, compared to 303 men from the emirate. In a May 2015 report the UAEU stated that one reason fewer Emirati men are attracted to higher education than their female counterparts may be that there are more job opportunities for young men in the police or armed forces when they leave school.

According to SCAD, approximately 60% of graduates from Abu Dhabi’s universities in 2013/14 were women, with a total of 6443 female graduates compared to 4478 men, including 4258 Emirati women and 3350 male nationals. In the same year, a larger number of Emirati men graduated from private universities in Abu Dhabi (1805) compared to women (1250); however, 3008 women from the UAE graduated from Abu Dhabi’s public universities compared to 1545 Emirati men.

Women also outnumbered men during the 2015/16 academic year at public universities that fall under the HCT umbrella in Abu Dhabi, with 3482 female students enrolled, compared to 3228 men at HCT in Abu Dhabi, Madinat Zayed and Ruwais. When looking at figures for private university enrolment, however, men outnumbered women during the 2013/14 academic year. According to SCAD figures, for the Abu Dhabi emirate as a whole, a total of 7484 Emirati men were enrolled at private universities compared to 5779 women.

Supporting Research

Abu Dhabi is also determined to make its mark in emerging technologies through the establishment of Masdar City, an ecocity and hub for academic and commercial innovation and development in sustainable technology, as well as research programmes in many fields such as petroleum, renewable energy, aerospace and engineering.

In 2016 the emirate announced that three leading institutions would merge in order to leverage synergies in their research focus and expertise. From 2017 the Petroleum Institute, Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology will operate as one body to channel their combined energies into applied research and education (see analysis).


From kindergarten through to postgraduate study, Abu Dhabi’s education sector is constantly striving for improvement through innovation and the development of rigorous academic standards. The emirate’s youthful Generation Z population is being offered an ever-growing range of opportunities in order to develop their minds and equip them with the tools to pave the way for the creation of a thriving knowledge economy for Abu Dhabi in their working lives.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2017

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