Setting the bar: Working to move towards a knowledge-based economy

Like the other emirates in the UAE, Ras Al Khaimah’s development strategy is centred on transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. Within this strategy, the government places a strong emphasis on both human and social development, with a particular focus on improving education.

The public sector currently dominates the education landscape and manages most schools and universities. However, as with much of the emirate’s development, the government is encouraging private sector investments. According to the RAK 2012 Statistical Yearbook, private schools accounted for about 36% of total student enrolments at the kindergarten to year 12 (K-12) level for the 2011/12 academic year. Other initiatives like the RAK Free Trade Zone (FTZ) are also helping to attract a number of private higher education institutions.

Education standards are a major concern for the current leadership in RAK and elsewhere in the UAE. The quality of primary and secondary education in particular often lags behind global standards. Several colleges and universities in RAK note that students entering their courses often lack basic skills in communications, English and maths.

The federal government’s Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) helps institutions of higher learning maintain basic standards of quality, but there is a lack of rigorous benchmarking at the school level. Furthermore, a paucity of comprehensive data related to education outcomes, rather than regarding inputs, means that the government is unable to effectively measure and therefore improve the quality of the education system.

Aware of these weaknesses, the government is currently implementing a series of reforms to help improve standards, with the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research taking a key advisory role. Created in 2009, the foundation is tasked with conducting research globally, and in relation to the specific RAK and UAE context, to develop evidence-based policy.

Managing The Sector

The education sector is governed by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR). The MoE is mandated with managing and regulating K-12 schooling across the UAE, while the MoHESR oversees colleges, universities and other institutions for higher education. The CAA is the main body under the MoHESR that licenses and accredits all higher-level courses and institutions outside the free zones. However, some free zone universities also choose to become accredited by the CAA because it boosts their standing and ability to attract students, especially Emiratis.

Other emirates in the UAE have added to this structure with local regulatory and strategic bodies. Dubai, for example, established the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in 2006 as a regulatory body to translate national goals into sector strategies tailored for Dubai. Such a move could help bridge gaps among the primary, secondary and higher education segments, but so far RAK has avoided duplicating such regulatory units.


RAK’s modern school system dates to 1948 when the emirate’s previous ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, came into power. The pearling industry, RAK’s primary economic driver at the time, had collapsed, leading to a rise in unemployment and poverty. Recognising the link between education and development, Sheikh Saqr approached the governments of Kuwait and Egypt to send teachers for RAK’s first schools, which were established in tents and focused on teaching science, maths and religion.

The emirate’s education policy has focused on ensuring inclusive education since it was first established, with the first formal school for boys opening in 1950, followed by the first girls’ school in 1956. According to the MoE, the rate of adult literacy in 1975 stood at 54% and 31% for men and women, respectively. This gap has now largely evened out, with literacy rates for both genders nearing 90%.

The total number of schools grew rapidly, expanding to roughly 20 by the early 1960s. However, the sector was only officially formalised with a coherent curriculum and specific education goals in the years after RAK joined the other emirates to form the UAE. The government established units to supervise the sector in 1970 and organised the education system into four different stages: kindergarten (ages 4-5), elementary (ages 6-11), intermediate (ages 12-14) and secondary (ages 15-17).

A national curriculum programme was rolled out to all of the emirates in 1985 in an effort to standardise and regulate the sector. Education was mandatory until grade nine and was free for UAE nationals enrolled in public schools.

Sector Structure

The MoE embarked on an ambitious reform programme in 2000, guided by the Education 2020 development plan. Education 2020 is comprised of a series of five-year strategies that lay out a roadmap for the sector. The goal of the reforms was to improve and modernise schools and teaching methods in the UAE.

While the National Curriculum helped align schools across the country, it emphasised rote learning and did not focus on education outcomes. Education 2020 marked a shift towards an approach that encourages critical thinking and practical skills. The plan calls for a significant push to train teachers and modernise public schools. The government invested heavily in the roadmap, allocating Dh7.4bn ($2bn) to implement the strategy.

In 2010 the MoE expanded Education 2020 with a 10-year strategy that outlined 10 strategic objectives and 50 initiatives that would be implemented by 2020. The strategy had an explicit goal of scoring 10 out of 10 points on each objective and is therefore referred to as the “10x10 plan”. These objectives and initiatives were broadly categorised into five areas that included student outcomes, student school life, student equality, student citizens and administrative effectiveness.

The 10-year development plan calls for measuring student outcomes and establishing a national recruiting system that includes performance evaluation tools to assess teachers, teacher-training programmes and improved regulations.

Early Childhood Education

RAK offers a range of early childhood education facilities that cater primarily to the emirate’s expatriate population. Despite a number of well-established providers, government oversight of the segment is largely fragmented. Three federal ministries (the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Public schools in UAE by emirate, 2010/11 MoE and Ministry of Health) and several local government institutions are responsible for monitoring and developing the sector.

While the Ministry of Social Affairs is mandated with licensing, there is currently limited oversight of the sector. Annual inspections ensure basic safety and standards but do not assess the quality of education and care. This is set to improve soon, however, with the ministry rolling out of a rating system for all nurseries in the UAE in 2013. The system seeks to assess the curriculum, premises and qualifications of teaching and administrative staff with an overall grade between “A” and “E”. Facilities given a rating of “E” will have six months to make improvements or face having their licences revoked.

While rising fees are an issue for parents, the ministry does not have plans to regulate this for the time being, as prices currently depend on the level of service. The Kids Zone Nursery located at the RAK FTZ, for example, is one of the better known nurseries in RAK and has 70 children enrolled in its programmes. The nursery charges between Dh1350 ($367.5) and Dh15,000 ($4083) per year, depending on the number of teaching hours per week.

Early childhood education is likely to gain more prominence over the coming years as the population expands and the economy grows. In addition to expatriate families, the market for Arabic-speaking facilities should provide ample opportunity going forward. The federal government is currently reviewing a draft law that encourages early education and imposes new standards on institutions involved in the sector. As of March 2013 the law was in a preliminary stage and would still require approval from the Federal National Council and the president.

Public Schools

There are a total of 114 schools and early education facilities operating in RAK, according to 2012 data from the MoE. Of these, 90 are public schools that are managed by the government and 24 are privately financed and operated.

All public schools above kindergarten are single sex in RAK. Out of the 90 public schools, 39 are for boys, 34 are for girls, and 17 are co-educational kindergarten schools. Each of the public schools generally targets a specific age group; 17 of the 90 schools are kindergartens, 24 are elementary schools, 15 are intermediate schools and 16 are secondary schools. Only 18 offer education across age groups. There are also four adult education centres and one vocational school. Private schools, on the other hand, generally cover all stages with only two catering specifically to kindergarten students.

Approximately two-thirds of the student population in the emirate is enrolled in the public school system. Expatriates living in RAK are generally not allowed to send their children to public schools. According to the MoE, 32,235 students attended public school in the 2011/12 academic year. This number has remained constant for several years, growing only marginally from 30,965 in 2007/08.

The number of male and female students was largely balanced for the 2011/12 academic year, with 16,564 females and 15,671 males. Over this period, there were 652 classes for boys compared to 602 classes for girls, in addition to co-educational classes at the kindergarten level.

Around 36% of the emirate’s students were enrolled in primary schools, with 29% in preparatory schools, 21% in secondary schools, 11% in kindergartens and 2% in vocational schools.

Good Ratios

The teacher-to-student ratio in the UAE is among the lowest in the world. RAK’s public schools employ a total of 2935 teachers, which represents a ratio of nearly 11 students per teacher. Teaching staff are supported by 676 administrative and technical support staff.

Of the teachers, 2089 are female, while only 846 are male. Roughly 66% of the teaching staff are Emirati, while the remainder come from countries like Egypt, Kuwait and India. Teachers in girls’ schools are almost exclusively Emiratis, while boys’ schools account for nearly all of the expatriate teachers.

Students in public schools must opt to specialise in either the humanities or the sciences. According to the MoE, 1523 class 11 and class 12 students were in the arts stream compared to only 756 in the sciences. The ratio is similar for male and female students but, interestingly, an analysis of the data shows that more expatriate male and female students choose to study the sciences than the arts. Some expect this trend to continue given the increased emphasis placed on the sciences.

Of the 442 expatriate students in class 11 and 12, only 181 were in the arts compared to 261 in the sciences. The RAK education system also offers some targeted support for special education students, with 115 students enrolled in special education classes, according to the MoE.

Private Schools

Enrolment in private schools has more than doubled in the past 10 years, going from 8959 in the 2001/02 academic year to 18,059 in 2011/02. This is at least partially the result of the growing numbers of expatriates in RAK, as non-Emiratis are typically unable to send their children to government schools. Private schools can choose to follow MoE standards and curricula or various international standards. However, schools must teach Arabic and Arab studies up to grade 9 for all students and through grade 12 for all Arab students.

Many international schools are accredited in their respective countries and offer expatriate families the ability to prepare children for higher education back in their home country. The flexibility in selecting curricula has helped provide a variety of education options in the emirate, which has at least seven different curricula. The Indian system is particularly popular due to the large number of Indians living in RAK, with at least eight Indian schools offering the Central Board of Secondary Education exams.

GEMS Education, an international education company and the largest education provider in the UAE, is now expanding its network of schools in the country. The company has plans to open 10 schools for a total of 33,000 students across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and RAK, with the new GEMS Westminster School set to open in RAK for the 2013/14 school year.

Ensuring High Standards

The MoE is mandated with licensing schools and ensuring they follow basic standards, as well as offering courses accredited with the ministry or an international board. The ministry initiated a new accreditation process in 2009 with the goal of helping public and private schools in all seven emirates of the UAE meet international standards. According to the MoE, all schools in RAK and the Northern Emirates will be assessed and accredited by 2017.

The MoE evaluates schools based on six broad focus areas. These include: school leadership, school as a community, approach to student learning, classroom environment, student development and student progress. Independent evaluators include one local and one international team member who visit each school and rank the facility against specific criteria for each focus area. Of the evaluation period, 60% is spent in classroom.

Private schools are all required to maintain strategies for monitoring and self-evaluation, with clearly defined action plans for making improvements. The MoE also expects the schools’ governing boards and owners to actively participate in these evaluations.

There are some concerns regarding the quality of teachers in RAK. One issue is the lack of proper data collection to benchmark teachers and schools qualitatively. Furthermore, MoE-led evaluations of teachers are currently on hold as the ministry develops a new licensing department for teachers. It is not clear when this will be established, but the move is likely to help boost the quality of teaching staff in the UAE and in RAK. Additionally, the government is also implementing a national teacher training programme.

One new training initiative is being rolled out in partnership with international education services provider Pearson Education. As part of the five-year programme, 700 existing principals, assistants and teachers across the UAE will each receive 400 hours of training, with the aim of bringing global best practices into the local education system.

Higher Colleges Of Technology 

Although RAK had limited higher education options until about 15 years ago, there are currently a variety of colleges and universities in line with the government’s broader education strategy. While there are several private institutions located in the emirate, most have some level of government participation. Students enrolled in public schools, 2010/11 The government-run Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) are among the oldest and largest higher education institutions in RAK. HCT have 19,000 students enrolled in 17 men’s and women’s campuses across the UAE. HCT-RAK opened separate men’s and women’s campuses in 1990. The HCT-RAK women’s college had 1230 students in the 2011/12 academic year while the men’s college had 520 students during the same period.

Gender discrepancy in enrolment at the tertiarylevel of education is a result of a number of factors. Among these are the fact that the UAE national police force recruits students, generally male, straight out of high school. In addition, due to cultural reasons, it is also more common for male Emirati students to study abroad at foreign universities while their female counterparts study locally.

The men’s college has 24 teachers and 28 staff members and the women’s college has 66 teachers and 54 staff. HCT-RAK has achieved a higher level of Emiratisation than its counterparts in the other emirates, employing 43 UAE nationals out of its staff of 172. The government actively encourages the hiring of UAE nationals and gives each HCT college an annual budget of Dh10m ($2.7m) specifically to recruit Emirati staff. Colleges have also added incentives to increase the number of students as the federal government allocates additional resources based on total enrolments. The standard language of instruction at the college is English, although some specific courses are offered in Arabic.

Changing Demands

The college has seen demand shifting away from business and information technology programmes and towards engineering courses. The women’s college is seeing additional demand for applied media programmes, including photography and film production.

Engineering and information technology are the most popular courses for men while business technology courses currently have the most female students. The men’s college offers a variety of engineering diplomas while the women’s campus offers diplomas in education and administration. HCT-RAK features 60 classrooms, 34 computer labs and seven engineering labs across its two campuses. The women’s college recently opened three classrooms for engineering. A 750-seat auditorium was inaugurated for the 25th anniversary of the HCTs.


RAK’s first university, Ittihad University, was established in 1999 and used to have almost 1000 registered students. However, the CAA put the university on probation in 2011, and as of mid-2013 the institution was still on probation and was not allowed to register any new students RAK MHSU: Established in 2006, and fully owned and managed by the government of RAK, the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University (RAK MHSU) was the first medical university in the emirate. There are currently 736 students from 41 countries enrolled in RAK MHSU’s four colleges, which include: RAK College of Medical Sciences (RAK COMS), RAK College of Dental Sciences (RAK CODS), RAK College of Pharmaceutical Sciences (RAK COPS) and the RAK College of Nursing (RAK CON).

RAK COMS was the first college to open in 2006, offering RAK’s first Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery programme. RAK CODS, RAK COPS and RAK CONS opened a year later in 2007. In 2011 RAK MHSU’s masters programmes in nursing and pharmacy were the first to be accredited in the UAE. The university works closely with RAK’s major public and private hospitals and clinics, including Saqr Hospital and Obaidullah Hospital, where students can get practical clinical training and internships.

In 2009, the university shifted into a new campus located next to Saqr Hospital, which features an anatomy dissection hall, skills laboratories, computer labs, lecture halls, demonstration rooms, an auditorium and a gym. The institution currently employs 174 faculty members and 65 non-teaching staff.


RAK MHSU recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with another growing university in RAK – the American University of RAK (AURAK) – to promote educational and scientific cooperation. Under the MoU, RAK MHSU and AURAK will collaborate to develop new programmes of education that leverage mutual strengths. One of the partnership’s primary goals is to increase research within the emirate. AURAK was initially established as an extension campus of the George Mason University in 2006. However, the university was forced to close three years later due to funding challenges and because it was unable to attract a core number of qualified students. The university was reopened under new management and with a new brand name and now has almost 300 students on campus. The university estimates that it is on track to reach a total enrolment of 600 students by 2016.

The CAA recently accredited two AURAK programmes in cell and molecular biotechnology and medical biotechnology in February 2013. These courses are included as part of AURAK’s accredited Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology Programme.

“Given the current developments in areas such as infrastructure, energy generation and construction, private institutions will inevitably start offering more science programmes to local and non-local students in order to meet the market demand,” Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim, the vice-chancellor at the American University RAK (AURAK), told OBG.

AURAK is now moving beyond CAA accreditation and is seeking accreditation from a US-based programme. This would allow AURAK students to move seamlessly into graduate courses in the US and other nations. The university has a foundation course to support students pursuing this track.

AURAK is looking to tap into demand for business education and expects to launch a masters in business administration (MBA) degree during the course of 2013. Additionally, AURAK has recently launched a masters degree in education, which has also been CAA approved, and which has received a great deal of interest from students.

A Swiss Connection

Efforts to generate local options at the graduate and postgraduate level are under way. The Switzerland-based Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), was invited in 2008 by the government of RAK to create a graduate research centre through a partnership with the RAK Investment Authority.

Since 2009, the centre, under the name EPFL Middle East (EPFL ME), has been working at the PhD and masters level with local private firms and public sector institutions. Major themes for research include renewable energy, energy management, sustainable urban and architectural design, water resource management and sustainable transportation.

EPFL is firmly rooted in a culture of research and development (R&D), and the partnership between the EPFL ME and the government of RAK is a first step towards introducing and establishing this culture within the emirate. The ultimate goal is to help increase RAK’s competitiveness by establishing a national culture of innovation.

English-language daily The National reports that the UAE dedicates roughly 0.01% of GDP to R&D at the federal level. EPFL hopes that this will increase to reach the levels seen in other innovation-driven countries (2.5-5%). The school notes that Switzerland is able to achieve a return on R&D investment of three to five times within 10 to 15 years. EPFL ME believes that the same level of returns are possible in RAK and the UAE if the investment is enhanced and consistent in the long run.

Others in the sector also see a need to embrace research and development within RAK. “Although schools and universities certainly must be involved in establishing a research culture, this is a much bigger challenge. It should be regarded by the government as adding value to both society and the economy as a whole, and officials should therefore seek to set national and emirate-level priorities in this direction,” Caitrin A Mullan, project manager at Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, told OBG.

However, in order to achieve this scale of returns, the government of RAK will need to invest further in graduate and post-graduate education. Franco Vigliotti, the dean of EPFL ME, suggests that RAK is in the middle of a significant transition towards becoming a knowledge-based economy. “There has been rapid progress in RAK, driven by the government’s strong vision for education in the emirate,” Vigliotti told OBG. “Today, RAK is in a unique position with an increasing population and latent human resources. The emirate has the opportunity to tap into this potential; graduate research and innovation should play an increasingly important role.”

RAK Academy Zone

There are a number of higher education institutions registered under the RAK FTZ’s Academy Zone. The University of Bolton, which opened a campus in the RAK FTZ in September 2008, is one of the bigger institutions operating with a free zone licence. The campus has a total of nearly 300 students and offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in built environment, engineering, business and computing, and information technology. The university hopes to expand enrolment numbers by an additional 300 in 2013 and reach 1000 students in total by 2017.

Vatel Emirates, an international business school for hospitality, is also located in the RAK FTZ. Vatel has a number of schools globally and trains students for tourism management positions. The institution offers a bachelor’s in international hotel management with practical training at the Hilton Hotel.

In March 2013, CORE Education announced plans to invest a total of $2m to develop an academic learning centre in RAK FTZ. The CORE International Institute of Higher Education will offer programmes at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels and will focus on engineering, architecture and business administration, as well as running an MBA.

A variety of other institutions are registered under the RAK FTZ, pointing to the opportunity for private investment into the sector. However, foreign direct investment into the free zone has decreased since the financial crisis, placing plans to develop a Dh3.6bn ($1bn) education park on hold. The project was meant to add capacity for a total of 38,000 students.

The authorities are working to improve oversight of institutions operating in the FTZ. Nursing schools in the zone, for example, often do not have access to hospitals and clinics for practical training. The variance in education quality lowers the brand value of an education in RAK, which could deter new universities from investing in the emirate. Therefore, the government is currently exploring strategies to impose more stringent regulations and improve the quality of education across RAK, including those institutions located in the FTZs.

Vocational Education

The emirate’s broader economic strategy involves diversifying the economy into a variety of sectors, including tourism. As companies invest in the emirate, they generate demand for industry-specific skills and knowledge. Vocational education is therefore a growing segment within RAK. There are some concerns across the UAE that the current level of vocational training is inadequate to meet the country’s growing needs. However, this may be due to low demand from students because of the premium that many employers and families place on obtaining a higher education degree.

The University of Bolton offers the Higher National Diploma, which lies between a high school and an undergraduate degree. The university offers electrical engineering, business management and electronic engineering, with the option of transferring into a degree programme. In 2012, 27 students were enrolled in the programmes. Each diploma can take up to 18 months to complete and cost an estimated Dh20,000 ($5444). Students have the option of counting the credits towards a degree with an additional 12 months of coursework.


RAK’s education sector is in the middle of a rapid transition that mirrors the emirate’s economic growth. While new institutions are being established, families living in the emirate place a premium on quality. The private sector is playing an increasingly important role as it serves to complement RAK’s public schools and colleges. While the demand for schools is generally at the local level, neighbouring emirates compete for students in higher education. However, global institutions like EPFL are now helping to establish RAK as an emerging centre for education in the Middle East.

Ensuring a high standard for the quality of teachers, schools and educational outcomes is an ongoing challenge for the UAE, and more so for RAK, which is still developing the sector. However, the government, with the support of the federal ministry and private sector institutions, appears to be committed to developing and implementing a strategy to improve sector quality. A stronger system, combined with the growing population, should continue to drive growth.


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