The role of education is pivotal to Abu Dhabi’s economic development plan, known as Economic Vision 2030. Whilst the emirate currently maintains one of the more respected educational systems in the region, the sector continues to develop and possesses tremendous potential for sustainable and long-term growth. Recent collaborative efforts have focused on upgrading the present academic system by reducing gaps between vocational education and industry and between secondary and tertiary education.

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Various federal and local government agencies are involved in the development of the sector, including the Ministry of Education (MoE), a federal body responsible for schooling through the secondary level. While the MoE maintains the regulatory authority and oversight over national preschool12th grade (P-12) education, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) has direct control over the operational details pertaining to the emirate. This includes physical infrastructure, development of curricula and cooperation with the private sector. Established in 2005, ADEC’s mandate covers both public and private P-12 education, as well as higher education.

The National Qualifications Authority (NQA), a federal body set up in late 2010, is responsible for setting national academic standards across all levels of education in the UAE. Three government bodies are in charge of implementing these standards. The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) was established in 2000 and accredits all post-secondary education programmes that are offered by institutions licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR). The CAA is currently the only body in the UAE responsible for the accreditation of vocational training institutions offering programmes of one academic year or longer. It is a separate entity within MOHESR and operates with relative independence.

The MoE supervises the compulsory grade 12 secondary school certificate. The Vocational Education and Training Awards Commission (VETAC) operates under the authority of the NQA and is currently developing a National Licensure System of Accreditation, which VETAC will use to both license training providers as well as accredit relevant courses and programmes.

STRUCTURE: The P-12 school system is divided into four tiers, with education typically beginning at age four. The first tier, known as kindergarten, lasts two years, though only the second year is mandatory. Kindergarten is followed by primary school or Cycle 1 (grades 1-5), preparatory school or Cycle 2 (grades 6-9) and secondary school or Cycle 3 (grades 10-12). A number of options for post-secondary education are offered in the emirate, including vocational training and university degrees.

As per recent figures published by the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi (SCAD), there were 480 schools in the emirate during the 2010/11 school year. Of these, 53 were kindergartens, 90 were primary schools, 54 were preparatory schools, 46 were secondary schools and 237 were multi-stage schools. Approximately half of these schools were located in the Abu Dhabi region, with the rest in Al Ain and Al Gharbia.

Recent figures from SCAD report a total of nearly 300 government schools in the 2010/11 academic year, while the remaining 181 schools were privately operated. The largest percentage of these private schools used curricula established by the MoE, while American, British and Indian curricula were also commonly used.

FACTS & FIGURES: Student enrolment in the emirate has risen sharply in recent years. There were 306,000 total students in the 2010/11 school year, a 23% on 2005/06, which had about 250,000 students total. Of the 2010/11 total, over 60% were enrolled in schools in the Abu Dhabi region, and overall almost 60% studied at private institutions, according to SCAD figures.

There was an average of 22.5 pupils per classroom in 2010/11. Pupils per teacher in the same period averaged 11.0, showing an improvement on 14.2 pupils per teacher in 2000/01. Pupil per classroom and pupil per teacher averages, at 18.2 and 10.1 respectively, were lower in the sparsely populated region of Al Gharbia.

Figures published by SCAD in late 2012 indicate that less than half of those 306,000 students attending schools in Abu Dhabi in 2010/11 were UAE nationals. Totalling around 135,000 students, this represented an increase of about 16% from the 2005/06 academic year when UAE students numbered roughly 115,000. Almost 70% of UAE nationals enrolled during 2010/11 attended government schools.

The number of teachers at public schools has jumped by almost 9% over the past 10 years. With around 10,500 teachers in 2000/01, government schools employed a workforce of almost 11,500 teachers in 2010/11, according to SCAD. Totalling just under 8000, the majority of teachers during this period were expatriates, with male teachers making up slightly more than 50% of this figure. At almost 90%, the vast majority of teachers with UAE citizenship were female.

The increase of teachers at private schools over the past decade has been significant. While private schools employed around 5000 teachers in 2000/01, this figure has more than doubled, with approximately 11,000 teachers on private school payrolls during the 2010/11 academic year, according to SCAD figures.

A falling illiteracy rate in Abu Dhabi is one positive indicator for the emirate’s developing P-12 sector. Recent SCAD data showed that the estimated illiteracy rate among those aged 10 years and older has dropped from 12.6% in 2005 to 7.5% in 2011. This is a fall of around 40% and covers both males and females and among UAE nationals and expatriates alike. However, illiteracy among the youth population – those aged 15-24 years – has increased from 5.8% in 2005 to 6.4% in 2011, largely due to higher illiteracy rates among recently arrived non-Emirati citizens.

Abu Dhabi was home to 31 different universities, colleges and institutes in 2010/11, three of which were government owned, according to recent data published by SCAD. As many as 40,000 students were enrolled in different forms of higher education during 2009/10, around 60% of whom attended government institutions. Female students represented 58% of the overall total tertiary education enrolment figures for 2009/10.

UPGRADES: While Abu Dhabi’s education sector continues to expand and improve, several government agencies have recognised areas for further development and are taking important steps to ensure that upgrades are implemented effectively in the immediate future. For example, in early 2012 the NQA released a handbook outlining the policies and standards for a qualifications framework to be applied in the UAE, known as QFE mirates. The handbook lays out a consistent method for the design of qualifications for all levels of education in the country.

Among other results, QFE mirates will raise the profile and quality of vocational training and make sure that vocational education standards are met. In addition, the handbook is meant to ensure that international standards and qualifications are recognised in the UAE. The NQA is currently in the process of simplifying and improving QFE mirates, and full implementation of the framework is expected to take place in 2013.

Further work is under way at the NQA to balance the importance of previous work experience with the significance of academic achievement. “Knowledge and experience are under-appreciated by employers in the UAE,” said Thani Al Mehairi, the NQA’s director-general. “Employers need to take prior work experience into greater consideration and not only be focused on diplomas or other certifications when hiring. The NQA is in the process of developing the Recognition of Prior Learning policy that will ultimately help learners move up in their career paths and give them an opportunity to have their experience recognised,” he told OBG.

Further steps include closing the gap between secondary and tertiary education in the emirate, as many secondary school graduates require bridge programmes to reach the required standards to enter university courses, according to ADEC. “It is necessary to close the gap between high school graduates and the requirements for university students,” said Ismail Tag, the acting president and provost of the Petroleum Institute, an engineering school funded by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). “The aim is to reduce the need for a foundation year, which will help save time for graduates and resources for the local universities.”

HOLISTIC REFORM: ADEC is taking an active role in making the transition to secondary education smoother. In June 2009 the organisation formally released a 10-year strategic plan for upgrading P-12 education, taking a holistic approach to the reform process.

Based on a collaborative effort between local and international experts, ADEC’s new plan includes both short- and long-term strategies. The authority will aim to fulfil four key objectives: raise the quality of Abu Dhabi schools to the international standards; provide all children with access to high-quality schooling; create affordable and high-quality private education options; and upgrade the academic system without compromising either local culture or national identity.

One of the most important components of ADEC’s plan is the introduction of the New School Model (NSM). Two core beliefs lie at the heart of this new teaching and learning method. First, the NSM places the student at the centre of education, rather than the teacher. This represents a significant change from methods in much of the MENA region. Second, the NSM introduces more instructor accountability by shifting the responsibility of learning from the student to the teacher.

The implications of the NSM are far-reaching, and maintaining a high-quality teaching staff is paramount to achieving ADEC’s plan. ADEC is bringing in 2000 licensed teachers from abroad and has hired around 16,000 teachers from 2010-12, according to figures provided by the authority. It is also providing classes for instructors to ensure that teachers at Abu Dhabi schools are not only experts in content, but also adept at using successful teaching techniques Naturally, building a high-quality education system is a gradual process, and for that reason ADEC’s new strategic plan is being implemented in a number of stages. Having begun with the 2010/11 school year, ADEC put the plan into effect for all students in kindergarten and grades 1, 2 and 3. Implementation for grade 4 took place in 2011/12, and that for grade 5 will begin during the 2012/13 academic year. Implementation of the new plan for preparatory and secondary schools is currently in the planning stages.

ASSESSMENTS: ADEC was also recently involved in an initiative to rate school performance in the emirate. In early 2012 the international inspections organisation, Tribal, teamed up with ADEC to inspect 12 government schools in Abu Dhabi. The inspections team visited each school for a week during March and April. Schools were assessed on progress and personal development, student achievement, quality of teaching, safety, management competency, and school facilities and resources. A self-assessment was also required of each school.

Organisers of the initiative hope that school inspections will raise the accountability of educators in Abu Dhabi. While ADEC will not publish individual grades of each school until inspections of all public schools are completed in 2013, the authority has provided information regarding general performance. None of the 12 schools inspected received a top score; however, several schools showed signs of improvement.

Several schools scored strongly on teaching practice and leadership. Inspectors also found that several principals maintained a clear vision and employed established methods of helping students enjoy learning. Some schools received lower scores for management, and inspectors noted that better methods were needed to measure student development. Further, progress needs to be made by establishing partnerships between schools and sharing best practices.

ADEC intends to continue to adjust and fine-tune its evaluation system until 2017, with plans to emphasise a particular theme, such as environmental programmes or health and safety, each year in its annual inspections. Private schools will also be evaluated, with results made public at the end of the 2012/13 school year.

TECH SAVVY: IT is one area many educators are striving to implement and improve. ADEC, for example, is working to wirelessly connect all schools in Abu Dhabi and announced plans in October 2011 to implement a new learning tool known as iClass. Initially introduced as a one-year pilot initiative in grades 3 and 4 in six government schools during the 2011/12 academic year, ADEC aims to eventually implement the iClass scheme in all ADEC-managed government schools.

In addition, ADEC organised the Transforming Education Summit in 2012, which covered in part how to improve IT integration in schools. The list of delegates attending the conference included academics, as well as government and business leaders, and organisers expected more than 150 international delegates. The biennial event took place in Abu Dhabi in May 2012.

ADEC introduced an online scholarship application system a month later in June. The new system allows public school students in Abu Dhabi to submit required scholarship application documents and communicate with ADEC through a new web portal. Not only will the system make it possible for pupils to correspond with ADEC from around the world, the council will be able to support a government push to increase green office practices by digitising 90% of relevant paperwork.

The NQA has also recognised the importance of IT education, and sets policies regarding the usage of such technology for academic purposes. “We would like to focus on the development of e-learning as this will help complement traditional learning sources and enable greater educational inclusiveness within the country,” said Al Mehairi.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Secondary school graduates have a number of options when applying for post-secondary education in Abu Dhabi. According to recent statistics published by SCAD, a total of nine universities and 13 colleges as well as several vocational institutes were operating in the emirate during the 2009/10 school year. Of the 40,000 students enrolled in some form of higher education during the same period, 75% (or roughly 30,000 students) were UAE nationals.

Established in 1976, UAE University (UAEU) is a leading national university based in Abu Dhabi. According to UAEU figures, more than 12,000 students were enrolled at the institution during the 2010/11 school year, and female students outnumbered male students by around three to one. The university employed more than 650 faculty members, in addition to a number of visiting professors, during the same period.

While the vast majority of UAEU’s students were registered for undergraduate programmes during 2010/11, the university offers a number of graduate degrees and some 450 students – not including the roughly 100 doctoral students – were enrolled in graduate studies programmes during the same period. Degrees offered in the College of Humanities and Social Science as well as the College of Business and Economics were the most popular in 2010/11, with more than 2800 students enrolled in each. Degrees on offer by the College of Engineering and the College of Science were the third and fourth most popular programmes, with approximately 1800 and 1000 enrolled students, respectively.

The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) are also well-represented in Abu Dhabi. With campuses across the UAE, there are four HCT colleges in Abu Dhabi, each with a separate campus for men and women. Total enrolment during the 2010/11 academic year surpassed 8000, according to the most recent HCT figures.

Zayed University (ZU) was founded in 1998 to serve Emirati women but the institution now also admits men. The university enrolled 4500 students in its Abu Dhabi campus, and a similar number in Dubai, for the 2011/12 academic year. This is an increase of nearly 20% from the previous year. ZU offers bachelor degrees in arts and sciences, business, education, IT and media.

Another large number of students study at Abu Dhabi University (ADU). According to ADU data, around 4300 students representing more than 55 nationalities currently attend the institution. Established in 2003 with campuses in both Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, ADU expects to eventually increase enrolment to 10,000 students.

The university has over 140 faculty members, with the largest number of staff teaching in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Business Administration. Alongside its wide range of undergraduate degrees, ADU offers several postgraduate degrees, including a master’s in engineering management and a master’s in special education.

Established almost two decades ago, the Emirates College of Technology (ECT) provides students with two-year diploma programmes in subjects such as accounting, computer design and animation, human resource management, and a double major diploma in business administration and computer information systems. ECT also offers students a bachelor’s degree course in business administration.

Other higher education institutions operating in Abu Dhabi include Alhosn University and Al Ain University of Science and Technology. Both are private universities that were founded in 2005.

FROM ABROAD: A relative newcomer, France’s Sorbonne established a branch campus, Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD), in February 2006. Originally offering degrees in the humanities and social sciences, PSUAD has since expanded this through a joint effort with Université Paris-Descartes to include programmes in law, political science and economics. There is potential to increase this list in the future.

A total of 650 students were enrolled at the university during the past academic year, according to recent PSUAD figures. Emiratis made up slightly more than 30% of the student body, and roughly one-third were registered in one of the university’s 10 master’s programmes. As the language of instruction at PSUAD is French, all incoming students are required to be proficient in the language. Those with insufficient language ability can choose to enrol in an intensive, year-long French course prior to registering as a student at PSUAD.

IT education is an integral part of learning at PSUAD. Professors often teach at both PSUAD and Paris-Sorbonne and Paris-Descartes, and many travel back and forth between the UAE and France. As a result, communication between professors and students often takes place electronically. To increase connectivity, PSUAD recently finished developing a digitised method for marking exams, and the university plans to develop teleconference technology for lectures.

Additionally, New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi enrolled its first class in the autumn of 2010. Currently located in the city centre with plans to move to a new campus on Saadiyat Island in 2014, NYU Abu Dhabi is a full branch of NYU New York and offers undergraduate degrees, with plans to expand into graduate studies in the future. Lastly, the French business school INSEAD offers an executive master of business administration programme from its campus in Abu Dhabi City.

NON-TRADITIONAL SCHOOLING: Among the nontraditional centres offering continuing education is the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR). ECSSR is an independent institution aimed at facilitating research on issues of socio-economic and political importance, and offers UAE nationals two full-time academic programmes. The post-graduate diploma in scientific research methodology is an 11-month programme with an average annual intake of 9-15 students. The programme trains students to carry out quantitative and qualitative research in economic, political and military fields. A six-month programme, the postgraduate diploma in diplomatic studies prepares Emirati university graduates for a career in diplomacy.

In addition to its academic programmes, ECSSR also organises conferences, workshops, lectures and symposia; contributes funding for research grants and fellowships; and provides its staff with in-house training. At ECSSR’s second annual education conference in October 2011, discussion focused on the roles of society and the state in establishing successful education systems in the UAE. The institute’s third education conference took place in Abu Dhabi in October 2012, with guests in attendance arriving from across the region.

ACADEMIC-CORPORATE PARTNERSHIPS: One of the most important current trends in tertiary education is collaboration between academics and industry. “The entire country is moving at a fast pace economically. As a result, it is imperative to produce graduates that meet the needs of the present and future job market,” Abdullah Saad Al Khanbashi, the former vice-chancellor of UAEU, told OBG. “This can only be achieved if universities work in close collaboration with the public and private sector to understand the job marketplace.”

One such initiative, the Tawazun Work-Study Programme (TWSP), was established by UAEU and Tawazun, a fully owned subsidiary of the Offset Programme Bureau. The programme focuses on defence and specialised manufacturing. Opened in 2008, the TWSP is designed to train national engineers to serve the needs of emerging industries in the UAE. After one year of German studies to acquire necessary machinist’s skills and undergoing pre-university academic preparation, students enrol in UAEU’s mechanical engineering programme. The next four years comprise of on-the-job training for two days a week with academic study on the other days, coupled with summer work projects.

A collaborative agreement between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Masdar has led to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Located in Masdar City, the institute currently has seven two-year master’s programmes, and admitted its first intake of 88 students in 2009. Enrolment has grown to 170 students, of whom 43% are Emirati, according to recent Masdar Institute data. Other joint efforts between academia and industry have brought about the Petroleum Institute, a degree-granting university focused on applied science and engineering with all programmes accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Established in 2000 as a collaboration between ADNOC and the US-based Colorado School of Mines, the institution is funded by ADNOC, in addition to a number of international partners such as Shell, British Petroleum, Total and Japan Oil Company.

Notably, educators at the Petroleum Institute rely on ADNOC and similar firms for more than university funding. “Feedback from local energy industry operators and ADNOC is very important when developing our curriculum,” said Tag. “This ensures that our teaching remains topical and up-to-date with industry needs.” The institute’s first set of graduates finished in 2006.

The success and continuing growth of science-focused institutions is a positive indicator for Abu Dhabi’s economy in the medium to long term. Transitioning to a knowledge-based economy will require more engineers and graduates in applied science. “There needs to be a shift away from both the system and the students’ tendency to focus on business management degrees and look towards technical sciences,” said Wael Ibrahim Al Anqar, the chairman of the Emirates College of Technology. “We need to make engineering and similar degrees more attractive to students,” he told OBG.

This tendency towards non-science disciplines is also found among secondary students. The MoE and ADEC have recently attempted to transform this trend by requiring all students to study the sciences through grade 11. Secondary students who had decided to focus their studies on a discipline other than science had previously been required to study the sciences through grade 10. It is hoped that by enrolling in more science classes, students will take a greater interest in studying engineering and science programmes at the post-secondary level.

LITERACY: Current literacy rates can be partly attributed to a general lack of interest in reading among Emiratis, a challenge the UAE shares with many Arabic-speaking countries. “Less than 2% of the population in the Arabic-speaking world reads one book a year, according to the UN,” explained Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research . “It is important to raise awareness of research and reading to create a knowledge-based society.” One method of increasing the population’s interest in reading is to expand the amount of Arabic content online. There are already positive indications that the trend towards more digital content in Arabic is picking up speed. According to News Group International, a news management firm based in Dubai, Arabic content online has grown from an estimated 0.2% of online content in 2008 to around 2% currently.

OUTLOOK: The government has recognised the importance of developing a strong education system and is actively seeking to continue recent progress. For example, most young Emirati men and women understand the importance of academia and want to finish their education, according to ECSSR. A significant rise in the number of private universities offering higher degrees is an encouraging sign as well. There are also many scholarships available for Emiratis students interested in studying abroad. At the P-12 level, ADEC is also taking steps to improve English language skills by employing native English teachers to better prepare students for post-secondary education. This bodes well for the emirate given the growth of its youth population and the rapid change and expansion of its economy.