The education sector in Abu Dhabi is benefitting from targeted investments in career-relevant post-secondary programmes, as well as strong partnerships between schools and industry. Furthermore, recent K-12 curriculum reforms are aimed at building a strong base of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates. Education is quickly developing into a major economic driver, supported by rapid population growth and expansion of Emiratisation initiatives. With the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 development plan emphasising diversification and the transition to a knowledge-based economy, education will remain at the forefront of the agenda and continues to offer significant investment opportunities to private players from pre-K right through to the PhD level, particularly in the wake of ongoing space constraints in the primary and pre-primary segments.


Primary education was first made compulsory in the UAE in 1972, at which time the country had a student population of 28,000 and less than two dozen schools in operation. The sector has since undergone a dramatic transformation, and as of the 2013/14 academic year there were 438 K-12 schools teaching more than 340,000 K-12 students, and over 50,800 post-secondary students studying at 29 universities and colleges in the emirate. Education at all stages is free for Emiratis, with the national government allocating 21% of its 2014 budget, or Dh9.7bn ($2.6bn), to education, while half of its Dh49.1bn ($13.4bn) 2015 budget was allocated to social development, including education. Government spending on education, particularly research and development (R&D) activities aimed at increasing the size of the UAE’s highly skilled workforce, is set for significant expansion.

In June 2015 the UAE government announced it plans to triple spending on R&D over the next six years, boost Emiratisation in the workforce by 185,000 employees and increase knowledge economy employment from the current level of 22% to 40%. Husam Al Ulama, the director of scientific research at the federal Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR), told OBG, “Universities in the UAE were, in the early days, much more focused on teaching and curriculum development. This has increasingly shifted since the 1990s, and today we are intensifying our focus on research, particularly applied research.”

Kindergartens To Phds

At the federal level, the Ministry of Education (MoE) is responsible for nationwide policymaking in the sector, with its mid-range national education policy for 2015-21 focusing on STEM education in a bid to build a knowledge economy, as mandated by the UAE’s Vision 2021 economic development plan, as well as Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030. The MoE regulates the nation’s K-12 education system, coordinating with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), the primary local supervisory and policymaking body. ADEC also oversees the Abu Dhabi Educational Zone, launched in 2008, and sets tuition fees for K-12 schools across the emirate.

ADEC’s Private Schools and Quality Assurance (PSQA) sector was set up in 2010 to implement ADEC’s Strategic Plan for the rapid improvement of the private school system. The PSQA oversees and manages the Abu Dhabi private schools market, with a focus on establishing new schools, as well as supporting the improvement of existing private schools. It is also responsible for increasing access to private schools for all students by ensuring availability of adequate capacity in the market.

PSQA’s Strategic Plan 2013-17 supports ADEC’s mission in the private sector through ensuring that private school students are equipped with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes necessary to embark on further education, and to be lifelong learners who are prepared to contribute to and compete in the global economy, while preserving national identity, local culture and traditions.

With the government increasingly focused on bolstering research activities, the post-secondary landscape also benefits from two national bodies that conduct research. The MHESR’s National Authority for Scientific Research, launched in 2008, and the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), established in 1994 as a think tank examining social, economic and political issues within the UAE and Gulf region. In May 2015 the emirate welcomed a new think tank, Trends, Research & Advisory, founded by Ahmed Al Hamli. The independent organisation studies issues such as terrorism, human rights, education, economics, military security and international relations.

A benefit of the emirate’s numerous partnerships with regional and international players is the opportunity that institutions provide for students to interact with diverse sets of people. Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, director-general of the ECSSR, told OBG, “Educational institutions at all levels should promote tolerance and the idea that all nationalities have the right to live in harmony, regardless of differences in culture, religion or race. It is imperative that in this day and age we make a more concerted effort to adopt the values of moderation and tolerance within our education system.”


Established in 2010 in order to implement a unified system of qualifications at all levels of education, the federal National Qualification Authority licenses vocational institutions and programmes, as well as overseeing regulation of vocational and training programmes through the Vocational Education and Training Commission. The Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, through the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute and the Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), delivers vocational and applied post-secondary degree programmes to students in the emirate. The IAT is responsible for vocational and technical education and training in high-tech fields such as aeronautics, robotics and health care, all of which are expected to become key pillars of the emirate’s knowledge-based economy in the future.

Ahmad Abdulmanan Alawar, managing director of IAT, told OBG, “Since the launch of vocational schools in Abu Dhabi there has been a noticeable shift in perception. People now view vocational schools as places where you go to receive advanced technical training. It used to be difficult attracting students to apply, but now vocational programmes are in such high demand that we believe capacity expansion is required.”

Post-Secondary Strength

Abu Dhabi’s post-secondary sector has expanded in the past decade, with an increasing focus on STEM-related innovation through enhanced R&D guiding expansion at both public and private universities. This is particularly evident at the PhD level, which has witnessed triple-digit growth in enrolment between 2008 and 2013 (see analysis). Universities are expanding undergraduate offerings with a host of new innovation centres and research programmes, which will help shape a new generation of skilled workers in high priority areas such as aerospace and defence, petroleum engineering and robotics.

Rapid Growth

The UAE’s first public university was established in 1976, and since then both private and public institutions have expanded rapidly, with the MHESR reporting that post-secondary enrolment rose by 58.6% between 2008 and 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, to reach 51,333 students.

According to the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi’s (SCAD) “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2015”, post-secondary enrolment reached 50,809 students during the 2013/14 academic year, of which 27,748, or 54.6%, attended federal universities. Emiratis account for 73.4% – 37,292 students – of the total student population in universities, and 86.6% – 24,029 students – of the student population at public universities. A total of 13,263 Emirati students are enrolled in private post-secondary institutions. According to SCAD, 10,921 students graduated from higher education during the 2013/14 academic year, including 5107 from public institutions and 5814 from private institutions, with Emiratis comprising 69.7% of graduates.

The majority of students in the UAE attend federal public universities and colleges, of which there are three in Abu Dhabi: UAE University (UAEU), which was established in 1976; the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), launched in 1988; and Zayed University (ZU), which was established in 1998.


UAEU is active in R&D activities through its seven research centres, and it reports that it has been awarded 36 patents since 2007 and pro-been awarded 36 patents since 2007 and produced 604 publications in 2014 alone. Its library offers the largest collection of electronic resources in the Arab world, including 170,000 e-books, 50,000 e-journals and more than 100 databases.

Higher Colleges Of Technology

HCT was founded to provide applied education programmes in English in areas including applied communications, computer information science, engineering technology and science, business, health science and education. HCT operates 17 different campuses for students across five emirates and their headquarters are located in the city of Abu Dhabi. A total of 23,473 students were enrolled during the 2014/15 academic year, including more than 8000 students at eight campuses in Abu Dhabi. HCT reports that it has awarded over 69,000 academic credentials to its graduates since 1991. With a 43% share of the 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 the UAE National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and industry standards. HCT encourages its students to maintain practical knowledge and to keep up with developments in industry. Abdullatif Al Shamsi, vice-chancellor of HCT, told OBG, “The employability of our graduates is something that needs to be considered in how post-secondary institutions develop their programmes. One way to address this is through innovation centres of excellence offering projects linked to course learning outcomes, and industry needs to solve real-world problems involving students, faculty and employers.”

Furthermore, HCT’s campuses at Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ruwais and Abu Dhabi are to undergo major expansions and renovations at a cost of Dh142m ($38.7m). The facilities will include classrooms, labs and workshop areas for a variety of specialisations, as well as an auditorium, conference spaces and a cafeteria. These projects are part of a development plan of HTC’s infrastructure across its 17 campuses which will focus on the academic and personal skills of the students, as well as cultivating their specific talents. This development process is in line with the strategic plan by HTC to introduce new programmes and improve the skill requirements of students. The campus in Ras Al Khaimah will receive a new engineering building, to be complete in June 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 Version 2.0, and which is focused on three primary themes: employability, smart learning and curriculum flexibility. Under the employ-ability theme, HCT aims for 100% of its graduates to receive employment offers within one year of graduation. Key initiatives in place to make this happen are the establishment of innovation centres in areas supporting the development of the UAE strategic sectors, preparing students for future jobs, as well as encouraging competition and achievement via exhibitions showcasing student and faculty innovation projects and competing for both local and international innovation awards. Also key to this goal is a commitment to align all programme offerings to the NQF as well as embedding world recognised professional certification bodies of knowledge within programme content and involving industry partners in this development process.

In terms of the smart learning theme, HCT has 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 curriculum flexibility theme will entail redesigning programme curricula to allow students exit points at the diploma, higher diploma, and bachelor levels and will also feature a professional degree track aligned with “Level 4” of the NQF. HCT will also seek to review programme matrices to ensure students are provided with more study options. Al Shamsi told OBG, “Curriculum flexibility and providing students with multiple programme exit points should increase both attractiveness and accessibility. Nowadays, higher education institutions are actively reviewing programme matrices to provide students with more study options.”

Zayed University

ZU, a growing comprehensive federal university offering 23 bachelor’s degrees and 15 master’s programmes, welcomed nearly 2000 new students at its Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses at the start of the 2015/16 academic year. The university offers bachelor’s degrees in arts and sciences, business, education, IT, sustainability sciences and humanities, and media, with over 7000 students graduating from both campuses since the university’s inception. Graduate education, delivered through 11 professional master’s programmes, prepares graduates for senior leadership roles in the public and private sector.

ZU is strategically developing its R&D capabilities, announcing in October 2015 that it had partnered with European software multinational SAP and, along with a handful of universities in the MENA region, is offering the SAP Dual Study Programme, which trains students in technology and project management skills. One of only 16 international institutions accredited by the US-based Middle States Commission on Higher Education, ZU ranked 22nd out of 50 on the QS World University rankings for the Arab world in 2015. Reyadh Al Mehaideb, vice-president of ZU, told OBG, “While we are working on increasing enrolment numbers, our major focus is improving the quality of our programmes and emphasising research in order to bolster our graduate studies programmes. Improving R&D capabilities also has a direct link with attracting better instructors, which is one of our aims.”

ZU’s drive for disciplinary accreditation of its programmes reflects its focus on quality education. In May 2015 ZU announced that the school’s College of Communication and Media Sciences earned a new international accreditation from the US-based Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC). Accreditation through the ACEJMC is a rigorous process that includes nine standards which evaluate a college’s mission, governance, curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness, faculty, student services and resources, facilities and assessment of learning outcomes. The new accreditation of ZU’s journalism school also bolsters the university’s goal of improving research capacity. In ZU’s press release Al Mehaideb said, “The ACEJMC accreditation for the bachelor’s degree programme at the College of Communication and Media Sciences has specific criteria that encourage research and innovation. Obtaining the accreditation proves that ZU is eligible and distinguished to earn such prestigious recognition and makes it one of the very few universities to attain it outside the US.”

Non-Federal Universities

In its “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2015”, SCAD reported that there were 26 private post-secondary schools in the emirate, including seven universities, 14 colleges and five institutes. Included among these are a number of institutions owned and funded by the emirate, including Abu Dhabi University, Khalifa University, and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. These institutions have ramped up STEM-related programmes, activities and R&D in recent years. However, the emirate’s government has also played a critical role in forming new partnerships with various international institutions to expand post-secondary offerings at schools such as Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and New York University Abu Dhabi.

Industry partnerships are also a critical pillar of private university development, with several of the emirate’s leading universities expected to expand their PhD offerings in partnership with the private sector in the coming years in a bid to develop Abu Dhabi’s knowledge economy. Behjat Al Yousuf, interim provost of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, told OBG, “PhD students comprise over 30% of our total student body, which is well above our own expectations and targets.”

K-12: Growth in undergraduate and post-graduate enrolment will also be driven by rapid expansion within the K-12 segment, with private K-12 schools witnessing a steady rise in recent years. Federal and emirate-level authorities are increasingly incentivising the sector for private investors in a bid to ease rising capacity constraints. K-12 education in the UAE is divided into four stages: two years of kindergarten; Cycle 1, for grades 1 to 5; Cycle 2, for grades 6 to 9; and Cycle 3, for grades 10 to 12. SCAD reported that the net school enrolment ratio in 2013/14 was 47.6 for kindergarten, 80.7 for Cycle 1, 71 for Cycle 2 and 57.6 for Cycle 3, while the progression ratio to secondary schools stood at 96%, with a total of 18,210 students progressing during the 2013/14 academic year.

According to SCAD figures, there were 438 K-12 schools in operation in the emirate during the 2013/14 school year, of which 254 were government schools and 184 were private schools, for a total of 14,879 classrooms. Total K-12 enrolment stood at 340,803 pupils, with 37% enrolled in public education institutions and 63% in private schools during the 2013/14 school year. Staff numbers stood at 23,339 teachers and 8287 administrators for an average of 14.6 teachers per pupil and an average of 22.9 students per classroom.

Capacity Constraints

With private schools becoming the preferred choice for parents in the emirate, this sector is at the forefront of K-12 expansion in Abu Dhabi, although space constraints remain a challenge. In May 2015 during the third Abu Dhabi Private Education Investment Forum in Abu Dhabi, ADEC reported that the emirate will require capacity for about 60,000 new students in its K-12 school system over the next five years as a result of rapid population growth within both the Emirati and expatriate cohorts. ADEC is moving to incentivise investment in the private education sector, including offering land at highly subsidised prices. As a result, the council reported 11 new schools with around 19,000 academic seats opened during the 2015/16 academic year and 15 schools with around 23,000 seats in 2014/15. “Greater capacity and, therefore, more entrants to the market are greatly needed to address the demand-supply imbalance. One of the areas that could be modified to encourage further investment would be the manner in which fee schedules are determined. Greater flexibility in allowing schools to adjust tuition in line with escalating operating costs would certainly help,” Kenneth Vedra, director-general of Emirates National Schools (ENS), told OBG.

Ongoing capacity constraints have placed private investors in a prime position to capitalise on growing demand, with ADEC seeking to improve its relationship with private players. “The expected annual growth in the number of private schools in Abu Dhabi is estimated at 5% in the coming few years. We continue to work hand-in-hand with investors who are either in the process of submitting their licence application or who have already started construction. Having an open communication channel with investors has helped to speed up the process,” Tareq Al Ameri, business development manager at ADEC’s PSQA sector, told OBG.

Private School Growth

At $1.4bn, the UAE’s private K-12 sector is the largest by value in the MENA region, according to a 2013 report by Dubai’s Al Masah Capital Management, and a number of private schools have established or expanded operations in Abu Dhabi in recent years, drawn by high returns on investment and rising demand. ENS, for example, opened in 2002 after the issuance of a presidential decree and the school is owned by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs. Total enrolment at the school’s three campuses – located in Mohammed bin Zayed City, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi – reached 6300 during the 2014/15 school year. ENS offers K-12 education based on the MoE’s Arabic, Islamic and UAE studies requirements, as well as a US-based high school diploma model. ENS also recently completed the expansion of its Mohamed Bin Zayed City campus, raising capacity by 1500 and bringing the facility’s overall capacity to 4300 seats for the 2015/16 academic year. The expansion also include the construction of a new fully integrated building that houses 60 classrooms, two computer labs, two IT labs and two science labs, as well as two libraries and an indoor sports complex. Additional expansions across all of ENS’s branches will also raise the school’s student body to 8000 students during the 2015/16 school year.

Aldar Academies, which is owned by Aldar Properties, has expanded its portfolio of high-end K-12 schools. According to a November 2015 report in The National, Aldar Academies is opening two new facilities in Abu Dhabi, including: a K-12 school, comprising a mixed-gender, UK-curriculum primary and a UK-curriculum, International Baccalaureate-certified, girls-only secondary in the Al Nahyan neighbourhood; and a new K-12 school, with a curriculum based on that of the US state of Massachusetts, on Yas Island in September 2016. Aldar Academies’ existing portfolio includes six schools that offer a UK curriculum. “Even with the new schools, we still have a large waiting list. It is difficult to enter school in the early years, and space constraints are now extending as far as grades six, seven and even eight,” Nilay Ozral, CEO of Aldar Academies, told OBG. Aldar Academies’ schools are at five locations throughout Abu Dhabi, as well as one in Al Ain. Their primary schools include: Pearl Primary School, Al Muna Primary School and Al Mushrif School. All primary schools deliver a UK curriculum. Al Yasmina School takes in students between the ages of 3 and 18, and offers a UK curriculum, as well as IGCSE and A Level examinations.

Al Bateen Secondary School works with students from the ages of 11 to 18, offers IGCSE examinations and is part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, providing students with opportunities to study at various international universities. The Al Ain International School also accepts students starting at the age of three and through to secondary level, and delivers a British curriculum, IGCSEs and, as the school grows, will also offer A Levels. Furthermore, following their recent inspection, ADEC said that Aldar Academies’ schools achieved either an “Outstanding” or “Very Good with Many Outstanding Features” under the new inspection framework.

Other Sector Players

International Community Schools (ICS) is a private K-12 institution based in Abu Dhabi. Established in 1990, the school, in its two branches, has over 2600 pupils from all over the world. ICS is both licensed as an American school and has a four-year concession to offer a UK curriculum, with students able to choose between the two options. “ICS Abu Dhabi has a long and enviable reputation in the region for providing high-quality, private education for students from kindergarten to grade 12, in both the British and American curricula in line with best international criteria and with special emphasis on ADEC’s standards of excellence,” Mohamed N Al Shamma, partner and managing director of ICS Abu Dhabi, told OBG. The school adopts an innovation-based strategy that provides wide-ranging facilities, including an Eco Club – with a team which has made notable sutainability-oriented and cost-saving achievements – a technology room and science labs to ensure high-quality education standards. The school is accredited by the European Council of International Schools, Cambridge International Examinations Syndicate, UK-based Edexcel and US-based AdvancED.

According to an ADEC August 2015 newsletter, private firms invested Dh2.3bn ($626.1m) in the emirate’s K-12 education network between 2011 and 2015, and a further 10 schools are expected to open during the 2016/17 academic year. Nevertheless, capacity constraints at affordable schools are likely to remain an issue going forward.

Cranleigh UK, which was first established in 1865, recently opened its campus on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. The UK school has sent teams to the emirate to work closely on transferring the British prep school’s success locally. First opened in September 2014, the Abu Dhabi campus started accepting Years 3-10, and in September 2016 began working with Year 11 students. Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi is hoping to eventually expand and offer the same variety as the UK campus, and is planning on offering student boarding in the future. The school’s programmes not only emphasise academic excellence, but include a wide variety of recreational and extracurricular activities as well. The school is looking to ensure it contributes to meeting Abu Dhabi’s goals for STEM education.

Brendan Law, the headmaster of Cranleigh School in Abu Dhabi, told OBG that he is pushing for science to be delivered as a separate subject, as well as investing in the technological equipment required. For example, the school offers students the use of CAD/CAM equipment and 3D printers. Law said, “Science and economic initiative are part of the fabric of the UAE and that is what educational establishments here should be striving for. There should also be more interaction between education, culture and business to maximise the potential of all three in feeding off each other, especially in a rapidly expanding market like Abu Dhabi.”


ADEC has been increasingly active in carrying out school inspections, mandating in 2008 that all private schools register with ADEC and undergo inspections to ensure quality education in the emirate. The school inspections are carried out in periodic cycles, with schools being inspected every two years. The first cycle of inspections was conducted between the academic years 2009/10 and 2010/11, the second cycle from 2011/12 to 2012/13, and the third cycle of inspections from 2013/14 to 2014/15. The school inspections system was expanded to cover government schools in 2012, with rebranding of the School Inspection Framework for both government and private schools under the Irtiqa’a initiative. The ADEC Inspection Framework evaluated school performance against eight performance standards using an eight-point scale, where 1 (Outstanding) represented the highest possible achievement and 8 (Poor) the lowest. The results are divided into three bands: A, for high-performing schools; B, for schools with a satisfactory or improving performance; and C, for schools needing significant improvement.

ADEC reported in its newsletter that the percentage of schools in Band C dropped from 72% during the first cycle of inspections by the end of the 2010/11 academic school year to 66% for the second cycle by the end of the 2012/13 year. In October 2015 the PSQA reported results for third cycle inspection (2013/14-2014/15), indicating that 56% of schools in the emirate are now ranked within Band A and B, while the number of schools in Band C dropped from 66% to 44% in the previous cycle. However, some have argued that inspections are not the best way to evaluate the success of students’ learning, as they focus extensively on core subjects and less on electives such as art, music, history and geography. “Rankings will always be an important element in the evaluation process, but we must not overlook the most important element, and that is learning outcomes and whether kids are learning at a rate competitive to international benchmarks,” Vedra told OBG.

Unified System

In August 2015 the MoE announced that school inspection systems in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates would be integrated under a unified UAE Inspection Framework. Individual education authorities maintained control of the frequency of conducting the school inspections and the format of reports. For example, ADEC will continue to conduct inspections every two years, with the fourth cycle of inspections having commenced in October 2015, rather than every year as is the case in Dubai.

The primary difference between the new UAE framework and ADEC’s Irtiqa’a Inspection Framework is that school performance is now evaluated against six performance standards instead of eight. Schools are rated based on factors including student achievement, personal and social development, innovation skills, teaching and assessment, curriculum, and the quality of leadership and management on a six-point grading scale ranging from “Outstanding” to “Very Weak”. “The detailed performance indicators and guidance on quality levels will lead to more accurate self-evaluation and more responsive school improvement strategies. Thus, there is a realistic expectation that schools will be able to improve rapidly by strategically responding to the findings of external inspections and internal self-evaluations conducted using the new framework,” Al Ameri told OBG.

STEM Reforms

Perhaps most notably for the K-12 sector, ADEC announced in March 2015 that it was reforming its K-12 school curricula to reflect a growing emphasis on STEM activities.

Under the planned changes, students will no longer choose between streams of studies, but will instead follow a single curriculum, 50% of which will be STEM subjects. Under the previous system, students could choose between a science or humanities focus, with ADEC reporting that 79% chose humanities in 2014/15. The revised curriculum is expected to better prepare students for post-secondary education, with federal universities expected to scrap a mandatory foundational year in 2017/18 (see analysis).Al Yousuf told OBG, “One of our main challenges here has been that many undergraduates are lacking math skills on entrance, and this is a problem that might not become evident for months, or even years. More attention to STEM, maths and critical thinking is needed.”


Although capacity constraints will likely remain a challenge for K-12 stakeholders, rapid growth across all segments of the emirate’s education sector is expected to continue, further bolstered by population growth, government reforms aimed at tailoring education to labour market requirements, and an increasingly incentivised and pro-business investment climate that has seen private schools move to the forefront of educational development. The emirate’s post-secondary sector is poised for innovative expansion in critical STEM-related sectors, with new industry partnerships expected to encourage various R&D activities. Meanwhile, ongoing expansion within the vocational training segment should help to further bridge Abu Dhabi’s existing human resources gap.