The education sector is central to both the UAE’s and Abu Dhabi’s development agendas, with the upskilling of human capital integral to the success of economic diversification efforts. Significant resources are being dedicated to redesigning curricula; bolstering research, development and innovation (RDI) capacities; and integrating new technologies into the sector.
Structure & Oversight
The Ministry of Education (MoE) is the federal body responsible for regulating the national education system. Education in the UAE follows the K-12 model, although kindergarten is not compulsory. Graduates, if they decide to continue their education after grade 12, can then choose between one of the UAE’s universities, or an institute of technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Central to the MoE’s remit is the creation of a cohesive education system capable of supporting the development of a globally competitive workforce. Although public and private schools must adhere to the MoE’s general parameters, private entities are afforded more freedom in designing and implementing curricula. Even so, they must teach certain subjects as per MoE regulations, while having greater autonomy in the management and direction of day-to-day operations.
The complexity of the national education system dictates that additional government bodies play significant roles in its operation and development. The Emirates School Establishment (ESE), which was created by Federal Law No. 15 of 2016 as part of a previous restructuring of the education system’s governance framework, is tasked with monitoring and optimising learning environments throughout the UAE’s public school system. Other duties carried out by the ESE include monitoring the well-being of students, overseeing exams, and handling practical operational matters related to topics such as school uniforms, learning materials and transport. In May 2022 the UAE restructured its education system, establishing new institutions and refining the roles of existing ones.
In tandem with the ESE, the Education and Human Resources Council reports to the UAE Cabinet to facilitate alignment between national education, and human resources-related policy and strategy, establishing the agenda for the development of the education sector. The council is also responsible for ensuring that the sector is equipped to anticipate the future demands of the labour market.
Two entities affiliated with the UAE Cabinet that were established during the May 2022 restructuring are set to play significant roles in the sector’s future direction. The Federal Authority for Early Childhood Education specialises in early-year education and development, formulating plans, policies and legislation to guide children’s development from birth through the completion of grade 4. In addition, the authority is responsible for monitoring and licensing private nurseries and coordinating those efforts with emirate-level authorities. The Federal Authority for Quality and Standards of Education gauges and assesses the performance of the education sector as a whole, focusing on teacher and student performance, and education outcomes.
A new minister of state for public education and advanced technology was appointed as a result of the restructuring. Another entity that has helped attract international investors to the UAE’s education system is the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), the sector’s official body for quality control. Any investor looking to establish a post-secondary education institution in the UAE must first apply for and receive a licence, and accreditation for their degree, diploma and certificate programmes from the CAA.
The education sector is the primary vehicle driving the federal government’s bid to enhance the capacities and capabilities of its citizens and develop a knowledge-based economy. These efforts are in line with the country’s aim of diversifying its economy away from hydrocarbons. Participation in the UAE’s education system is compulsory for all children, with public education free of charge for citizens between the ages six and 18. In contrast, although international students can attend government-run schools, they can only do so on a fee-paying basis. Parents and guardians are required to ensure that the children under their care attend school and adhere to the UAE academic calendar, which runs from August to June. Exceptions are made in cases of children with severe illnesses or disabilities who are unable to attend traditional institutions.
The multidimensional nature of the education sec-tor makes it vital to multiple national development programmes, strategies and initiatives, including the Advanced Skills Strategy; the National Employment Strategy 2031; the National Literacy Strategy; the National Programme for Advanced Skills; the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030; entrepreneur development programme SkillUp; and the UAE Strat-egy for Talent Attraction and Retention.
In February 2023 the MoE launched its new innovation strategy. The framework aims to harness teaching innovations to improve the quality of education, stimulate student engagement and positively impact student attainment, stressing the importance of equipping the future workforce with the technical competencies, creativity and problem-solving capacities to allow the UAE to compete in the global economy. The strategy includes integrating a digital platform, DisruptED, into MoE operations. Through the platform, ministry employees can share ideas on how innovation might be better integrated into education. The MoE also acknowledged that similar initiatives in the past had fallen short of expectations. The new strategy’s contribution to the national economic diversification could result in a more pronounced qualitative leap in workforce development.
Innovation is a crucial component of the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030. The strategy’s aims include developing standards for higher education institutions that account for local education needs, establishing classification mechanisms for higher education institutions, boosting the career training and professional experience components of higher education programmes, and increasing research output and competitiveness across the economy to boost collaboration with the private sector.
Abu Dhabi Oversight
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) oversees activities and operations in the emirate’s education system, in line with national strategies and priorities. ADEK works to enhance education quality and outcomes through-out the system; strengthen synergies between output, and national and global labour market requirements; provide a range of learning opportunities; and support development agendas related to innovation, science and research-driven activities. ADEK’s responsibilities encompass public and private education institutions, from early years to higher education and TVET.
ADEK has worked to establish international partnerships and attract private investment to the sector to strengthen the emirate’s education output and offerings, and there are multiple cooperation agreements in place. New York University, Paris-Sorbonne University, New York Film Academy, the University of Strathclyde Business School, and the London Institute of Banking & Finance all have campuses in the emirate.
In July 2023 ADEK signed a memorandum of under-standing with India’s Ministry of Education and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-Delhi). In accordance with the MoU, Abu Dhabi is set to host the first international branch of IIT-Delhi, following in the footsteps of the UAE-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that was signed in February 2022. A core component of the CEPA involves the two countries working together to strengthen their mutual human capital development, with the priority being on improving the standards for education programmes, innovation and knowledge transfer to enable long-term economic growth and sustainable development. The new institution’s subjects are expected to include energy and sustainability, artificial intelligence (AI), computer science and engineering, mathematics and computing. Bachelor’s, master’s and PhD courses will be offered, with the first programmes scheduled to start in January 2024.
Kindergarten, which is not mandatory, is for four- and five-year-olds. Compulsory schooling begins at the age of six (grade 1). The framework was reworked in 2018, with three progressive stages or cycles – comprising four grades each. Elementary school, or Cycle 1, comprises grades 1 through 4, while intermediate school (Cycle 2) accounts for grades 5 through 8 and secondary school (Cycle 3) grades 9 through 12. At the outset of secondary school, students can choose between an academic education or a technical one, with a certificate awarded after grade 12 for students who choose the latter.
A feature of the UAE’s education framework is the streams system, which comprises general, professional, advanced and elite paths. All students are placed in the general stream in grade 1, with their performance and aptitude determining whether or not they move to a different stream for subsequent grades. Students can opt for the professional (vocational) stream after grade 8. High-performing students can enter the advanced stream for grades 10 through 12, while academically outstanding students can be selected to study in the elite stream from grade 6, the curricula for which are tailored to boost analytical thinking, reasoning and problem solving. Teacher training is mandatory, with career-long development criteria designed to maintain high standards of education and instruction, as well as impart an under-standing of new education-related technologies. “The metaverse and augmented reality have the potential to offer significant opportunities for students, particularly in relation to distance learning, supported by knowledgeable educators,” Shawn Dilly, director general at Emirates National Schools, told OBG.
In addition to public and private schools, in 2018 the first charter schools opened in Abu Dhabi. Charter schools follow a public-private partnership (PPP) framework, with the schools publicly funded but privately operated and following a US-style curriculum. However, only UAE nationals, children whose mothers are UAE citizens, non-UAE nationals granted UAE citizenship and GCC nationals are eligible to enrol in charter schools. A range of criteria must also be fulfilled, including proof of residence in a school’s catchment area and transfer certificates for students from different emirates.
Since its launch, Abu Dhabi’s charter school sys-tem has seen robust development, with local private operators such as Taaleem, Bloom Education, New Century Education and Aldar Education showing inter-est. As of the beginning of the 2022/23 academic year there were 31 charter schools in the emirate, with the institutions offering a total of 46,500 spots for students across all three cycles. Charter schools utilise innovative teaching methods, with the goal being to impart research and analytical skills, prepare students for the rigours of the modern global economy, and support the UAE’s and Abu Dhabi’s development goals.
Raising teaching standards is a focus of national and emirate-level initiatives, as well as attracting top international teachers. As of 2022 the emirate had more than 28,800 teachers and an average class size of 21. In 2017 the federal government introduced the Teacher and Educational Leadership Standards and Licensing Programme, introducing standardised qualifications for teachers in public and private schools, with ADEK processing applications and recruitment. All educators must have a bachelor’s degree or a four-year university degree in a relevant field, and teachers must have a professional licence. This licence is obtained by passing a test that ensure recipients have the competencies to teach in UAE schools and higher education institutions. If an applicant fails it, they are offered additional training before retaking it. However, applicants must wait six months to retake the test if they fail three times.
The quality of education in the UAE is measured through a range of international and domestic assessment frameworks. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, a series of exams administered by the OECD every three years to assess 15-year-olds’ knowledge of mathematics, reading and science, was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the 2021 iteration delayed until 2022. Given that the results for the 2022 PISA rankings are due to be released at the end of 2023, they had not been published at the time of writing. Therefore, the most recent PISA results available for the UAE come from the 2018 tests, when the mean scores achieved by UAE pupils ranked them 41st, 43rd and 33rd out of 79 participating countries for maths, science and reading, respectively. Core to the development strategy for the UAE’s education sector that ran through 2021 was seeing the country enter the top 20 in the PISA rankings, so the 2023 results will be key to determining the success of recent initiatives and the sector’s future trajectory.
Another international assessment undertaken by UAE pupils is the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s Trends in Inter-national Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) exams, which are taken by pupils in grade 4 and grade 8 every four years. The most recent round of TIMSS assessments was carried out in 2019, with UAE grade 4 pupils placing 43rd in maths and 41st in science out of 58 countries, and grade 8 students placing 26th out of 39 countries in both maths and science.
The MoE also administers its own tests that are purposely designed to evaluate student aptitude and attainment at different stages of the education jour-ney. Such tests are called the Emirates Standardised Test (EmSAT) and they measure performance across various subjects. EmSAT Baseline is the test taken by grade-1 pupils and EmSAT Advantage is taken by pupils in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10. EmSAT Achieve is taken by students in grade 12 and measures their preparedness for higher education, with test results holding signif-icant weight in their potential admission to preferred higher education institutions. The exam is also taken by students in higher education institutions who are preparing to pursue post-graduate qualifications, with computer science having been added to the traditional range of subjects and skills under evaluation.
As of September 2023 there were 28 higher education institutions located in Abu Dhabi, a number that includes polytechnics, TVET institutes, universities and military academies, according to ADEK. The emirate’s higher education-related policy efforts tend to reflect those of the broader sector, with a focus on improving quality, developing regulatory frameworks, stimulating a productive RDI ecosystem, tailoring outputs to the needs of the labour market, and attracting both international students and investors. “The education curriculum is shifting from traditional, discipline-based majors towards an integrated, multidisciplinary approach. This change is driven by the evolving demands of the job market,” Michael Allen, acting vice-president, provost and chief academic officer at Zayed University, told OBG. “Instead of speculating on the specific skills that students might require upon graduation, we are instead focusing on fostering soft skills, intellectual habits, and positive attitudes towards work and learning. These essential attributes are expected to not only assist graduates in securing their first jobs, but also facilitate further growth and adaptation in their subsequent career paths.”
Indeed, the evolving demands of the global economy and job market are influencing a paradigm shift in higher education, with applicable skills becoming more important than degrees. This is causing universities to embed a greater level of skill development into their curricula, reducing academic learning and developing content more akin to that of TVET institutions. Universities and TVET entities are collaborating and coordinating with private sector players to ensure the outputs of the final stages of formal education properly prepare students for the job market. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HTC), the UAE’s largest applied education institution with branches throughout the country, is a major player in this trend. “Our Persona 4.0 initiative is focused on students’ adaptation to the workplace, with an emphasis on the development of skills needed across the economy,” Abdullatif Al Shamsi, former president and CEO of HTC, told OBG. “Through this model, students should develop the mindset required to continue learning after graduation and keep pace with technological change.”
Expenditure & Performance
The UAE’s federal budget for 2023 contained an allocation of Dh9.8bn ($2.7bn) – equal to 15.5% of the total budget for the year – for the education sector. However, this figure is lower than the previous one, as the 2022 budget for public education, public universities and universities amounted to roughly Dh19.2bn ($5.2bn).
Total real GDP for the education sector came to Dh19.1bn ($5.2bn) in 2021, with a quarterly average GDP of Dh4.8bn ($1.3bn) in real terms. In 2022 education GDP rose to roughly Dh19.8bn ($5.4bn), up 3.5% on the previous year, with a quarterly average of more than Dh4.9bn ($1.3bn). The sector’s quarterly contribution to GDP ranged from 1.7% to 2% between the beginning of 2021 and the second quarter of 2023, when it reached 1.8%, or Dh5.1bn ($1.4bn).
Investment & Partnerships
The sector is open to 100% foreign ownership; as with charter schools, PPPs are also available to qualifying entities. The growth in the population of citizens and expatriate workers – as well as Abu Dhabi’s increasing popularity as a place to live, work and invest – presents multiple opportunities for investors. “The UAE is characterised by its combination of cultural openness and deep-rooted values,” May AlTaee, vice-chancellor at Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE), told OBG. “The ECAE, for instance, is home to employees from more than 23 different nationalities. This multicultural environment provides international students with the opportunity to learn in diverse settings.”
A January 2021 EY report estimated that tuition fees for the premium segment of schools in the UAE were more than $14,000 per year, while fees in the high and medium segments were $8000-14,000 and $5000-8000, respectively. The UAE’s sizeable South Asian cohort presents opportunities for South Asian universities to establish satellite campuses. In terms of their appeal to the domestic student market, government jobs – which are highly sought after by Emirati graduates – are only available to graduates of institutions accredited by the CAA, fuelling demand for high-quality, private higher education institutions.
In addition to the advent of the charter school system, recent investments and partnerships in the sec-tor demonstrate the diverse range of methods being harnessed to draw additional financing. In November 2021 Khalifa University launched Khalifa University Enterprises Company (KUEC), with a Dh100m ($27.2m) endowment from partner investment entities Black-rock, JPMorgan and Techstars. KUEC was established to provide an investment and business platform for public and private stakeholders to harness the capacities of the Khalifa University to enhance the commercial impact of their research and intellectual property.
In July 2023 Aldar Education, which is under the umbrella of Abu Dhabi holding company Aldar Proper-ties, acquired Virginia International Private School Abu Dhabi and Kent College Dubai for Dh350m ($95.3m). The deal is part of a broader investment package that saw Aldar Education expand its GCC footprint, mirroring emirate-level and national efforts.
In September 2023 Khalifa University announced that Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s private investment vehicle, signed a 10-year naming deal for the university’s engineering building through which Mubadala plans to fund research and development initiatives at the university. Bolstering research capacities has been central to multiple partnerships and deals within the sector, with the government and education stakeholders keenly aware of the importance of having a strong national RDI ecosystem (see analysis).
New partnerships and government initiatives launched in recent years have seen relevant expertise and funding directed into targeted areas of the education system. Advances in technology and the role they play in education seem set to open new channels for investment and development.
The available results of international attainment tests suggest that Abu Dhabi and the UAE are making progress towards their goals of becoming global leaders in education. Recent developments have augmented the standing of both in the regional market and should provide a platform from which the education sector can truly drive economic expansion.