The higher education environment in Dubai has seen a dramatic expansion over the last 10 years. There are three types of universities in Dubai: federal universities, private universities accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education, and private universities accredited abroad that are “quality checked” by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The number of private education institutions has grown rapidly over the last decade, spurred by the establishment of two major education free zones: Dubai Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City (DIAC).

FOCUS ON EXCELLENCE: Dubai Knowledge Village, a member of TECOM investments, was established in 2003 as the world’s first and only free zone dedicated to the development of human resources and scholastic excellence. India’s BITS Pilani and Manipal University were among the first academic institutions to operate at Dubai Knowledge Village. In only a few years enrolment shot up from 3000 students to over 13,000, indicating a demand for dedicated facilities for larger universities.

DIAC was created in 2007 to cater to burgeoning demand for higher education facilities. DIAC describes the 18m-square-foot campus as a self-contained environment catering exclusively to the academic community. DIAC has grown quickly. In 2007 it had 10 universities, but in 2012 it had 27 universities from 11 different countries and over 400 programmes and more than 20,000 students. Manipal University and BITS Pilani Dubai branches both recently chose to invest in their own dedicated campuses at DIAC, further cementing their presence in the emirate. Manipal enrols over 1500 students and can accommodate another 2500 at its new campus.

MUCH POTENTIAL: KHDA estimates there has been a 77% increase in the number of higher education institutions in Dubai since the establishment of free zones. There are now over 50 higher education providers, 33 of which are located in the purpose-built education zones with a total enrolment of more than 39,000 students. The majority of programme offerings are within the field of business with few programmes in education, health and medicine, and natural and physical sciences. Nitin Anand, the director of Sharjah’s Skyline University College, which sits on the border with Dubai, told OBG, “Dubai’s higher education sector must focus on meeting the demands of the market, which continue to place an emphasis on mass communications, commerce and engineering programmes. However, recent growth within the hospitality and tourism sectors has provided universities with an opportunity to launch new programmes.”

KHDA’s University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB) helps ensure the quality of education in programmes outside the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. In 2011 the government went a step further and expanded KHDA’s mandate to serve as a regulator of all higher education institutions in Dubai, including those established within the free zones. This move helped streamline the quality assurance process and gave KHDA the “teeth” required to enforce standards.

IMPROVING SUPERVISION: UQAIB has actively assessed university programmes in the free zones. The board completed a round of assessments in 2011 and did not find major problems. Education facilities in the free zones were given an additional boost in 2012 when the government passed a new law that allows KHDA to certify all academic degrees issued in the free zones. The law helps students who study in the free zones by making the degrees they earn transferable, making it an attractive option for students from abroad. The free zones are also contributing to Dubai’s future education policy. TECOM’s Education Cluster is currently conducting a study that will be critical in understanding the needs of the economy and opportunities for private enterprises investing in the education sector. The report will cover the entire GCC region and will help TECOM target universities for specific fields of education. The study is expected to be released in 2013.