Developing national human resources is enshrined in Dubai’s strategic plans, which place a core emphasis on creating an internationally competitive education sector. The education strategy seeks to harness the power of the private sector to drive progress within a broader framework that helps achieve its national priorities.

This growth has forced a rapid expansion of the education sector, which has seen an increase in total enrolment of less than 140,000 students in 2000 to 240,000 in 2011, according to the Dubai Statistics Centre. This pace of expansion has led to some fragmentation within the sector, but the government is working towards consolidating progress under one coherent strategy. The global financial turmoil has in many ways helped Dubai’s education sector, reducing the pressure on the system and allowing the authorities some space to chart out a path for the future. The government is currently reviewing the new education sector strategy, which is expected to be released in 2013. One core component is a baseline analysis of the state of the sector. The study will review the entire spectrum of public and private education facilities in Dubai in order to identify priority areas for development going forward.

ADMINISTRATIVE STRUCTURE: Dubai’s education sector is fragmented at many levels, but the major pillars of the sector are aligned with the UAE’s national strategy, which is defined and governed by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research at the federal level. Dubai established the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in 2006 as a regulatory body to translate national goals into sector strategies tailored for Dubai. KHDA is responsible for the growth, direction and quality of private education and learning in Dubai and supports the improvement of schools, universities, training institutes and other human resource sectors in the emirate. Other key institutions include the Commission for Academic Accreditation, which is the agency charged with licensing and regulating higher education facilities, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, which determines some policies related to early childhood education.

TRANSITION TO A KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY: Reflecting the UAE’s aspirations in the federal government’s economic development plan, 2021 Vision, KHDA has very quickly started shifting education policies to focus on outcomes. The agency has a strong emphasis on research and analysis within the sector, with the goal of providing evidence based upon which the government, private entities and households can help shape future policy. Research ranges from early childhood to adult learning. The importance given to outcomes is seen most clearly in KHDA’s schools inspections framework, which emphasises a qualitative assessment of a students’ personal development as well as a more quantitative assessment of academic achievement.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Dubai offers a range of early childhood education facilities that cater mainly to the expatriate population. The first licensed nursery was opened as recently as 1984, but the emirate has seen a spurt of growth in the market with 84 nurseries accommodating over 7500 children in 2009, according to KHDA. There is greater demand for kindergartens among Emirati families even though education regulations do not require it. KHDA figures show there were almost 100 kindergartens with almost 15,000 students in 2009. Fees in the private facilities can range from Dh1500-71,000 ($408-19,300).

The governance of early childhood education centres in Dubai demonstrates the fragmentation of the sector. Three federal ministries (Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health) and at least four local government institutions in Dubai (KHDA, the Department of Economic Development, the Dubai Women’s Establishment and the Community Development Authority) oversee the sector. A recent policy brief prepared by KHDA highlighted the issue: “This split in the monitoring of nurseries and kindergartens results in an uneven set of administrative rules, regulations, requirements, standards, pay structures, curriculum and goals. This leads to a more costly impact on the economy, with gaps as well as overlaps in responsibilities. Inconsistencies appear regarding the alignment of curriculum to standards, resulting in a reduced quality of services provided, and hence compromising on learning outcomes.”

Early childhood education will gain more importance over the coming years as the population expands and the economy normalises. The market for Arabic-speaking schools provides ample opportunity in a sector that is currently dominated by facilities catering to English-speaking communities.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS: The dominance of private participation in the emirate’s education sector reflects both a concrete government strategy to leverage private investments into the sector and the demographics of Dubai, which is home to a highly diverse population of expatriates. Out of more than 234,000 school children, more than 207,000 are enrolled in private schools. The emirate has 148 private schools catering to almost 88% of the student population. Some 32 of these schools run on a non-profit basis with a combined enrolment of more than 40,000 students. Gems Education, a global company that educates more than 110,000 students from 151 countries, is one of the major players in the sector. Among Emirati families, enrolment is almost evenly split between public and private education facilities, but the number of local students attending private programmes has more than doubled over the last decade. KHDA conducted surveys to better understand the demand for private schools and found that Emirati parents who send their children to private school base their preference on a perception that they offer a better education, improve English-language skills and have better leadership.

The population of students enrolled in private schools is currently skewed towards grades 1-4. KHDA expects most of these students to continue through the system and graduate from schools in Dubai. This suggests that unless there is latent supply of classes for senior students, which is unlikely, there is much room for growth at secondary schools, which will need to cater to an additional 60,000-100,000 students over the next decade. Private schools employ a total of 13,280 teachers. The vast majority are expatriates, with only 31 Emirati teachers.

CURRICULUM: Private schools can choose to follow Ministry of Education standards or various international standards. However, all schools must teach Arabic and Arab studies up to grade 9 for all students and through to grade 12 for Arab students. International schools are generally accredited in their respective countries in order to prepare their students for a similar system of education. The flexibility in selecting curricula has created a tremendous variety of options well-suited to cater to Dubai’s multi-national population. KHDA figures show that private schools currently offer 13 different curricula though the UK, US and Indian systems form the majority. KHDA data also show that over 31% of students in private schools are enrolled in programmes offering the UK curriculum.

ENSURING STANDARDS: KHDA’s Dubai Schools Inspections Bureau (DSIB) is responsible for setting the quality of education standards in Dubai. DSIB conducts regular inspections and ensures schools that are lagging adopt policies to improve standards. DISB started inspecting schools in 2008 and has completed four annual reviews as of 2012. The latest review rated 114 schools as “outstanding”, “good”, or “acceptable”, while only 13 schools were “unsatisfactory”. Over the four years of inspection there has been a steady increase in the number of students attending “good” or “outstanding” schools. From 2008-09, there were 34,285 students attending such institutions. This number has now grown to 93,157. The proportion of students enrolled in unsatisfactory schools has dropped from 14% in 2008/09 to 6% in 2011/12; however, the figures were still of concern to KHDA because this represents almost 11,000 students. Nearly all the top-rated schools followed a UK curriculum. There are now also two “outstanding” schools offering an Indian curriculum. However, overall, following significant improvements between 2009 and 2011, the pace of improvement has now slowed. For example, no Indian schools moved from “acceptable” to “good” in the last round of inspections.

KHDA has built a structure of incentives around the review process to drive improvements within private schools. Schools that achieve an outstanding result are allowed to raise fees more than other schools. They are also entitled to greater leeway in expansion of their facilities and other cost-recovery mechanisms. Dubai also participates in international assessments to help benchmark the performance of its schools. In 2007 111 primary schools and 84 secondary schools took part for the first time in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) along with 48 other countries. Dubai’s scores were lower than the international average. The results also showed that private schools following the Ministry of Education curriculum performed at a lower level than any other curriculum. Schools following the UK curriculum had the best scores in the emirate.

In 2009 Dubai entered the Programme for International Student Assessment and scored the best among all participating countries from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Dubai also participated again in the 2011 TIMSS assessment, and the results showed that while Dubai students improved overall, they remained below the international average. Such international benchmarks are valuable in showing parents that Dubai’s schools can help their children compete globally and are important in helping shape Dubai’s education strategy going forward. It should be noted that the benchmarks are mainly against Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries that have a much older and mature education system.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Engaging private sector participation has ensured a high quality of education across the secondary education level. Similarly, Dubai has successfully established a number of public and private internationally competitive institutions for higher education. There are three types of universities in Dubai: federal universities, private universities accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education, and private universities accredited abroad and that are “quality checked” by the KHDA.

There are two federal universities located in the emirate. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) were established in 1988 and has 17 campuses, an enrolment of over 19,000 students and a faculty of more than 2000 staff. Major programmes available through the institutions include business, education, engineering technology, computer and information science, applied communications and health sciences. Zayed University, the second federal institution, was founded in 1998 with campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The university has grown rapidly, with a current enrolment of more than 7100 students from 19 countries.

SUC was one of the first private universities in the UAE, opened in 1990 on the border of Dubai and Sharjah. SUC is accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and specialises in bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration. The University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) followed and set up its campus in 1993, bringing one of Australia’s leading universities to the Middle East. The university is focused on meeting the UAE’s human resource needs and offers degrees in business, finance, computer science and engineering. In addition to UAE accreditation, the Australian Universities Quality Agency includes UOWD in its audits, which enables graduates to obtain internationally recognised qualifications. The American University in Dubai (AUD) is another major player in the sector and was founded in 1995. The university currently has over 2600 students representing 98 nationalities, including 432 Emirati students. AUD is accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Commission on Colleges from the US, and offers undergraduate and graduate programmes. Lastly, the American University in Dubai, established in 1995, had 2590 students during the 2011/12 academic year. The school offers programmes in engineering, IT, administration and communications as well as a Middle Eastern Studies and English programme.

EDUCATION FREE ZONES: Dubai established two major education free zones to enable private sector participation in the higher education sector (see analysis). Dubai Knowledge Village, a member of TECOM investments, was established in 2003 as the world’s first and only free zone area dedicated to the development of human resources and learning excellence. Responding to increased demand, the government established Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) in 2007. DIAC has quickly grown from 10 universities in 2007 to 27 universities from 11 different countries with over 400 higher education programmes and more than 20,000 students in 2012. Muthanna Abdul Razzaq, president and CEO of the American University of the Emirates, told OBG, “Dubai’s free zones have provided the higher education community with the necessary hard and soft infrastructure to support investment in the sector. Based on current projections, the Middle East is set to experience an increase in student enrolment and Dubai is well positioned to capitalise on this.”

LICENSING: KHDA governs the licensing process for all private schools and higher education institutions in Dubai. Schools that are established outside the free zones are subject to standard laws that require a local partner with 51% ownership if it is a corporation. Foreign individuals are not granted licences outside the free zones. Foreign institutions seeking to set up operations in Dubai are expected to hold accreditations from their country of origin and have funds to finance all construction and operations in Dubai. KHDA also has a significant level of control over other aspects of educational institutions activities including the content of education materials and advertising. KHDA has the authority to revoke a licence for reasons articulated in its Executive Council resolutions that govern schools and higher education institutions. All institutions have specific monitoring and evaluation requirements that fit KHDA’s broader goals of developing an evidence base for future reforms. The Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research provide similar oversight of all public entities. Furthermore, Nitin Anand, the director of Sharjah’s Skyline University College (SUC), told OBG, “There has been an improved awareness among parents and students about how universities are accredited and what these accreditations really mean. This is a welcome trend and one that will surely strengthen the integrity of the industry in the future.”

FINANCING THE SECTOR: According to KHDA, the UAE invests less in the education sector than any other Arabic-speaking country, with only 1.3% of GDP against an average 4.72% in the European Union and 5.3% in the MENA region. The Constitution of the UAE ensures education is free for Emirati students enrolled in the public schools and universities. However, Dubai does not subsidise the cost of education in private schools. Private schools are generally funded fully by tuition fees, though some schools may receive assistance from foreign embassies and other entities. The government also does not offer financial assistance to schools that seek to set up campuses in Dubai.

Fees for private schools vary and cater to the entire spectrum of incomes, ranging from Dh1800 ($489) to Dh92,000 ($6800) per year for the most expensive schools. KHDA reports that there are also six private schools that do not charge fees. Nearly half of the students at private schools in Dubai pay less than Dh10,000 ($2722) per year while about 15% pay more than Dh35,000 ($9500). Total revenues for all private schools, not accounting for scholarships and other discounts, were more than Dh3.5bn ($952m) in 2011. This represents an increase of 12% from 2010 due to a combination of increased enrolments, higher tuition fees and a higher number of students in the more expensive senior grades. Current trends suggest this number will continue growing.

While Dubai’s success in attracting private capital to finance the education sector is remarkable, KHDA’s policy briefs point to the need for a higher level of investment. The lack of public funding is particularly problematic for higher education and is one reason why most programmes only offer the more lucrative degrees in business and technical subjects. Other degrees such as medicine, for example, require significant levels of public support in the form of funds for research and infrastructure such as teaching hospitals. Furthermore, the policy of covering the cost of education at all levels for Emirati students is placing a huge burden on federal universities.

National, a leading media agency in the UAE, recently reported that the HCT had a budget deficit of at least Dh110m ($29.9m) in 2009, and Zayed University owes Dh33m ($8.98m) in unpaid electricity and water bills to authorities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The report added that foundation programmes for students entering university add an additional expense.

OUTLOOK: The UAE’s global competitiveness will be increasingly linked to its ability to educate its citizens and the expatriate population that is helping drive the economy forward. Dubai’s progress in developing a robust education sector has been remarkable, but the rapid pace of growth has led to some fragmentation in strategy, policy and implementation. The government and other players, however, are keenly aware of these issues and are working towards aligning the sector towards common goals.

The biggest gaps are perhaps the lack of coordination between the federally controlled institutions and free zones. KHDA was created to close this gap and the new education strategy will help define a cohesive framework for development going forward. Furthermore, education sub-sectors currently function under separate governance structures and do not necessarily complement each other. Dubai spends an exorbitant amount of money on “foundation programmes” for over 94% of Emirati students entering federal universities to improve their performance in science, maths, English and ethics, according to a Ministry of Education report released in 2010. These programmes form a profitable opportunity for private enterprise, especially as universities are phasing these programmes out; however, there are concerns over secondary education in Dubai and proposals for how to better prepare students for higher education.

Finally, there are gaps between education programmes available in Dubai and the requirements of the workforce. Some of these gaps are unavoidable, but better coordination between government agencies, free zone administrations and the private sector would help drive the sector towards common goals. DIAC, Dubai Knowledge Village, KHDA and the Ministry of Education have taken steps towards improving coordination. A comprehensive Workforce Planning Study that is currently under way will also help identify gaps in the system and will inform the emirate’s education strategies moving forward.