There was a time not long ago when a significant number of students living in Dubai would consider only a handful of universities within the emirate, while for the most part looking abroad for higher education. Now, however, Dubai is home to dozens of branch campuses of foreign universities and the emirate has quickly turned itself into an attractive destination, relying on the power and flexibly of the market and private institutions to meet the sector’s ever changing demands. In addition to the development of bachelor’s programmes, further education options for those already in the workforce have also grown into a competitive industry, while post-secondary, vocational education has started to become a popular choice as well.

Higher education in the emirate is divided both geographically and by institution type. Dubai International Academic City is home to many of the universities offering bachelor’s and full-time postgraduate degrees, while Dubai Knowledge Village houses most of the continuing education, part-time postgraduate and certificate programmes. Private institutions dominate both the full-time university and the continuing education landscape, while the government has been more directly involved in the promotion of vocational education programmes as an alternative to university.

University Degree Programmes

 Although state universities remain an important resource for Emiratis, the growth and development of the sector has come almost entirely from private universities. Continuing the success of recent years, enrolment in private institutions was up 12% in 2012, with growth coming from both international students and UAE citizens. There are two main types of private universities in the emirate: those that are Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research accredited, at least partly Emirati owned and founded in Dubai; and branch campuses of foreign universities that are linked to one of the free zones (FZs) and regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The former was instrumental to the initial success of higher education in the emirate and is still an integral part of the system as whole, but in the last decade foreign branch campuses have become the more dynamic part of the sector and lead the way in attracting international students.

Mirroring the international make-up of the business community in the emirate, Dubai is home to 27 branch campuses from 10 countries, and new branches from all parts of the world has been have been added in the past several years. Most recently, Synergy, the largest private university in Russia, with more than 40,000 students worldwide, welcomed the first students to its new Dubai branch campus. With an estimated 80,000 Russians living in Dubai, in addition to many Russian businesses, the Russian-accredited university degrees on offer should be met with strong demand from resident and non-resident students alike.

Meanwhile, South Asian universities have been particularly successful, with institutions such as Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, India’s Manipal University and Amity University establishing successful branch campuses in the emirate’s academic FZs.

Quality Over Quantity

Given such sector growth, a major concern among public officials and educators has been to ensure that the quality of education does not suffer. KHDA has been very active on this front, and has taken several steps, most recently creating links with the UK regulatory body the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, to ensure British-based universities provide the level of education students will expect and demand. Warren Fox, executive director for higher education at the KHDA, underlined the key role of quality assurance, saying, “Dubai is home to 27 international university branch campuses, the highest number in the world. As part of our ongoing efforts to safeguard quality across these institutes, the new agreement will act as a double assurance to parents and students that the university education they receive in Dubai is comparable with that received by their UK counterparts.”

Vocational Training

 An important – albeit still-developing area – of the higher education field in the emirate, vocational training is an alternative to university education. According to KHDA statistics, a quarter of male Emirati students in Dubai do not complete high school and policymakers see vocational education as one of the best ways to provide an avenue for this group, and others, to enter into the workforce.

One of the government’s main tools in promoting vocational training has been the establishment of the National Institute for Vocational Education (NIVE) in 2006. An initiative of the KHDA, but independently managed, NIVE offers a wide variety of specialisations ranging from auto repair to information technology (IT) and other office support services. With instruction offered in English and each programme lasting one or two years, NIVE seeks to equip its students, mostly citizens and residents, to enter into the job market with a solid foundation of technical and language skills.

Postgraduate And Further Education

 While vocational education is becoming an important way of bringing residents into the workforce, there are roughly 250 private institutions and programmes that cater to those already employed but seeking more training and education, either through their own initiative or at the request of their employer. These individuals can range from qualified managers to support staff and attract a higher number of expatriates than traditional post-secondary vocational training.

Providing education to working professionals that already have a degree is a growing and profitable business, but one that also requires offering course options that they can take on. According to Randa Bessiso, Middle East director for Manchester Business School (MBS), which is part of the University of Manchester and has a regional executive centre at Dubai Knowledge Village, supporting more than 1500 part-time Master of Business Administration (MBA) students: “The demand for business degrees – particularly the MBA – remains strong in the Middle East, with institutions around the world continuing to express an interest in entering the regional market and establishing an international branch campus,” she told OBG. “Offering flexible study options from a convenient base is highly valued. Manchester Global MBA students are working professionals, so the capacity to be able to offer a high degree of face-to-face contact with MBS faculty is hugely beneficial.”

As more established universities settle in the emirate, the quality of programmes available has also risen. S P Jain School of Global Management’s Global MBA programme, which is offered in Dubai, Sydney and Singapore, was ranked the 11th-best, one-year international MBA programme in the world by Forbes in 2013.

Many private institutions also offer certificates and other further education options that are popular with employers across various sectors, with employers keen for their staff to be up-to-date with the latest skills. Given Dubai’s role as a regional business centre for industries that change with technology, such as IT, health care and financial services, demand for education programmes aimed at specific industries has been a mainstay of continuing education and is likely to remain a reliable source of business for a number of institutions.