With a clear focus on achieving a top 10 ranking in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index, the UAE, which is currently ranked 12th out of 144 economies, has set priorities for its higher education sector. In WEF’s analysis, the UAE is seen as a country in transition from an economy based on efficiency to one driven by innovation. The index compares a number of factors including the macroeconomic environment, market size, labour market efficiency, innovation, and higher education and training. In terms of infrastructure and goods market efficiency, the UAE ranks third in the world, but when it comes to factors in innovation and research, its performance is modest. For innovation, the UAE is ranked 24th, while the UK is 12th; for quality of scientific research institutions, the UAE is ranked 30th while the UK is 2nd. When it comes to university collaboration with industry in research, the UAE placed 22nd while the UK ranks fourth. To boost research, development and innovation, the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR) has issued a strategic plan for 2014 to 2016. The aim is to help build the UAE into a knowledge-based society.

Federal Institutions

UAE University, based at Al Ain, is the key focus of federal efforts to boost and sustain research. Of its 14,000 students enrolled in 2013/14, 143 were studying for doctorates and 22 for professional doctorates. The university’s overall performance was recognised in 2014 when it moved up 40 places in the QS World University rankings to 385th place. Research areas at UAE University include energy, biotechnology, public policy, transportation, water science and health.

The other federal university serving Dubai, Zayed, focuses on undergraduate and master’s degrees, but does not offer PhD courses. In 2013, 481 women and 10 men received undergraduate degrees from Zayed University’s Dubai campus. According to Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), a government body tasked with regulating private schools and universities located in the emirate’s free zones, 10 people completed doctorates at universities in Dubai in 2012/13.


Students from the UAE can apply for generous government grants covering tuition, accommodation, travel and living expenses if they wish to study abroad. In 2013, 348 students received federal scholarships, 249 of them for undergraduate degrees, 71 master’s and 25 PhDs. According to MoHESR, the most popular destinations were the US, UK, Australia, Ireland and Canada.

Although Dubai’s extensive collection of private universities may be mindful of federal goals, they are primarily driven by market forces and so have to provide subjects and levels of study to meet demand from students, both current and potential. In addition, 57% of those enrolled on higher education courses in the emirate are foreign students and so may not remain in the UAE when they enter the job market.


Of the 29 institutions listed on KHDA’s website, 11 have published statistics on the employability rates for their graduates. Of those 11, five cater solely to expatriate students and two, Heriot-Watt and Middlesex, are 98% expatriate. At Murdoch University, where 5% of the student body are Emirati, 50% of those who have graduated from bachelor’s programmes are employed, while 100% of graduates from post-graduate programmes are employed. The Institute of Management Technology attracts 14% of its students from the Emirati population, and reports 74% employment amongst its post-graduate students. Michigan State, where 16% of students are Emirati, reports 100% employment for its post-graduate students, while the National Institute for Vocational Education, where 83% of the students are Emirati, reports 74% employment amongst graduates of its undergraduate programmes. As more Emiratis opt for private university education and competition between providers intensifies, universities may come under more pressure to publish graduate employment data.

Doctoral Options

In 2014, students at private universities were able to enrol for PhDs in biotechnology, business, education, engineering, information technology and philosophy. Doctorates in business management, or project management, are offered by Heriot-Watt, the British University in Dubai and the University of Wollongong, and the latter also offers a doctorate in business administration. PhDs in engineering are offered by three institutions, with BITS Pilani offering a general doctorate in engineering, while the British University in Dubai offers a PhD in architecture and sustainable environment on either a three-year or five-year track. Heriot-Watt offers PhDs in engineering and physical sciences, built environment and petroleum engineering. PhDs in education are offered, on a part or full-time basis, by the British University in Dubai and the University of Exeter. Doctorates in computer science are offered by the British University in Dubai, while a PhD in biotechnology can be taken at Manipal University. The University of Wollongong offers a doctorate in philosophy.

Full-time annual fees for these courses vary considerably and from course to course. Doctoral students at the British University in Dubai can pay as much as Dh83,000 ($22,592), Heriot-Watt charges Dh62,000 ($16,876), Wollongong’s fees range from Dh55,833 ($15,197) to Dh56,250 ($15,311), Exeter’s fees are Dh55,200 ($15,025), and BITS Pilani and Manipal charge Dh24,000 ($6533) and Dh24,500 ($6669), respectively. The University of Dubai, which was founded by the Dubai Chamber in 1997, welcomed 15 Emiratis to its new four-year PhD in business administration in September 2014. Tuition fees for the 2015/16 cohort were given as Dh330,000 ($89,826) on its website.


When it comes to planning future courses, universities with branch campuses in the free zones are being encouraged to expand their course offerings. “It is not that we necessarily want to get more universities,” the director of business development for Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) and Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV), Leigh Ann Khosla, explained to OBG. “We want to see our current partners grow and get more students and then offer programmes that are really helping to drive the development of Dubai’s knowledge economy. So we do not want to see more business programmes coming in, and we can say to a new university, ‘look at your core programmes on your home campus that fit with the skills gap we currently have’.”

Skills Gap

That skills gap was identified in DIAC’s Regional Workforce Study 2013, which was conducted by Deloitte. “The Deloitte study shows that the GCC has a skills gap of 200,000 in education,” Khosla said. “In construction, the skills gap is a quarter of a million. These numbers have shown what is required for the region.” The report also examined student perceptions of the jobs market and found a mismatch between the aspirations of applicants to university courses and the demands of industry. So, although business is by far the most popular subject choice, there are very few graduate-level openings in accountancy and finance. “It is not just about their dream job, but [instead] the job the industry wants,” Khosla explained. “We are seeing really niche courses that are needed in the region, for instance, events management, which is Dubai-specific.”

New Courses

For the 2014/15 academic year, DIAC universities offered a range of new courses to reflect the economy’s needs. These included petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, logistics and supply chain management, molecular biology and human genetics, hotel management and tourism, post-production for audio and film, 3D animation, security and strategic studies, and international relations. Major trends that are driving the demand for skills include Expo 2020 and the global growth of Islamic finance in Dubai. It is estimated Expo 2020 will create 277,000 job opportunities and prompt the construction of 45,000 new hotel rooms.

Making Dubai the capital of the $8trn Islamic economy is a stated ambition of the emirate’s rulers – a goal that will require the development and growth of expertise in theology, law and finance as well as halal food preparation and hospitality.

Industry Links

The higher education industry is also working to foster stronger links between industry and higher education providers and to look for ways university research may be tailored to benefit businesses in the emirate. In December 2014, academics and business leaders came together for the Industry-University Partnership conference. “It is really focused on helping our universities make connections with industry to foster that research platform, because research and development is lacking in the UAE,” Khosla explained to OBG. Conversely, Dubai’s growing reputation as an innovative global leader in aviation, logistics, commerce, hospitality, retail, construction, finance and tourism has offered academic institutions ample opportunity for case studies and research across a broad range of industrial activities.