As befits a vibrant, highly commercial global city, Dubai’s education sector is multi-faceted, with kindergartens, schools and universities offering public and private education drawing on best practice from around the world. The UAE has the highest number of international schools, on a strictly numerical basis, and Dubai is a destination of choice for many international students and teachers. The quality of its educational facilities plays a significant role in attracting professional talent to a city that is a centre of excellence and innovation in a multitude of sectors including aviation, commerce and hospitality.

Research by education advisory Altamont Group suggests that Dubai’s role as an international education centre has a significant impact on its economy. “We estimate that the K-12 and higher education sector together directly contribute more than $3bn a year to the economy; however, in terms of economic value-added as a backbone to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s vision for the UAE knowledge economy, it is a substantially greater participant in the nation’s GDP,” Sajida Shroff, CEO of Altamont Group, told OBG.

Year Of Reading

In December 2015, the UAE Cabinet and President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan declared 2016 UAE Reading Year, a measure that enabled the Cabinet to create a national framework for promoting reading among all the emirates. Details of the policy were made public in May 2016, and offer substantial insights into an extensive plan to improve literacy and encourage habitual reading among Emiratis.

The 10-year National Policy for Reading will be backed with the support of a Dh100m ($27.2m) fund and aims to ensure 80% of children and 50% of adults become active readers. A national survey found that Emiratis read 1.5 books per year, on average, while 78% of adults in the UAE do not read actively. This, compared to the impressive reading rate of 40 books per year in South Korea. The money will be used to support NGOs and volunteer agencies that place the promotion of reading at the centre of their missions. Additionally, the policy proposes curricular changes in the education system, to ensure that good reading habits become the standard across the UAE.


The population profile of Dubai is complex, but those responsible for planning education in the emirate agree it is growing rapidly, creating the need to build dozens of new schools in the years ahead. At the end of 2015, Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC) estimated the population of the emirate at almost 2.45m, of which nearly 20% of the population was below the age of 19.

In Dubai, education is compulsory from kindergarten to Grade 12. DSC data on education shows that in the 2014/15 academic year, 90% of children in the emirate attended private schools, with the remainder attending public schools run by the Ministry of Education (MoE). Government schools are free for Emirati students and can be attended by children of other nationalities if they pay fees. Boys and girls are taught separately in all public schools, where the main teaching language is Arabic. In 2015/16, 77% of children at public MoE schools in Dubai were Emirati, but 58% of Emirati children were attending private schools. In 2015/16 there were 54,741 Emirati children in Dubai’s schools, almost 20% of all schoolchildren in the city. They represented 12% of all pupils in private schools:, or 31,735 out of 265,299. Student numbers at private schools grew by 8.3% between 2012/13 and 2013/14, increasing from 225,099 to 243,715, and by 7.3% in schools of both types, rising from 253,376 to 271,926. Between 2013/14 and 2014/15 this growth rate slowed somewhat, with private school numbers increasing by 4.8% to 255,508 and overall numbers rising to 284,781, a jump of 4.7%. Similar changes occurred between 2014/15 and 2015/16 with private school enrolments increasing to 265,299 and overall numbers to 295,157. Those changes meant that, over a three-year period, public schools had to accommodate just under 1500 extra students, while private schools saw student enrolments go up by more than 40,000.

Population data for all residents of Dubai from 2005 to 2013 show a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.7%, with global real estate group Colliers International reporting in 2015 that if the current growth rate were to continue there would be an estimated 3.48m people in the emirate by 2020. The report also highlighted that infrastructure development and initiatives around Expo 2020 could stimulate even further growth, potentially to a CAGR of 8%, which would see the city’s population reach 3.8m by 2020.

New Schools

In August 2015, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) announced that 27 new private schools, with a capacity for an additional 63,000 students, would open their doors by the start of the 2015/16 academic year. That would bring the total number of private schools in Dubai to 196, with capacity to teach 341,000 students. According to Abdulla Al Karam, chairman of the board of directors and director-general of the KHDA, this will help in reaching the emirate’s goal of having 360,000 seats by 2020. “In order to establish the best available educational opportunities for Dubai’s private education sector, we used a variety of channels to communicate with more than 200 investors and education providers inside and outside of the UAE,” he said. “This has helped in obtaining international school branches within Dubai and, once again, adds to the choice of curricula for parents to choose from.” KHDA is responsible for overseeing private primary and secondary education as well as a large portion of private providers of tertiary education. At the start of the 2015/16 academic year there were 173 private schools delivering 16 curricula.

School Inspections

The Dubai School Inspection Bureau (DSIB) has been responsible for inspecting all private schools in Dubai since 2007, assessing them against a range of criteria including their success in working towards the UAE’s National Agenda targets. Reports on school inspection visits dating back to 2009 are published in a directory on KHDA’s website and follow a ranking of “outstanding”, “very good”, “good”, “acceptable”, “weak” or “very weak”. Head teachers are encouraged to maintain a continuous process of self-evaluation and to keep a school improvement plan. In 2015, nine schools delivering MoE, UK, Indian and Pakistani curricula received an “unsatisfactory” or “weak” ranking. Two of the nine schools took the decision to close down after being scored with an unsatisfactory ranking for five consecutive years, though one was still operating after six consecutive unsatisfactory reports. Criticisms levelled at the schools included poor leadership, unsatisfactory buildings, lack of adequate child safety policies, inadequate provision for special needs children and low levels of attainment. These schools were placed in a follow-through inspection cycle, with regular progress reviews, and those schools which had met all the conditions satisfactorily were then subject to a full inspection.

A total of 16 schools received outstanding school inspection reports in 2015/16, including 10 that delivered either the UK curriculum or a UK/ International Baccalaureate (IB), one offering a US/IB curriculum, one offering a straight IB curriculum, two French lycées and two following the Indian curriculum. A partnership with KHDA and the Department for Education of England and Wales means that Dubai schools following the UK curriculum can also apply to participate in a British Schools Overseas inspection.


In addition to its cycle of inspections and follow-up visits, KHDA also runs a number of other initiatives to help schools. Its work was included in a 2015 publication produced by the Education Development Trust, a charity based in the UK, comparing approaches to urban school reform in Dubai, Ho Chi Minh City, London, New York and Rio de Janeiro. The report, titled “Interesting Cities: Five Approaches to Urban Education Reform”, highlighted the positive way in which Dubai communicated the results of inspection results with schools and parents. Other strengths noted include the emirate’s “What Works” movement, where teachers gather to share best practices, as well as the way in which head teachers are given common goals in a culture of improvement, the self-assessment techniques which schools are encouraged to adopt between inspection visits, and the focus on student-centred learning.

Arabic Teaching 

The adoption of techniques that encourage student creativity and curiosity in the classroom, rather than a more traditional didactic, rote-learning approach, has been a challenge for many schools when it comes to the teaching of Arabic, which along with Islamic Studies is a compulsory subject in all Dubai schools. The UAE’s National Agenda requires schools to foster a sense of cultural identity and belonging. Yet while staff are committed to this, teaching techniques often reflect the personal experience and training of subject teachers, and many of those teaching Arabic coming to Dubai from countries with more traditional methods. KHDA staff are very much aware of the issue, and are working with schools by organising peer-to-peer workshops.

Some head teachers feel there are opportunities for the provision of additional teacher training workshops to address the issue. “I would certainly welcome this kind of intervention, because if you look at the backgrounds of any of our teachers of Arabic, they have come from Egypt, Syria or Jordan, and while they are experts in their subjects, they are also products of the education systems in those countries,” Joseph Calafato, principal of Wesgreen International School in Sharjah, told OBG.

Wesgreen International School has grown from 750 pupils to 3500 over the past 13 years. “The ethos of the school is that we embrace cultural appreciation of the UAE and the Arabic language,” Calafato added. Meanwhile at Jumeirah College, part of the highly-regarded GEMS network of schools in Dubai and ranked as “outstanding” for the last five years, has addressed the issue by using a private contractor. “We bring in a company that delivers professional development in Arabic using advanced skills teachers to develop their pedagogy, but more importantly we do it in Arabic, because it is one of our core subjects and it ensures the teachers make the most of the experience,” Simon O’Connor, principal and CEO of the school, told OBG. The teaching of Arabic in Dubai’s schools helps children from dozens of different countries growing up in a cosmopolitan city to appreciate the culture and traditions of the UAE. It also serves to remind Emirati children, who may study at international schools from kindergarten to grade 12, of the importance of their mother tongue when the chosen language on social media for many of them is a hybrid, sometimes referred to as “Arab-ish”.

Federal Schools

For Emirati or other Arab families who prefer for their children to learn mostly in Arabic, the federal system runs 79 schools in Dubai, including 11 co-educational kindergartens, 36 girls schools and 32 boys schools, including one dedicated to religious instruction. The number of students in these schools increased from 26,929 in 2010 to 29,273 at the start of the 2014/15 academic year, which means the number of students went up by 2344, or 8.7%, over four years. The MoE is working on a 10-year strategy running from 2010 to 2020, with goals to introduce more student-centred learning, improve provision for special needs students, reduce school dropout rates, and raise standards in English, maths and science to help more children prepare for university. The strategy also includes an emphasis on Arabic and UAE cultural values.

Alongside this education strategy, teachers and school leaders in both public and private schools are working towards the goals in UAE Vision 2021, a central pillar of which is to ensure that “all Emiratis will have equal opportunity and access to first-rate education that allows them to develop into well-rounded individuals, enhance their educational attainment, and achieve their true potential, contributing positively to society”.

Foundation Year

In UAE Vision 2021, the majority of Emirati students will attend university, and those who choose not to will be offered vocational training. At present, the country’s three federal higher education institutions, UAE University in Al Ain and Zayed University in Dubai, as well as the Higher Colleges of Technology, teach in English and run a “foundation year” in order to prepare students for the transition from school, which is due to be phased out in 2018. Students applying to university are assessed using the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (CEPA) run by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR). In November 2015 local media reported there had been a significant improvement in student attainment in the CEPA, thanks in part to improved teaching in federal schools. In 2015 a total of 4970 students passed the exam and were able to bypass the foundation year, whereas in 2003 the number of school leavers passing the CEPA and going straight on to three-year degree programmes stood at 383. An admissions tutor at Zayed University said the proportion of high school students passing the CEPA at the institution had increased from 20% to 40% between 2010 and 2015, while the overall pass rate for the CEPA was 30%. When the foundation year is removed, students will have the option to take vocational courses in Arabic.

In the meantime, federal schools hoping to meet targets in both the UAE Strategy and UAE Vision 2021 face the challenge of improving English language instruction. “The government is firmly committed to the enhancement of public schools. Diversity of language is one of the criteria, and there are some schools that are superb,” Shroff told OBG. “There has also been serious review of those that are not performing as well, and authorities have recommitted to the training of teachers going forward.” She explained that many parents prefer their children to attend schools where they learn in their mother tongue and are conscientious of the inherent cultures. “UAE universities are increasingly a very strong resource to prepare these students for the global economy, and transition schools to bridge language gaps are required for public school students to attend international universities,” she said.

International Rankings

The number of students from Dubai’s schools who do choose to study at universities in other countries has had a significant impact on the Emirate’s ranking in a major international barometer of economic competitiveness in 2015. The UAE fell from 12th to 17th in the most recent “Global Competitiveness Index” from the World Economic Forum (WEF), for 2015-16, which compared a range of factors in 144 countries. According to the report, “The drop in rank is a result of the new availability of an indicator on tertiary education, which led to a significant drop in the assessment of higher education and training.” The measure affected was for the gross percentage of enrolment in tertiary education, which was stated as “not available” in the 2014-15 report, but given a value of 16.8 in 2015-16, placing the country 99th out of 144 by that measure. The report added, “It has to be noted, however, that the indicator is likely to underestimate tertiary enrolment in the UAE as well as in other GCC economies, because students who study abroad are not included.” Until the 2015-16 report, the UAE had climbed from 27th to 12th place over a four-year period.

Overall, Qatar is currently the top-ranked nation in the MENA region, having risen from 16th to 14th. The highest-ranked nations on the list are Switzerland, Singapore and the US, with Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Japan and Hong Kong also featuring in the top 10. When comparing the UAE to some of the smaller leading countries on the gross enrolment indicator, it can be seen that Singapore, with a population of 5.5m, is ranked ninth and Hong Kong, with a population of 7.3m, is 30th. For the same indicator, Qatar, with a population of 2.2m, is ranked 103rd, while Saudi Arabia, with a population of 30.8m, approximately two-thirds of whom are Saudi nationals, is ranked 44th.

Tertiary Choices

Although the indicator has skewed the UAE’s rankings, the WEF report does not reflect the unique nature of tertiary education in Dubai, nor does it explain why so many of its young people elect to study abroad. Due to the federal arrangement of the UAE, jurisdiction over higher education is shared by the national government and the emirates. The KHDA gives international branch campuses the option to locate in the free zones of Dubai and operate exempt from the federal government’s usual accreditation requirements. Instead these institutions are regulated by the University Quality Assurance International Board, which uses a specifically designed “validation” methodology to ensure academic quality.

In Dubai, 80% of schoolchildren are foreign residents, and with 16 different international curricula being delivered in its 173 private schools, the emirate’s children have the opportunity to choose from Projected private school places in Dubai, 2014-21 tertiary options around the world. British children educated at a UK-curriculum school, for example, may typically, though not always, opt to attend university in their home country. There has also been a long-standing tradition of Emirati students studying at some of the world’s best universities. Among the Emirati doctors occupying the most senior positions in Dubai’s hospitals, many have trained in Ireland, the UK, the US or Germany.

Free Zones 

In addition to UAE University in Al Ain and Zayed University, both federal, there are 52 higher education institutions in Dubai, including the greatest concentration of branch campuses in the world. The majority of these institutions are in two free zones: Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Park (formerly Knowledge City), with a smaller concentration of branches in the Dubai International Finance Centre and Dubai Silicon Oasis. “Dubai’s unique model of an education free zone, based within an academic cluster that spurs community and industry engagement and supports institutions with shared services and facilities, helps to promote the emirate as a global education and training hub for international talent,” Randa Bessiso, director for the Middle East, Manchester Business School, told OBG. “The next step is further expansion into the Chinese and Asian markets by strengthening East-East relations,” she added. In terms of student numbers, the biggest of the internationally-accredited universities in Dubai include Heriot-Watt and Middlesex from the UK, Australia’s Wollongong, the American University in Dubai (AUD), and Manipal and BITS Pilani, both from India. A survey of KHDA listings for 28 of the overseas universities shows that 5.8% of their students are Emirati. About a quarter of the students in international branch campuses in Dubai are overseas students that come to the UAE specifically to attend university. “In the past, expatriate families in Dubai used to send their children to North America, Europe, or Australia for undergraduate studies.

Over the past decade, however, this trend is changing and the emirate’s position as a growing educational provider is getting stronger,” Christopher Abraham, head of the Dubai Campus and senior vice-president of SP Jain School of Global Management, told OBG. “Such projects as the Year of Innovation or Expo 2020 are playing an important role in that sense.”

Although the AUD has a number of accreditations, both academic and professional, from the US, it is also licensed by the MoHESR. It has 2600 students, which account for 108 different nationalities. Lance de Masi, president of the AUD, told OBG that students were attracted by its multi-cultural campus, and that many made a choice to attend university in Dubai if they intended to continue living and working there after graduation. “An AUD calling card is important because I do believe that today, as opposed to 20 years ago, employers in Dubai are prone to recruiting people educated locally if they can,” de Masi told OBG. He added that those who pursued further study abroad at graduation were well equipped. “Our graduates find it easy to be accepted on to postgraduate programmes elsewhere, particularly in the US, because AUD is a US-accredited university.”

Aviation University

With the aviation sector accounting for 27% of annual GDP in Dubai, a figure that is poised to reach 32% by 2020, there is a pronounced need for trained airline professionals. These employment prospects are attracting students, and Emirates Aviation University (EAU), which is owned by Emirates Airlines, is popular with both male and female students.

Emirates Airline Group employed 84,153 people in 2015, including 8600 new joiners, representing an 11.5% increase in staff over the year. “Our male students tend to focus on engineering, while there are more women on our management courses, because they tend to be attracted by roles with a greater emphasis on soft skills,” Ahmad Al Ali, vice-chancellor of EAU, told OBG. He explained that 80% of students are expatriates from the Middle East; however, the university also attracts students from Africa and South-east Asia. EAU offers a bachelor and a master of business administration (MBA) in aviation management, a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering, and a master of science (MSc) in aerospace. There are also students taking higher national diplomas and Emirates Airlines staff attending continuing professional development (CPD) courses. The university has 1800 full-time students and 500 part-timers, with 200 delegates attending CPD courses. A partnership with the UK’s Coventry University has also been established, as well as a student exchange agreement with a university in Singapore. “A large number of our engineering graduates are employed by Emirates Airlines. As the demand for engineers keeps growing, we expect the number of positions to increase,” Al Ali told OBG. “Emirates realises that by investing in the university it is building its future, and this is a good strategy.”

Skills Training

One of the key niches in the education sector is the provision of essential skills training. These schools are serving both young and adult learners with language courses, computer skills training, teacher development and business lessons. These smaller, more flexible institutions are able to respond rapidly to the demands of the labour market. “There is a good communication between the education sector and the labour market,” Romina Mahtani, CEO and vice-president, business and learning, at the Eton Institute, told OBG. “Business has been booming for some time, but the market is increasingly competitive and companies are now looking for better ways to stand out; training is definitely one of them. Employee development helps firms effectively retain their staff, as they are finding valuable resources among their own employees instead of hiring new ones.” The high number of offerings for specialised training have spawned a growing educational tourism industry. In line with Vision 2021, there are specific sectors of the economy that are considered priority areas, including renewable energy, health care, space and transport. It is the private institutions that will be most able to begin offering skills training in these areas first.

According to Ayoub Kazim, the managing director of government and corporate services at TECOM Group, “Expo 2020 requires developing human capital, particularly in areas such as tourism hospitality. Vocational education, for example, needs a boost as it represents now less than 10%. The government is making efforts in that sense by encouraging students to follow that path, as well as helping with funding. The main challenge is the perception: some people still think that university is the solution for everyone.”

At the same time that specialised skills are being increasingly stressed, the nature of education is also poised to change. “Education will be facing a complete cloud transformation in the years to come, as it continues moving towards digital fluency and online content,” Sanjay Mankani, the managing director of Fortes Education, told OBG. “New technologies are being rapidly introduced to the education sector and these are becoming simpler for teachers and students to learn, such that they will soon redefine the classroom.”

Happiness & Well-Being

Well-being and happiness is now a major drive across the UAE and Dubai. For the past two years, KHDA has been highlighting this important area in the sector. During 2016, KHDA conducted its “School of Hearts” survey to assess the well-being of 9000 students across schools in Dubai. KHDA has also held specific “What Works” events on well-being and is also presenting the best aspects of education in Dubai at the Positive Education Festival in Dallas, US in July 2016. Better arts education has also been suggested by some. “We need to see more education in arts. There is a lack of depth in education, and it should start with children at an early age with dedicated art programmes in schools,” Michael Jeha, managing director at Christie’s, told OBG.

Business Masters

For individuals investing in their own future, Dubai offers a huge range of courses in business at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. There is a particularly busy market for MBA courses, with intense competition among providers, many of which offer part-time courses that can be taken by working executives. However, there are also a variety of approaches and prices for potential students to consider.

Manchester Business School’s Middle East Centre recruits more than 200 students every year into the global part-time MBA programme, making it the school’s largest and fastest growing international centre. Students are experienced and qualified working professionals; around 15% are female and many of them go on to become entrepreneurs. “Dubai is empowering women entrepreneurs and businesswomen from managerial positions to board level,” Bessiso told OBG. “The business environment here is increasingly accommodating to women and there is a greater recognition that the soft skills that women display more naturally drive business forwards,” she said. Many of the schools say the funding model for MBA students has changed in recent years. Some companies have stopped sponsoring their employees to take these programmes after the financial crisis. However, many students take a loan for their education, as it is seen to offer a solid return on investment.

City University London’s Cass Business School has an average of 24 nationalities on its executive MBA course in Dubai, with 75-80% of students residing in the emirate. The school’s management said that the plethora of MBA courses in Dubai has tightened competition. “The market for MBAs will always be very competitive, but there will be enough room for quality programmes,” Ehsan Razavizadeh, regional director for MENA at Cass Business School, told OBG. “However, we are not scared of competition, and there is a continuous flow of students and people coming to Dubai.” Cass makes a point of offering executive MBA courses tailor-made to reflect the local employment market, offering specific electives in Islamic finance, energy and entrepreneurship, as well as three MSc programmes in aviation management.

Strathclyde University’s MBA, which has been available in Dubai since 1995, offers a single MBA course with core business units and an emphasis on strategy, using local case studies. Tutors say its students can draw on a network of 567 alumni in Dubai alone. “A lot of our students come to us because they have reached a ceiling in their careers and they feel that if they want to make it to the C-suite, they need to have an MBA qualification,” Ron Bradfield, director at Strathclyde UAE, told OBG. “For instance, they may be from a technical background but not understand corporate finance, and after taking our course they find they can sit in a board meeting and feel qualified to challenge something the finance director has said.” Meanwhile, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), based at Silicon Oasis, is licensed by the MoHESR but offers US degrees. It stopped its MBA course after a year, replacing it with something it felt was more relevant to Dubai, and other parts of the world. “We feel the MBA brand has become diluted and devalued, and so we have developed a unique MSc in Smart Cities, which has been accredited by RIT in the US, and also an MSc in service leadership and innovation,” Yousef Al Assaf, president of RIT Dubai, told OBG.


Cedwyn Fernandes, director of Middlesex University Dubai, one of the emirate’s largest international universities, explained that competition among higher education providers is intense. In total there are 57 higher education institutions in Dubai itself, with 27 international universities offering similar programmes. Universities also thrive in other emirates, all of whom compete for the around 10,000 students who complete high school every year. Moreover, about 50% of these students may go out of the UAE as the programme of their choice may not be offered here or the course is considerably cheaper in their home country. Given the limited size of the domestic market, the key to growth of the higher education sector is to attract more students from outside the UAE by offering a variety of programmes and providing student accommodation at reasonable rate.


In its “Global Competitiveness Index” report for 2015-16, the WEF offered advice to countries hoping to improve their future ranking. “The UAE will need to strengthen its capacity for innovation, including by upgrading scientific research,” it said. Eesa Bastaki, president of the University of Dubai and an award-winning Dubaiborn scientist with a PhD from the University of California, believes academia’s role can do much more than boost the UAE’s ranking in league tables. “The main question is what will happen after oil, and how can education become the major driver for growth before the resources start to decline,” he told OBG. Zafar Siddiqi, founder and chairman of Murdoch University Dubai, agrees. “There is a need for investing in tailored research capacity for specific economic sectors such as renewable energy and oil and gas,” he said. “Industry advisory boards could positively impact on fitting the needs of industry and business with the curricula of higher educational institutions.” AUD’s de Masi, meanwhile, believes a research culture can be created. “The greatest challenge is to make these geographies as inviting as we can and to demonstrate this to the top range of academics and educators, whether they be faculty or administrators,” he told OBG. “It is about nurturing a life of the mind. We have to look at it from that perspective and not imagine that the main incentive for these professionals will be financial reward.”

Research is also key. Ammar Kaka, executive dean and head of the Dubai Campus of Heriot-Watt University, told OBG, “The main challenge for higher education in Dubai is research. In the UK researchers have access to funding, allowing academics to engage industry. There is no shortage of demand for research. However, if we can develop solid infrastructure in this area, we can hire more professors to conduct research and they would evolve the ecosystem and build relationships between academia and organisations here in the GCC.”