With a vibrant and growing private school system generating annual revenues of Dh6.8bn ($1.9bn) and a cosmopolitan collection of international universities, Dubai’s education sector continues to flourish and to attract investment. Its schools and universities are striving to provide their students with the skills they will need to thrive and contribute in a rapidly evolving workplace. In recent years Dubai’s students have made great strides in international indices; now, while it continues to focus on academic achievement, the sector is putting a new emphasis on extra-curricular activities and career support.

Sector Snapshot

Private education dominates the schools segment of Dubai’s education sector, with 90% of pupils attending fee-paying schools. The UAE’s federal Ministry of Education (MoE) operates its own schools in Dubai, where most lessons are taught in Arabic and there are no fees for Emirati families. There are currently 30 state schools for boys and 32 for girls. Boys and girls are taught together at 14 kindergartens and at three other state schools that take children at kindergarten level. In the 2015/16 academic year government schools enrolled around 29,400 pupils, split between 25,100 Emiratis and 4300 pupils of other nationalities. Emiratis made up 85% of pupils in state schools, even though 55% of Emirati children attended fee-paying schools in 2015/16. Some 11 private schools offer the MoE curriculum.

The UAE state education system consists of two years of kindergarten followed by the first cycle (years one to five), the second cycle (years six to nine) and then secondary school (years 10 to 12). Dubai also has one religious school for boys only, which in 2015/16 had a student body of 357 pupils, of whom 150 were Emirati.

Private Schools

The private education sector is regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which was established by royal decree in December 2006. The KHDA’s main roles are to inspect schools, set standards and decide on the strategic direction of private education in the emirate. The sector has grown rapidly in the past 15 years. Private school enrolment rose from just under 100,000 in 2001/02 to more than 150,000 in 2006, the year the KHDA was founded. By 2011/12 the figure had surpassed the 200,000 mark, and in the 2017/18 academic year it has reached more than 280,000, according to the KHDA.

The number of private schools has likewise multiplied, growing from 124 in 2007 to 148 by 2012 and 194 in 2017/18. The expansion in private education has attracted a range of investors and school operators. In 2012, some 19 private schools operated by local provider GEMS Education were responsible for educating 24% of private school pupils. Five years later, GEMS was operating 31 schools in Dubai. In the 10 years to 2016/17, student enrolment grew by 89%, representing average growth of 6.6% a year. Gross revenues for private schools meanwhile rose by 93% over five years, from Dh3.52bn ($958m) in 2012 to Dh6.8bn ($1.9bn) in 2017.

Schools Growth

In 2017/18 another 10 new private schools accepted their first pupils, with the KHDA predicting that an additional 110 would open over the next decade. Although growth in student numbers in 2016/17 was a relatively modest 3.1%, the authority remained confident that total enrolment would rise to 470,000 by 2027. In 2017 Dubai’s private schools were operating at 88.6% occupancy with 35,200 available spaces.

Most of the new schools are being built to serve new communities as Dubai expands. “On average, 10 new schools open in Dubai each year, a trend we expect will continue in future.” Kalthoom Al Balooshi, executive director of education development at the KHDA, told OBG. “Many of these schools are opening in the newer areas of Dubai, such as Remraam, Dubai South, Jumeirah Village Circle and Jumeirah Village Triangle. While our mantra remains ‘quality, quality, quality’, we are also focusing on schools which provide a niche curriculum or unique educational offerings.” Although the KHDA manages applications for new private schools, it makes no attempt to match the type of school to each neighbourhood, preferring to allow investors to make their own assessments of the market.

School Fees

Since 2012 the KHDA has had the authority to regulate annual fee increases at private schools. The fee framework is based on an educational cost index (ECI), which reflects any cost increases for providers across the board. Using the ECI as a benchmark, the KHDA allows schools that achieve the highest grades of good, very good and outstanding, to increase fees by ECI x 1.5, ECI x 1.75 and ECI x 2, respectively, thereby enabling the most successful schools to charge more. It also allows some exceptions to the rules on a case-by-case basis, for example when schools may need to raise fees to avoid operating at a loss.

The KHDA noted that in 2016/17, 57.5% of pupils in private schools were paying less than Dh20,000 ($5440) a year. However, the UAE edition of the “Which School Advisor” website listed five schools charging over Dh100,000 ($27,200), with the highest fee coming in at Dh120,145 ($32,700) in 2017/18.

In 2017 HSBC produced its annual “Value of Education” survey showing how much parents in different countries pay for a child’s education, from kindergarten to the end of university. The results revealed that parents from the UAE were spending an average of $99,400, the second-highest figure for anywhere in the world after Hong Kong, where expenditure topped $132,000, according to the survey of 8400 parents in 15 countries. HSBC found that 93% of UAE parents had at least one child in private education, the second-highest rate after India, where 96% were paying for one or more child’s education. The UAE also had the highest proportion of parents who would consider sending their child abroad for university, at 65%. Of those, 48% said the UK was their favoured destination.

Scholarships & Offers

The price of private education in Dubai has drawn criticism from one of the city’s influential business leaders. Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of real state developer Emaar Properties, told local press in 2016 that high fees were unfair for pupils whose parents could not afford to send all their children to the best schools. The eldest of 12 children and son of a dhow (traditional sailing vessel) captain, Alabbar voiced concerns that some of the brightest Emirati children were not receiving the best possible education. In response, during the “Future Dialogue” sessions on the Dubai Plan 2021 held in March 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice-president and prime minister, and ruler of Dubai, announced a new scholarship scheme, The Mohammed Bin Rashid Distinguished Students Programme (MBRDSP).

Launched for the 2017/18 school year, the MBRDSP enables the best-performing Emirati students from Dubai to study at some of the highest-ranked schools in the emirate. In its first year, some 550 Emirati students applied for scholarships through the MBRDSP scheme. In June 2017, the KHDA signed agreements with two private education providers, GEMS and Taaleem, which together offered 236 places for September 2017 at 13 schools with a rating of “good” or higher. The schools offer the UK, US or international baccalaureate (IB) curricula and are located in several Dubai neighbourhoods. Taaleem, formerly Beacon Education, was founded in 2004 and has enrolled around 9000 students at its 10 schools across the UAE.

At the same time, the KHDA also signed an agreement with the government’s Knowledge Fund, which was founded in 2007 to attract investment into the emirate’s education sector. The fund also allocates land to investors through long-term lease agreements when new schools are built. Sheikh Mohammed told the Future Dialogue sessions, “We have great confidence in the UAE youth and see their efforts come to fruition through innovative progress across different fields.”

Cosmopolitan Classrooms

The high proportion of parents sending their children abroad to attend university, as cited in the HSBC report, is in part a reflection of the cultural diversity of families residing in the emirates. This mix is the hallmark of most classrooms, as shown by KHDA data for 2016/17. The highest number of nationalities in any one school was 114, with 70 schools having more than 50, 64 schools representing 20-50 countries, and 51 schools with at least 20 nationalities. There were 93,000 Indian nationals in Dubai private schools in 2016/17, followed by 32,100 Emiratis, just under 22,800 Pakistanis, 14,200 Egyptians and over 13,100 British children. When it comes to higher education, British students are not represented in large numbers, but the other nationalities remained in the top five at UAE universities. India, with 11,600 students, was once again the dominant country, followed by Pakistan with 2610, the UAE with 2350, Egypt with 1340 and Jordan with 960 students.

There are 17 curricula offered by Dubai private schools, with many parents opting for the system most closely aligned to the country where they would like their children to attend university. The most popular was the British curriculum with 73 schools in 2016/17 educating 91,900 pupils, while there were 33 Indian-curriculum schools with over 79,800 pupils, 34 schools offering the US system to 48,400 students and 11 schools preparing 15,400 pupils for the IB. There were also six Iranian schools, five French lycées, two each from the Philippines and Pakistan, and two teaching the SABIS system. In addition, individual schools offered Russian, Canadian and Japanese curricula.


Dubai’s schools are striving to improve their performance against international measures. In 2014 the UAE National Agenda 2021 was launched with ambitious targets to see the country’s ranking improve in two key indices. The UAE is aiming to be in the top 15 performers in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and to make the top 20 in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Both ranking systems are based on tests taken by students in mathematics, science and reading, with a sample of pupils entered for the examinations by each participating country. PISA operates on a three-year cycle, while TIMSS tests are taken by participating counties every four years. Both sets of tests were administered in 2015, with the results released in late 2016.

Pisa Scores

The PISA tests are taken by 15-year-olds in 72 countries, and in 2015 they were examined on science, maths, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy. The results from the 2015 tests showed an improvement in performance by students in Dubai. They achieved scores of 467 in maths, 480 in science and 475 in reading. By comparison, the mean scores for OECD countries were 490, 493 and 493, respectively. As a result, Dubai ranked 40th in maths, 35th in science and 38th in reading. At a national level – 2021 education targets being for the UAE as a whole rather than Dubai specifically – schools’ performance declined in 2015 compared to 2012. The UAE’s scores in maths, science and reading were 427, 437 and 434, respectively, putting it in 49th, 48th and 48th position in the three subjects. Overall, however, the country placed 46th.

Timss Results

Dubai’s pupils outperformed the wider UAE in the 2015 TIMSS tests, and at some stages of the education cycle achieved the 2021 target rankings six years earlier than hoped. Students take the tests in both maths and science when they are in the equivalent of the US’s fourth and eighth grades, or years five and nine in the British system, meaning that the pupils in each cohort are aged 9-10 and 13-14. Dubai’s grade-four students rose from 39th to 29th in maths and from 36th to 28th in science. In doing so, they performed as well as children in Canada and Spain, respectively, easily surpassing the 500-mark centre point with average scores of 511 and 518. However, the most impressive improvement was among grade-eight students, with the older cohort in Dubai surpassing the UAE’s Vision 2021 target of a top 15 ranking by coming 14th in both maths and science, with scores of 512 and 525, respectively, putting them on par with students in Norway for maths and alongside students in Sweden and Canada for science.

While the KHDA is gratified by the improvement in standards in Dubai’s schools, it remains committed to striving for rankings that will place it in the highest echelons of academic achievement. The East-Asian education systems in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea have set the bar high in both maths and sciences. In fourth-grade maths there is a 23-point gap between the TIMSS performance of pupils in those schools and children in other countries, while at eighth grade, the gap widens to 48 points. Although there is not such a pronounced distinction in the science tests, those five East-Asian systems are among the top six countries in both age bands. What is also notable is that Singapore ranks first in both maths and science at both age groups, with scores of 618 and 621 in maths at the fourth and eighth grades, and science scores of 590 and 597 in those years, respectively. Singapore has led the pack since the TIMSS tests were first introduced in 1995.

Catching Up

To close the gap with the world’s best education systems, the KHDA uses the PISA and TIMSS results to assess the performance of individual private schools as part of its annual school inspection programme. Rankings are also referenced by the KHDA to ensure that Dubai’s determination to improve performance in these areas is emphasised when new schools are established. Ever since the PISA test of 2009, the KHDA has issued reports to private schools on how their pupils have performed against international benchmarks, comparing their scores against similar institutions both locally and internationally. Along with targets it selects for each school in line with UAE Agenda 2021, the UAE National Agenda Parameter was introduced in 2015/16 requiring every school in the emirate to participate in external benchmarking assessments each year to monitor their progress.

In 2015 the KHDA found that 60% of Dubai private schools had met or exceeded individual targets in maths, while 74% reached or outperformed their science targets. Overall, the KHDA concluded that more emphasis should be placed on improving achievements in maths and science at the primary school level to enable pupils to emulate year-nine students in exceeding the national agenda targets in time for the next TIMSS tests in 2019, the results of which are due to be published a year later.

Well-Being Survey

Although schools are under pressure to succeed and improve, the KHDA is also keen to ensure pupils are happy and well adjusted. In November 2017, the KHDA began conducting a Student Well-being Census of some 70,000 students as part of a five-year project in partnership with the Department of Education and Child Development in South Australia. The census is being offered in Arabic, English and French, and all responses will be anonymous. The aim is to give schools a better understanding of how their pupils feel about school, home life, themselves and their relationships.

The results of the first census will be issued to schools in February 2018, giving them tools to consider new ways in which school life may be adapted to improve student well-being. The KHDA is also running workshops to help school leaders interpret the data and act on the results. “We selected that age group so that the children have the emotional maturity to answer the questions, but we believe if you can focus on these topics at this stage, it will stand them in good stead later on,” Hind Al Mualla, chief of creativity, happiness and innovation at the KHDA, told OBG. “Some of the questions are about student relations with teachers, but also about home life, so we can understand, for instance, if they are getting a good night’s sleep and eating properly.” The KHDA does not plan to publicise the findings of each school’s annual census, but will use it to help school leaders address student welfare issues.

Positive Education

Dubai has also embraced another movement that seeks to challenge the notion that academic attainment is of paramount importance in education. In 2016 a delegation from the emirate attended the inaugural Festival of Positive Education organised by the International Positive Education Network (IPEN). The IPEN’s aim is to stress the importance of well-being and character development alongside traditional learning outcomes to provide pupils with a broader foundation for life. The network works with teachers, parents, academics, students, schools, charities, companies and governments to change educational practices and government policy.

In March 2017 the KHDA announced that Dubai was to be the regional capital for IPEN in the Middle East. A website was launched in both Arabic and English with resources to give teachers the opportunity to share their experiences of positive education. One example of this approach has been a drive to encourage schools in Dubai to create gardens where children can learn about food and develop a taste for healthy eating. In its 2016/17 report on the private school sector, the KHDA noted that 58 schools had gardens.

Physical Education

The importance of physical and health education was also reaffirmed at a federal level from January 2017 with the introduction of a new curriculum for all state schools. Its stated objective was to empower young Emiratis to take control of their own health and well-being, drawing on best practices in nutrition and sports science. The Physical and Health Curriculum was implemented from kindergarten to grade 12 and includes fitness testing and training as well as subjects like health and well-being, diet and nutrition, and anatomy and physiology. “The benefits of this will have a positive impact across other curriculum areas and ensure we achieve our vision to create a first-rate education system by 2021,” said Hussain Ibrahim Al Hammadi, the minister of education.

By placing physical fitness at the heart of its curriculum, the MoE is also addressing worrying trends in obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses among children in the UAE. A paper published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2015 found that 27% of children in Dubai were overweight and 12.2% obese, with the problem being more pronounced among children aged 15 or younger than among older teenagers (see Health chapter). In February 2017 children from across the country were encouraged to participate, alongside adults, in the second UAE National Sports Day.

Higher Education Zones

The tertiary sector in Dubai has developed rapidly from three institutions 30 years ago to 62 in the 2017/18 academic year, both local and international. In that year there were 33 international universities offering a range of subjects at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Private higher education is also overseen by the KHDA, which works alongside the Universities Quality Assurance International Board. A key driver in the growth of the tertiary sector has been the development of free zones that allow 100% foreign ownership, enabling international universities to develop branch campuses.

The KHDA distinguishes between three types of higher education provider (HEP): HEP branch, a university, college, academy or institute in a Dubai free zone that acts for, or on behalf of, a named HEP, which is typically in another country; HEP local, a private or government tertiary institution that is licensed by the MoE, with its programmes accredited by the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA); and HEP federal, a university or college founded by federal decree.

HEPs must obtain a permit from the KHDA to operate in a free zone via a four-phase application process. In the 2016/17 academic year, 42.7% of the tertiary student body was studying at an institution with this academic authorisation.

The Dubai Creative Clusters Authority includes 10 free zones, with most HEPs located in Dubai Knowledge Park, Dubai Internet City and Dubai International Academic City. There are also HEPs in other free zones, including Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), Dubai Silicon Oasis and Dubai South. In all, there are 24 HEP branch campuses within the free zones – representing institutions from 12 different countries, including Australia, the UK, India, the US and Russia – and 14 HEP local institutions. Another 23 HEPs operate outside the free zones.

Student Body

There were just over 60,300 students enrolled in tertiary education in Dubai in 2015/16, according to the latest data available from the KHDA. The number of people studying in the emirate’s higher education institutions had grown by 64.3% from 2008 when the student body numbered 36,700, representing a compound annual growth rate of 7.35%. Enrolment at branch campuses rose by 65.8% between 2010/11 and 2015/16, compared to 54.5% for overall HEP enrolment. In 2015/16 branch campuses represented 46% of the student body.

The opportunity to gain an internationally recognised degree attracts foreign students to HEP branches, with 30% of the student body being composed of foreigners, according to the KHDA. A total of 167 countries are represented among these, with 56.4% of students from Asia, 29.6% from the MENA region, 5.5% from Europe and 5.1% from Africa.

In Dubai there are four levels of tertiary study: a pre-university foundation year, undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral. In 2013 it was announced that foundation-year courses designed to ensure Emirati students had the English-language skills necessary to complete a degree would be phased out by 2018. However, in July 2017 the Ministry of Education announced the deadline would be pushed to 2021 to give schools more time to develop student study skills in the final years of secondary education and help them achieve a Grade 5 on the International English Language Testing System, or 1100 points on the Emirates Standardised Test. In 2016/17 foundation students accounted for 3.5% of all those in higher education, with 60.3% in bachelors courses, 30.7% at masters level, 3.1% seeking a higher diploma and 2.5% studying for other qualifications.

Campus Sizes

Of the 30 higher education providers overseen by the KHDA in 2015/16, just nine enrolled more than 1000 students. The largest institutions were Heriot-Watt (5038), University of Wollongong in Dubai (3362), American University in Dubai (2544), Middlesex University Dubai (2461), Manipal University (2165), Birla Institute of Science and Technology Dubai Campus (1777), Amity University Dubai (1412), SP Jain School of Global Management (1385) and Murdoch University Dubai (1087).

Subject Choices

While cultural diversity may be a hallmark of higher education in Dubai, there is a relatively narrow focus in terms of the subjects studied. Business is by far the most popular choice, accounting for 59% of all students, followed by engineering (14.8%), media and design (6.9%), architecture and construction (6.2%), and IT (6.1%). That leaves 7% of students undertaking degrees in other subjects. To some extent the subject choices made by students reflect Dubai’s diversified economy and its role as a centre for finance, technology and media, as well as its architectural renown. For those who are looking for vocational qualifications, the KHDA also oversees 1249 training institutes offering more than 45,400 courses. For instance, in September 2017 the Vision Concept Aviation Training Institute launched a new two-year course in aircraft maintenance engineering, which leads to a licensed qualification.

Teaching & Medicine

However, there are a number of professions, such as medicine and teaching, where demand in Dubai is almost entirely met by foreign workers who have studied these disciplines abroad. In the private health sector in 2016, for example, just 10.3% of health professionals were Emirati, and across both public and private health facilities there are fewer than 1000 nationals working as health care professionals, with 578 physicians 150 dentists, 88 nurses and 137 pharmacists. Of those totals, 402 doctors, 114 dentists, 84 nurses and 129 pharmacists are Emirati women. While many of those Emirati health professionals may have received some of their medical training abroad, UAE University’s College of Medical and Health Sciences saw its first medical students graduate in 1993 and three years later the UAE government recognised the doctor of medicine and surgery qualification at Dubai Medical College, a not-for-profit private institution established to train female doctors. In September 2016 the first cohort of undergraduate medical students began pursuing their studies at Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in DHCC.

The share of teachers at MoE schools who are citizens is modest. In these schools there were 1217 Emirati female teachers and 37 male nationals in 2015/16, compared with 512 non-Emirati female teachers and 585 expatriate male teachers. Private schools employed 21 Emirati teachers in that year, all of them women, while there were 14,041 expatriate women and 3588 foreign men working as teachers. In all, that year there were 1275 Emirati teachers, 97% of them women, and fewer than 7% of all 18,726 teachers in Dubai were citizens.

In the 2015/16 academic year, degrees in education were being awarded by five of the KHDA-accredited universities. Of those, the American University in Dubai and Middlesex University Dubai had the only undergraduate degrees, with four students and 30 students enrolled, respectively. Both institutions also offered postgraduate degrees in education, where each had 30 students enrolled. The British University in Dubai had 238 students on postgraduate education courses, while there were 62 at the University of Exeter and 60 at Murdoch University.

The CAA website shows there are also undergraduate education programmes offered in Dubai at Al Ghurair University, the American University in the Emirates, and at Jumeirah University. Al Ghurair also offers a professional diploma in teaching, while Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University offers online masters courses with an education focus. The federal UAE University also offers a bachelor’s degree in education and physical education.


Dubai is committed to improving its schools, universities and training institutes to meet the UAE Agenda’s 2021 goal of creating a globally competitive education system. Its schools look well placed to meet ambitious targets for improvements in international rankings, but they are also conscious of becoming more than “exam factories” by increasing their focus on student well-being. Dubai’s leaders are especially keen to provide the best opportunities for their own citizens, even though these account for just 18% of schoolchildren and less than 40% of its university students. At the same time, the emirate continues to attract international investment in all segments of its education system, making the sector a valuable part of its diversified economy.