In September 2017 two new universities opened their doors in Dubai. The UK’s University of Birmingham and Curtin University, from Perth in Western Australia, are the latest international academic institutions to operate local branches in Dubai’s International Academic City free zone. There are now more than 30 of these in Dubai’s free zones, complementing the UAE’s public universities. In all, there were 62 higher education institutions in Dubai in 2017, with more than 60,000 students. According to a report by consultancy PwC published in September 2016, UAE universities will need to provide spaces for an additional 42,000 students by 2020. In 2016/17 the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) accredited universities in Dubai with a combined student body of just under 29,000, representing enrolment growth of 4.5%.

Unique Ecosystem

Dubai’s higher education landscape is rich and varied, with dozens of institutions to choose from. Among its international branch campuses are renowned universities in the UK, US, Australia and Europe, though several of these so far run only small-scale operations. According to KHDA data for November 2016, ESMOD French Fashion Institute Dubai had 90 students compared to 1500 in France, where it has been operating since 1841. The UK’s University of Exeter has more than 22,000 students, with 62 in its Dubai branch in 2016; out of Michigan State University’s student body of 50,000, just 22 are based in Dubai. Other institutions have achieved more scale, with Scotland’s Heriot-Watt, Australia’s Wollongong, the American University in Dubai and India’s Manipal enrolling 5038, 3362, 2544 and 2165 students, respectively, in 2015/16, per the latest KHDA data available.


International universities in Dubai face several challenges. The first is that more than 90% of the emirate’s residents are foreign nationals, and many prefer their children to attend university in their home country. Parents, including many Emiratis, also value secondary schools offering British, US, French and IB qualifications because it helps their children apply for prestigious universities abroad. According to a report by HSBC in 2017, some 65% of UAE parents want their children to study at foreign universities. It can also take universities in Dubai some time to establish a reputation there; the Heriot-Watt branch has been in the emirate since 2005.

Return On Investment

Universities prepared to invest in new facilities may have an edge in marketing. Amity University, a leading Indian university in Dubai that recently opened a new campus, had 1412 students in 2015/16 and hopes to reach 2000 in 2017. Its new additions have a capacity of 5000 and include specialist labs for forensic science, nanotechnology and aeronautics, as well as studios for media students. “Programmes concentrating on areas such as nanotechnology, interior design, architecture, hospitality and renewable energy have been particularly in demand of late, reflecting the growing economic importance of these sectors,” Vajahat Hussain, Amity University’s CEO for the Middle East, told OBG. To attract individuals from other GCC countries, Amity has invested in new accommodation for 400 students, with plans to double this. The KHDA estimates 23% of university enrollees are foreigners.

Emirati Entrepreneurs

A city that prides itself on innovation and commerce, Dubai has many foreign universities offering MBA courses, including SP Jain School of Global Management, Manchester Business School, London Business School, Cass Business School and the University of Strathclyde. While some students take an MBA to climb the corporate ladder, others are launching their own start-ups. “Increasingly our students are interested in becoming entrepreneurs; the venture creation unit is by far the most popular on our course,” Ronald Bradfield, director of Strathclyde Business School UAE, told OBG.