TBY talks to Dino Varkey, Group Executive Director & Board Member of GEMS Education, on the role GEMS has played in the development of Dubai’s education sector.
TBY In what ways has Dubai been paving the way for the region as a center of educational excellence. What role has GEMS played in the growth of the sector?
DINO VARKEY Very early on the Dubai government realized that it needed to diversify the base of its economy. Whenever you are looking at diversifying the base of an economy, you are talking about bringing in a class and a pool of investors and a diverse range of sectors. The underlying labor market in Dubai is very much expatriate driven. In that kind of a scenario, diversification of the economy in terms of building something that will truly secure the future of a nation cannot be done without building underlying world-class infrastructure, especially around education and healthcare. It is a thing of pride for the Emirate that the largest privately held K12 education company in the world has grown its roots out of Dubai.
What factors enabled GEMS education to go from overseeing the education of 600 students to 100,000 in just over four decades?
I think a lot of it has to do with the environment and the culture that has been created in Dubai and the UAE. The reality is it has always been a place that has rewarded people with passion, commitment, and an underlying drive to make something more of their lives, and Dubai has been incredibly welcoming of that kind of family and that kind of person. The environment it created, whether from a regulatory perspective or from a governmental perspective, has always had the visibility and predictability of the investment climate in mind. All of those things have allowed us to build a truly global multinational that has its roots in Dubai.
The private educational sector in the GCC has been predicted to grow three fold in the next decade. Do you predict that applying to the UAE specifically?
I think if we are looking at the macroeconomic factors, I do not know whether it is going to be three fold, but what is certainly the case is that within the rim of North Africa and South Asia there are the youngest populations in the world. If we look at the underlying education gap that exists, that also means that you simply cannot put up schools fast enough. So the reality is that, certainly in the context of growth more generally in the Gulf, Dubai will continue to see the pace of growth because it is still the only hub that any multinational foreign company can look to in order to bring in great people. Relative to everything else in the region, it is still the hub of choice, so from that perspective Dubai is unlikely to see a saturated education market for some time.
How important are public-private partnerships for the growth of the industry, and how active is GEMS in this regard?
They are very important. It is certainly a tried and tested model in many parts of the world where the value, efficiencies, accountabilities and, certainly in our case, over 50 years of educational experience can be brought to bear in order to reform and improve the education system of a country. It is something we have experience of in other parts of the world, specifically in Abu Dhabi, but less so in Dubai. Dubai is probably the best example of a private education market; it is likely the most developed private sector education market, certainly on the K-12 side.
What kind of trends have you seen in the demographics of student enrolment?
We have 151 different nationalities in our schools in Dubai, so there is a lot of diversity. Are we seeing a significant shift in terms of the nationalities that are coming through? Not necessarily any specific nuances, but there is still pretty consistent growth. However, over the last three-year period from 2009 until 2012, our international curriculum schools grew 52%, from 21,000 students to 32,000 students. Our Indian curriculum schools, which are more affordable generally, grew by 13% from 42,506 to 48,233, and they could have grown more if not for the fact that we were at capacity. Even in the year of the global downturn we increased enrolment by 5%, so the whole perception regarding people leaving Dubai in great numbers was unfounded. What happened during the downturn was just netted off, so it just equalized.
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