Health & Education

Spoiled for Choice?


Dubai’s education system is being shaped by the expatriate nature of its population, with English-language instruction commonplace across all levels of the sector, both in the public and private sectors. […]

Dubai’s education system is being shaped by the expatriate nature of its population, with English-language instruction commonplace across all levels of the sector, both in the public and private sectors. The Emirate’s public schools are reserved for Emiratis and some Arab expatriates, while other foreigners must choose from an extensive list of private schools, which range in both cost, from AED1,725 to AED96,140 per year, to curriculum, with the UK curriculum the most popular, representing 31.5% of all enrolled students at private schools. Private schools outnumber public schools by more than two to one, with student enrolment in private schools rising 8.7% for the 2012/13 academic year, up from 7.1% in the previous year.

The education sector in Dubai falls under the watch of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which was established in 2007 and acts as the regulator, ensuring standards and best practice. The KHDA also watches over the Emirate’s education free zones, which are increasingly the focus for the continued development of the higher education sector—46% of students are now enrolled at higher education institutions within free zones. Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) and Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) are the main education free zones, with projects such as University Hospital within the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) free zone also boosting the learning landscape.


There are 153 private schools in Dubai, compared to just under 80 public schools, and the sector is worth AED4.1 billion, based on student enrollment multiplied by the average tuition fee, according to the KHDA. There are 225,099 students enrolled at private schools, up 8.7% on the last academic year. Private schools represent 88.7% of total schools from kindergarten to high school, with those institutions employing 14,333 teachers, also up 8.7% on the year before. Emiratis represent 13.4% of the total number of students enrolled at private schools, with 30,044 currently in attendance. Of total Emirati students in Dubai, 56.6% attend private schools. This has increased from 36% a decade ago, although the trend toward private education appears to have slowed with the figure having been between 56% and 57% over the last five years. Additionally, 57% of Emiratis registered at private schools are male.

Private schools also offer 15 kinds of curricula, including the UK, which represents the largest share (31.5%), India (30%), the US (21.2%), the UAE Ministry of Education (7.2%), and the International Baccalaureate (2.6%). Other curricula include French, German, the International Curriculum for Languages and Creative Arts, Iranian, Japanese, the Institute of Applied Technology (UAE), Pakistani, Philippines, Reggio Emilia, and Russian.

While dominant and still expanding—up 33% since 2008/9—enrollment growth at UK curriculum schools is slower than at French curriculum schools (34%), Philippines curriculum schools (58%), and International Baccalaureate curriculum schools (78%). Mark Ford, Principal of the Dubai British School, discussed the trend. “We offer a traditional, high-quality British curriculum. We offer GCSEs and A-levels, although more and more schools in Dubai are going for the International Baccalaureate.” The school has a distinct British student body, with 60% of attendees holding British nationality. Overall, there are 177 nationalities at private schools in Dubai, with 47% from the Indian Subcontinent. Indians represent the largest body of students, at 35.2%. This is followed by UAE nationals (13.4%), Pakistanis (9.6%), and British (4.9%). In terms of tuition, fees can vary greatly. Along with six tuition-free private schools, a number also charge fees as low as AED1,725. According to the KHDA, a grade 12 student at the most expensive school can pay up to AED96,140 a year. Most private schools (26%) charge between AED5,000 and AED10,000 a year, with 19% charging less than AED5,000 and 17% charging between AED10,000 and AED15,000. Approximately 9% also charge over AED45,000 annually. Revenues increased by 16.3% in 2012/13, due both to increases in enrollment and tuition fees in general.


Student enrollment in higher education institutions rose 11% in 2012, driven mainly by increased enrollment within the free zones—growth reached 12% in 2012. Enrollment has now reached 31% over the past five years, according to the Higher Education Landscape Report released by the KHDA.

There are 53 higher education institutions in Dubai, which have a total of 48,958 students enrolled in the current academic year, up from 43,212 the year before and 36,714 in 2008. Free zones account for 46% of all university students, while 36% are enrolled outside the free zones and 18% are in attendance at federal universities. In terms of university enrollment, numbers in the 2012/13 academic year were up 11%. Emiratis make up the largest group enrolled in higher education institutions, at 43%. Of those, 45% are female and 55% are male. Of total Emiratis in higher study, 74% are in undergraduate programs, with the most popular major being Business. “There are over 100 nationalities studying here, and Emiratis, at 15%, are the largest single group,” said Lance de Masi, President of the American University in Dubai.

The KHDA report does note room for improvement in doctoral programs, which accounted for just 1% of enrollments in the last academic year. In the 2011/12 academic year, 9,139 students graduated from Dubai’s universities with undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD qualifications. Moving forward, Dubai’s universities will have to be prepared for more doctoral demand as the number of students in Master’s programs grows.

The KHDA also has the power to certify degrees, thanks to Resolution 21, which was introduced in 2012. The resolution now guarantees that those with KHDA-certified qualifications will be recognized by the public and private sectors in the Emirate.


Dubai’s education free zones are playing an increasing role in attracting international institutions as well as students and teachers from around the region. DIAC and DKV are Dubai’s two dedicated education zones, founded in 2007 and 2003, respectively. DIAC was founded through TECOM Investments, a subsidiary of Dubai Holding. It boasts 21 of the UAE’s 37 international branch campuses (IBCs) from 11 different countries. DIAC hosts 20,000 students from 125 nationalities, and offers over 400 higher education programs. The free zone offers a number of incentives, including 100% foreign ownership, 100% freedom from taxes, and 100% repatriation of profits. It also eases visa procedures for students, teachers, and staff. Universities with facilitates on site include the University of Wollongong in Dubai, from Australia, Middlesex University Dubai Campus, from the UK, and S.P. Jain Centre of Management Dubai, from India. Programs range from one to four years and cover areas including Engineering, Computer Science, Fashion and Design, Biotechnology, Environmental Studies, Quality Management, and Business Management. DKV, also established through TECOM Investments, is focused on human resource management, consultancy, and training and personal development programs. It has over 450 partners, including Gallup, Towers Watson, Hays, Hewitt, and Innovative HR Solutions. DKV offers similar incentives to DIAC.

Dubai’s other free zones, including Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and DHCC, are also taking steps to promote educational institutions that can take advantage of incentives within the zones. One such example is the University Hospital Project, which is taking shape in DHCC at a cost of AED2.1 billion. The institution will boast 400 beds and take on a tertiary care role in addition to its education function. “We are currently negotiating with various consortiums to manage a variety of different aspects of the project and partners, including investors, hospital operators, and also the academic and teaching parts of the project,” said Marwan Abedin, CEO of DHCC.

Boosted by the free zone framework, Dubai’s education sector is likely to continue attracting higher education institutions that will look to take advantage of the increasing population and international nature of the student body. Ensuring affordable schooling for the wider population will be crucial, however, if the Emirate is to maintain its name for quality education.