Jan. 12, 2015

Dr. Abdulla Al Karam

UAE, Dubai

Dr. Abdulla Al Karam

Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General, Knowledge & Human Development Authority (KHDA)


Dr. Abdulla Al Karam is responsible for a wide spectrum of education in Dubai’s private sector, spanning early learning, middle school, and higher education and training institutes. Previously, Dr. Abdulla held positions in various government sectors, including Vice Chairman and Secretary General, Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Distinguished Academic Performance; Chairman of the Dubai Government’s Human Resources Committee, which was set up as the link between human resources programs and initiatives and Dubai’s goals and strategic priorities; and Board Member, Dubai Knowledge Fund, which seeks to effectively participate in developing Dubai’s knowledge capital through profitably managing funds. He was also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education 2010.

Dubai has over 150 private schools with a variety of curricula. How does this very international group influence Dubai and its business community?

The variety of curricula on offer is a reflection of what Dubai's society is today. It is an organic and evolving landscape. The question is, how does this benefit education? We all know that diversity, if harvested properly, brings the best out of people. When there is diversity in the classroom, the learning experience becomes better. This is where we see a transition occurring. Some of the private school curricula were established some time back by the business community just to cater to the needs of their children. We used to call them community schools. Now you see nationalities that do not have their own schools here integrating into those schools. I think that diversity among students is really giving families the opportunity to educate their children in a different system to what they might have back home. For example, if you are French, there are not a lot of European schools, but there are a lot of international schools, so you get to choose, and this is an opportunity for parents to select a different system for their kids.

How do you make sure all these systems follow standards in terms of quality?

We use various tools to check on the quality. One is our inspection framework. Over the past seven years, we have developed our inspection criteria, and it has a very universal perspective. While developing the inspection framework, we went around the world to see various systems. We then developed a framework of universal education, which talks about the needs of students, teachers, and administrators. There are also benchmarks around the world, some of them are administered by the OECD and others by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). These are international assessments that take place periodically, every three to five years depending on the assessment. What they do is measure different things at different stages. PIRLS measures reading literacy at Grade 4, TIMSS assesses mathematics and science at Grades 4 and 8, while PISA assesses 15-year-old students. So, for example, if we take British curriculum schools, we can see how schools that follow the British system in Dubai compare with those in the UK.

What do you think are the characteristics that will make Dubai an international hub and a place where everyone wants to come to study?

What makes things work in Dubai is a strong economy and a diverse business community. That is what everyone is here for, and that is what started Dubai. The strong diverse economic landscape in Dubai is what fuels all the sectors from health to education. Keep in mind that 90% of the population are not UAE nationals. What is enabling Dubai's strong economy is a combination of hard infrastructure like the built environment and soft infrastructure in skills and talent. But of greater importance is the soft infrastructure you have in Dubai, and particularly in areas like safety and happiness. This is what is helping Dubai move forward. Around 89% of students in Dubai are studying in a private school. And when I look at this 89%, of the 158 private schools in total, the vast majority of them are in for-profit schools. When you look at these businesses, what do they care about? Finances are important, but so too is customer satisfaction. It is the whole exchange that is taking place: you get good service, and you pay for it. This dynamic is very interesting, and I think what is positive is the choices people can make.