BRIGHT IDEAS

UAE, Dubai 2012 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Abdulla Al Karam, Chairman of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, on improving the quality of education in the emirate.

When and why was the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) established?

The KHDA was established in April 2007, with a local decree from the government of Dubai. An education council had been in place for about 18 months prior to this. The government realized that education needed to keep pace with the demands of modern society, and so it commissioned KHDA as a local authority to monitor and improve the delivery of education, particularly in the private sector and the key stages of schooling. We also have a remit to look at the growth of early learning, higher education, and training centers. Our role is basically as a regulator for the sector; we work with other departments to ensure that education keeps up with the pace and demands of development in Dubai.

How do you work in collaboration with other entities in the Knowledge Village and Academic City?

In 2002, there were very few private universities. The government had the idea of creating an Academic City cluster, where regional branch campuses of international universities could be set up in the free zones of Dubai. Dubai-based students would initially attend these universities, to be followed by students in the region. The plan is that we will be able to provide locally educated talent to meet the needs of the labor market, rather than bringing in people from abroad. Students leave Dubai after high school, whether for social or financial reasons. Between 2003 and 2005, there was not a great impetus to improve higher and further education—but there was a real need to set up these small cities and centers to advance the cause of academia and professional training institutes. Since then, these cities have expanded to house many branch campuses. Our role at KHDA is to assure the quality of these institutions and encourage them to provide courses that meet the diverse demands of Dubai's future labor force.

“We have to motivate our schools and hold them publicly accountable by publishing the results."

What work are you doing to promote international education in Dubai?

The history of private international education here goes as far back as the 1960s. At that time, a group of Indian traders requested to set up a community school for the Indian expatriates who had settled in Dubai. The government provided land, and this was the birth of the first private school in Dubai. After that, the British who had settled in Dubai requested a British school be built. In the 1970s, US citizens expressed an interest in building an American school. Historically, private schools were set up for business reasons, geared toward certain communities. As more people came to Dubai in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of private schools continued to increase. However, the real turning point occurred in the 2000s, with the establishment of free zones. Also around that time, operators were legally entitled to own property. As a result of these government decisions, many expatriates chose to stay in Dubai for a longer time, and the population grew by more than 10% per year. As a result of these initiatives, 87% of all education in Dubai currently takes place in the private sector. Over 50% of Emirati nationals also attend private schools. About 13% of students in private schools—25,000 people—commute to Dubai from other emirates. Driven by national and expatriate demand, Dubai currently boasts the greatest number of branch university campuses in the world. As a regulator, we want to strike a balance between encouraging sustainable growth while ensuring quality. Dubai has excellent infrastructure and housing. As the market has stabilized, this has attracted—and will continue to attract—more people.

How do you foresee the growth of the education sector in Dubai?

The schools in Dubai are very diverse. There are 13 different international curricula operating, with most students attending Indian, UK, and US curriculum schools. We have to bear in mind the business models of each school. There are community schools, embassy schools, and philanthropic schools, as well as non-profit and for-profit schools. We also have to understand the different sizes of schools. We have schools for 50, 500, 5,000, and 10,000 students. The fees are also very diverse. From 2001-2008, there was an average of 7% growth in school enrolments each year. Between 2008 and 2011, we registered 4% annual growth, mainly in the private sector. We are also seeing a consistent increase in the number of students enrolled in higher education. Fundamentally, our education system differs from many places in the world in that it is not mainly provided by the government. In the face of the global financial crisis, many countries have greatly reduced their education spending. However, because our schools are privately run, the school system was not hit too hard. More people came than left during the economic crisis, maintaining a natural growth. In the region, the demand for private education will rise. As GDP grows, more people will want to enroll their children in private schools.

How are you regulating the cost of private school fees in Dubai?

Five years ago, we realized that schools' diverse business models and the growth of the population caused higher demand than supply, which is not an ideal situation. The older regulations were very conservative, and during the boom education options were restricted. Expatriate students could not choose to go to public schools, yet there were limited places available in private schools. There was little information available to help parents choose schools; they only had location, curriculum, and fees to base their decisions on. There was no data about the actual quality of education. At that time, we adopted a controlled-fee frame as an interim or medium-term strategy. We will maintain this approach until enough supply is in place to balance the market. At the same time, we have encouraged new schools to open. We also installed the first quality control mechanism for schools in the region, called the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB). It has led to a tremendous improvement in our schools. Many parents are basing their enrolment decisions on the information supplied by the Bureau. The biggest change has been within the schools themselves, which use the Bureau's recommendations as an operation manual. From the 2012/13 academic year, KHDA will be implementing a new school fees framework. This is a long-term framework that was developed in cooperation with the Department of Economic Development, the Department of Finance, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the Dubai Real Estate Corporation, the Dubai Statistics Centre, the Dubai Executive Council and KHDA. It is based on the quality of education each school offers along with the Educational Cost Index (ECI), which is a measure of the annual costs of running a school calculated by the Dubai Statistics Centre. The framework is designed to encourage schools to improve further to satisfy parents and students and to allow schools to develop long-term growth plans.

What do you expect the DSIB to reveal in 2012?

This is the Bureau's fourth year. Every year, we publish two reports. The first is for schools using the Indian curriculum, which is released in April. A report on the remaining private schools will be released in May/June this year. After our inspections, every school receives a 20-page document of our findings and recommendations. For the majority of the time, schools use the information to compare themselves to each other. Two Indian schools are rated outstanding this year for the first time, and one of those schools has 7,000 students. Another school with 3,000 students received that rank, which means 10,000 students enrolled in Indian-style schools are rated outstanding, the highest honor. Over the last four years, we have witnessed a marked increase in the number of schools with a “good" and “outstanding" rating. In 2011, we completed the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) review, which will be published in December. This assessment will demonstrate how far we have come since KHDA was established. It's an international tool for comparison that will measure our system against the global education industry. From the year-on-year increase in quality that we have measured internally, we expect very positive results. The World Bank has said that every country is trying to reform its education strategy. The difference is that education in Dubai is driven by the private sector. Over the last four years, we have not focused on the same aspects of education as the public sector has. We don't directly control recruitment, curriculum development, construction, or deliver leadership and teacher training. KHDA doesn't manage or operate these aspects, but we do have control over the regulations. We have to motivate our schools and hold them publicly accountable by publishing the results. Many other countries do not take this road, but it's the only option we have. The road we've chosen is the one less travelled. The bottom line is that the numbers will speak volumes about our model.

© The Business Year - April 2012