TOP OF THE CLASS

UAE, Dubai 2012 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Well-known as a technology and media hub, Dubai is quietly making strides as a regional center for education. As the Emirate invests in free zones specializing in the education sector, the number and quality of educational institutions is on the rise.

Keeping pace with the rapid population growth in Dubai, the education sector is quickly expanding to meet upped demand. In 2011, there were more than 230,000 primary and secondary school students and more than 43,000 higher education students in Dubai. By investing heavily in infrastructure at all levels of education, Dubai Municipality hopes to educate the rising generation of Emiratis, as well as attract students from neighboring countries for top-notch university education. At the same time, the Emirate is hoping to expand the number of schools and teachers at the primary and secondary levels in order to meet the growing demand for high-quality education.

Although the majority of education in Dubai is private, the municipal government plays a role via its regulatory and advisory organization, the Knowledge & Human Development Authority (KHDA), in maintaining quality standards and ensuring that education institutions follow government regulations and are held accountable in a transparent manner. “The government commissioned KHDA as a local body to monitor the sector, primarily in private education and the key stages of schooling" Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, KHDA's Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General explained to TBY. “Our role is basically as a regulator for the sector, to maintain the pace of education at the same speed as everything else in Dubai."

PRIVATE EDUCATION DOMINATES

Making up approximately 88% of all primary and secondary schools in Dubai, private schools dominate the primary and secondary education scene. Of the total student population, 207,500 students—the great majority of whom are not UAE citizens—are enrolled in 148 private primary and secondary schools. In contrast, public schools, for which attendance is only open to UAE citizens, accounted for 43% of Emirati students in 2011, down from 61% in the 2003-2004 school year. This increase in private education, despite the fact that public education in Dubai is free, is largely due to the perception that the quality of private education is higher, there is better access to English language instruction, and that private schools are more conveniently located, according to survey data from the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau.

Although most private school students in Dubai are instructed based on the UK curriculum—and this was the fastest growing segment of private schools in 2011—there are 13 different curricula offered in Dubai private schools. However, over 90% of private school students are taught according to UK, Indian, US, or UAE educational standards. At higher levels of secondary education, many UK- and US-oriented schools offer courses within the scope of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. Across the spectrum of private schools, the majority of classes are gender integrated at 59%, while 22% are exclusively male and 19% female only.

There is a wide discrepancy in price for private education in Dubai. While about half of all private school students pay less than AED10,000 per year in tuition fees, some 8% of students pay more than AED45,000 per year. According a 2011 report on private education in Dubai by KHDA, tuition for schools using Iranian, Pakistani, Philippine, and UAE curricula charge an average of AED15,000 per year, but there is no program that teaches IB courses with tuition less than AED29,000 per year. The overall average teacher to student ratio in Dubai is 16:1. Schools were able to keep pace with the 7.1% growth in student enrollment in 2011, increasing the total number of teachers to 13,180, a y-o-y growth of 7.6%.

HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS

Much more than merely access to glamorous hotels, impressive skyscrapers, or world-class shopping, Dubai offers post-secondary students a doorway into a globally connected world city with abundant business and professional opportunities. A 2012 report concerning higher education from the KHDA argues that Dubai's tertiary student population has shown steady growth over the past four years despite the economic slump worldwide. Growing 10% in y-o-y terms from 2011 to 2012, Dubai boasts a total of 43,212 students attending its 52 institutions of higher learning. Of these, 43%, or 18,708 students, are Emirati, and they make up the largest group of higher education students in Dubai by nationality. The Emirati student population, which has grown 11% from 2010 to 2011, is approximately 55% male. This figure stands in contrast to the UAE as a whole, where over 70% of the students in higher education are women, according to a recent working paper from the Dubai School of Government. Compared to the other emirates, students in Dubai have the highest CEPA English scores and the lowest rate of male “no shows" in secondary education. This trend, which also correlates with the substantially higher per capita income in Dubai, indicates that young male Emiratis from Dubai outperform their peers in the other emirates.

Other nationalities studying in higher education institutions in Dubai include Indian, Pakistaki, Iranian, other Arab, and African students. Similar to primary and secondary level of education, the number of private universities and colleges in Dubai dwarf the number of public ones; there are only three federal institutions in Dubai: Dubai Men's College, Dubai Women's College, and Zayed University. The federal institutions, while not exclusive to Emiratis, have low rates of foreign-student attendance.

In terms of subject matter, business degrees lead higher education in Dubai, with approximately 39% of all university students enrolled in a total of more than 160 degree or certificate programs for business administration. Other popular subjects include information technology, engineering, and media and design. There are only a few higher education programs in Dubai offering natural and physical science, architecture, or education. However, the authorities are aiming to boost support for education programs in the coming years in order to continue to meet the demand for more teachers at the primary and secondary levels.

Zafar Siddiqi, Chairman of Murdoch University, outlined to TBY the level of growth in the education sector and how higher education institutions in Dubai were affected by the economic crisis. Noting the resiliency of the education sector in Dubai, Siddiqi said, “the crisis did not affect our operations. In fact, the number of our students continued to grow during that period... in general, we reported an average increase in the student population of about 15%-20% per year." Dr. Al Karam of KHDA made a similar point in an interview with TBY, saying that “the economic crisis did not hit the school system too hard, because they are run privately. Growth matched the growth of the population... in the region, the demand for private education will rise." This continued growth has allowed universities to increase staff size and employ a greater number of expatriates. Siddiqi added that, “talented people like to locate here. We have found a lot of interest in professors and lecturers who are currently living in Australia and want to live in Dubai to discover the culture and influence students with their knowledge."

DEVELOPMENT OF FREE ZONES

The municipal government's focus on the establishment of free zones is a major factor in the development of Dubai's education sector. In order to increase the specialization and quality of education, the Dubai Municipality formulated the free zone concept as a way to incentivize education infrastructure development and entice foreign partners to enter the higher education sector in Dubai. Another goal of the free zones, according to Dr. Al Karam was to “fuel the need for the future workforce," allowing the UAE to rely less heavily on expatriates in education and other sectors. The first free zone, the Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) was established in 2003. The aim of the DKV is to create a dedicated area for higher education and provide incentives to foreign partners, such as allowing 100% foreign owned entities within the zone and providing discounts on property and construction costs within this area. This initiative has borne substantial investments in education from both within the UAE and also abroad, and the number of higher education institutions utilizing the benefits of the free zone initiative has exploded from five in the DKV in 2003 to 31 institutions in 2011.

The success of the DKV inspired the municipal government to establish additional free zones with yet further specialization and focus. By 2012 Dubai had created three additional free zones, including the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), and Silicon Oasis. By 2012 the number of higher education institutions outside of free zones stood at only 18 private organizations and three federal universities. The DKV boasts the highest number of higher education institutions at 15. The second most developed free zone is DIAC, established in 2005, which hosts 10 universities. DHCC, DIFC, and Silicon Oasis host six institutions that hew closely to the industrial focus of each zone.

The unique opportunities and benefits afforded to institutions that locate in the free zones have allowed Dubai to attract a variety of high-profile institutions and international programs in a short time. The Dubai Municipality took another significant step in 2011 by establishing the KHDA as the official regulator and data collector for institutions operating in the free zones. Centralizing accountability and monitoring of education institutions with the KHDA ensures a focus on high-quality education and also streamlining degree certification for graduates who plan to work in Dubai. The Dubai Municipality also established the University and Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB), made up of higher education experts from a round the world, in 2008. The UQAIB aims to ensure that Dubai's institutions of higher education adhere to international standards for university curriculum and programs and can maintain accreditation in partner countries.