The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country that punches well above its weight in the education world. While the latest figures from UNESCO Institute for Statistics show the UAE sends about 8,500 students abroad for tertiary-level study, it hosts over 54,000 in return, primarily from countries in Asia and the Gulf region.
Clearly, the UAE – and in particular, Dubai – has become a growing regional hub for education, attracting billions of dollars in investment and witnessing an astonishing pace of enrolment growth across its K-12 and higher education institutions.
To better understand the education sector in the UAE, and to explore current regional trends in the field, we had the chance to speak to Mrs Suad Alhalwachi, Director of Education Zone, an agency based in Dubai. We’re pleased to present two video excerpts from our conversation below, as well as additional supporting information for this dynamic market.
An education system that is growing quickly
According to Alpen Capital, the UAE’s population is expected to reach 9.9 million by 2016, with expatriate penetration exceeding an astounding 88%. A growing base of expatriates and nationals alike is contributing to a strong rise in enrolments in both K-12 and tertiary levels of education. Alpen reports as well on a corresponding increase in private sector participation in UAE education. Their report cites figures from the Education 2020 Conference that show the UAE’s private education sector was valued at AED7 billion (US$1.9 billion) in 2014.
“Local and foreign private institutions are increasingly entering the UAE to tap this growing demand,” adds the report.
Current tertiary enrolment of 115,510 students (2013 figures) is projected to rise to nearly 154,000 by 2019, with primary and secondary enrolment jumping from 785,229 to over 956,000 during the same period. It appears that a growing reputation for quality education, along with friendly visa policies, will continue to attract students from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to the UAE.
In our first video excerpt, Mrs Alhalwachi explains the important role the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks played in changing study abroad perceptions of students from the Middle East. While she notes that immediately following 9/11 a large number of students from the Middle East shifted their attention from the US to Australia and New Zealand, Mrs Alhalwachi says that among her clients, nearly 80% are now interested in studying in the UK or the US, reversing earlier gains by Australasia.
“Most of our governments are tied to the USA,” she says, explaining that the US has a reputation for quality and the US is a well-known brand for most Middle Eastern students. She notes that many adults in the region studied in the United States in previous decades and adds that American universities visit the region frequently and provide a broad range of university options for students.
The role of social media, so prominent in the rise of the Arab Spring, has also changed the way students approach studying abroad. “They [students] seem to have woken up from a deep sleep,” she says. “They’re wired all the time… they know everything that’s happening.”
Consequently, she says, many students come to her office having already conducted significant research online, with strong opinions of where they’d like to study. American universities, she feels, have done a good job building loyalty among prospective Middle Eastern students through a strong online and social media presence.
Growing interest in study abroad among female students
In a second video below, Mrs Alhalwachi discusses how young women across the Gulf are more independent-minded and focused on education compared to earlier generations. This independence, shaped in part by the generation of Baby Boomer women from the region, has “created a breed of girls who are not scared to travel abroad,” she says.
Mrs Alhalwachi says universities hoping to attract female students from the Middle East should pay close attention to the particular needs of this group. In her view, offering degrees popular among young Gulf women, providing an atmosphere that is welcoming to female students by having single-sex accommodations, reducing the stigma around women wearing headscarves, and publicising their interest in enrolling female students from the region are all critical.
Mrs Alhalwachi closes the second video by referencing the vital role female business owners, investors, and entrepreneurs continue to play in education in the region. She estimates that nearly 50% of universities and colleges in the region are owned by women, with the majority of private schools in Bahrain owned by women. Women also reportedly play a key role in owning or financing education projects in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Dubai.
After the Arab Spring
In a recent presentation at ICEF Dubai, Mrs Alhalwachi highlighted the wealth of new education opportunities across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, driven both by demographics and increased investment. Nearly 70% of the population across the region is under 30, and despite massive investment, governments are struggling to meet the demand for education.
The events of the Arab Spring, she said, produced an articulate, well-educated cohort of young people who have continued to press governments for new spending in education. The instability of some countries following the Arab Spring has left many youth in the region interested in studying abroad, and many of these students have chosen to study in Dubai.
One example of Dubai’s role as a key hub for students from the region is the massive Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) development. Billed as “the world’s largest Free Zone dedicated to higher education,” DIAC is an 18 million square foot state-of-the-art campus involving institutions from ten countries and hosting over 20,000 students from 125 countries.
Mrs Alhalwachi spoke of how countries around the region are taking different approaches to meeting demand. Within the UAE, as the example of DIAC dramatically illustrates, private and international providers play a significant role in continuing to grow capacity. Alpen Capital reports, “As of January 2014, the UAE had more than 100 private education providers in its higher education segment compared to nine public education providers.”
Mrs Alhalwachi cites the development of an additional 1,500 scholarships by the Omani government as another concrete way countries are responding to demand. For more coverage of the Omani market, please see our earlier post.
She also highlights opportunities for institutions and governments in providing expertise for curriculum development, assessment and evaluation tools, teacher training, IT, quality assurance, and the development of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The most popular university programmes for students throughout the MENA region, according to her presentation, include business, engineering, medicine, journalism, and graphic design/architecture.
Figures from UNESCO underline the strong outbound global mobility among tertiary level students from the region. According to UNESCO statistics, for example, around 62,500 Saudi students studied abroad, many on government scholarships. About half currently study in the US, followed by the UK, Australia, Jordan, and Canada. Key destinations for students from the UAE, meanwhile, include the United Kingdom, US, Australia, India, and Canada.
Demand for private schools driving growth
The demand for education services across the region is predicted to grow sharply in the coming years. According to the Alpen Capital report, population growth, an increase in expatriates, and the rising importance of high-quality education are all driving growth in the sector.
With governments around the region recognising the need to invest in high-quality education, the sector is set for tremendous expansion. The Alpen report quotes Faris Tayeb Al-Baker, vice chairman of Kings’ Holdings:
“We have noticed a rapid and significant change in the private education sector, particularly in the UAE where the population demographics are shifting. In terms of the future, we are anticipating a shortage of school places and a demand for more high-end private schools that will cater for the breadth of nationalities, coupled with an awareness of local culture and language.”
Some of the numbers quoted in the report are astonishing, for example:
- It indicates that 355 education projects are currently underway across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, with 92% of those in Saudi Arabia.
- Alpen projects a 3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of students in the region between 2013 and 2020, eventually reaching 13.7 million.
- Enrolment in private schools is set for even more staggering growth: 6.7% CAGR between 2013 and 2020, fueled by demographics and concerns with quality.
- The report quotes UNESCO figures that forecast an additional 9.5 million students across the entire GCC region between 2011 and 2030.
The report also underlines the growing influence of Dubai as the regional education hub. Dubai is now the third most popular destination for MENA students, after the US and France. As a result of this demand, there are 433 international schools currently in operation in the UAE alone.
This rapid growth has been duly noted in the press. Gulf News reports that 70,000 more school seats are needed in Abu Dhabi by 2020, while Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority says that more than 20,000 new seats will be created in the emirate this year alone. According to Gulf News, private schools are expected to accommodate 283,000 pupils in Abu Dhabi by 2020.
“We realise the importance of the private sector in delivering education, and our vision is to make Abu Dhabi one of the best investment opportunities for the field of education,” Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, Director General at the Abu Dhabi Education Council told Gulf News. “Efforts should be made to provide an appropriate environment and offer support to attract high-quality operators and to encourage the expansion of existing schools.”
The National adds that the number of Emiratis choosing private schools continues to rise, as concerns about quality, pedagogical methods, and English language skills mount. This trend highlights an underlying concern for many parents in the Emirates: securing access to prestigious overseas universities for their children.
The Gulf region, and in particular the UAE, continues to provide tremendous opportunity. With deep strategic investments in the education sector (see infographic below), strong government support for scholarship programmes and system expansion, and a developed network of local on-the-ground agents, the region offers a robust and dynamic landscape for international educators.