Dubai strengthens its position as a regional education hub

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Education capacity and enrolment are expanding rapidly across the United Arab Emirates
  • In Dubai alone, enrolment in K-12 private schools has grown by nearly 90% within the past decade, and total student numbers are projected to reach nearly 500,000 in another ten years
  • Foreign nationals account for a majority of both private K-12 and higher education enrolments in Dubai

Dubai is the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. It has clearly established itself as a major centre for trade and investment in the Middle East, and, increasingly, it is taking shape as an important regional study destination as well.

And no wonder. Dubai is home to more than 200 nationalities today, and 90% of the city’s population comes from abroad. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population is within an eight-hour flight, and the city is widely recognised for its outstanding transportation and communications infrastructure. US News & World Report recently ranked the UAE as one of the best countries in the world in which to begin a career, as “one of the Gulf’s most liberal countries”, and as the safest Arab-majority country.

Booming school population

As we reported last year, the UAE is the leading country in the world in terms of the number of students attending English-medium K-12 international schools. Recent International School Consultancy (ISC) research indicates that there are more than 550 English-medium K-12 international schools across the UAE, with nearly half of those in Dubai. There are roughly 550,000 students aged between 3 and 18 in English-medium international schools in the UAE – the highest enrolment of any country in the world by a significant margin.

A new report from the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) offers a more detailed look at private-sector K-12 schools in Dubai. It counts 185 private schools in Dubai with a combined enrolment of just under 274,000 students.

As of the 2016/17 school year, the sector is close to capacity (about 90% utilisation currently), and total spending on private school tuition fees amounts to 6.8 billion AED (US$1.85 billion) annually.

Only about 12% of the students in private schools in Dubai are native Emiratis. In contrast, Indian students, the largest single nationality in Dubai schools, make up just over a third (34%) of the total enrolment. Pakistan, Egypt, and the UK are also well represented.

leading-nationalities-in-private-k12-schools-in-dubai-2016/17
Leading nationalities in private K-12 schools in Dubai, 2016/17. Source: KHDA

Overall, the number of private schools in Dubai has nearly doubled in the past decade, and enrolment has kept pace with overall growth of 89% over the last ten years. Looking ahead, KHDA forecasts another 120 schools will open their doors in the coming decade, and projects that total enrolment in the city’s private schools will reach 470,000 over the same period.

Bright outlook for higher education

The burgeoning population of non-Emirati students in Dubai schools means the city is also growing in importance as a recruiting ground for third-country nationals planning to go on further education abroad.

But Dubai is also aggressively moving to grow its own higher education capacity, both by expanding the footprint of domestic institutions and by welcoming branch campuses operated by foreign institutions. Universities from 12 different exporting markets currently operate campuses in designated higher education “free zones” in Dubai, including those from the UK, US, Australia, India, Austria, and Russia.

Considering both international branch campuses and local institutions, there are now 62 higher education providers in Dubai. Those institutions had a combined enrolment of 60,300 students in 2016, including 33,600 foreign nationals.

The number of higher education institutions operating in the city began to expand rapidly around 2003, the year in which the first of Dubai’s free zones for education were established. Also setting the stage for more rapid enrolment growth within the past decade, the KHDA and University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAID) were established – in 2007 and 2008 respectively – in order to provide greater oversight and quality assurance for higher education in the Emirates.

As the following chart reflects, 39 of Dubai’s 62 HEIs are now located within the free zones, including 24 international branch campuses.

higher-education-provider-growth-in-dubai-1986-2017
Higher education provider growth in Dubai, 1986–2017. Source: KHDA

Keeping pace with this significant increase in the number of university seats, total higher education enrolment in Dubai has grown by nearly 65% since 2008, with overall foreign enrolment across the UAE growing even more quickly. UNESCO reports that the number of foreign students in the Emirates grew from about 48,600 in 2011 to nearly 74,000 in 2015 – a total increase of 51% in just five years.

Speaking at the recent International and Private Schools Education Forum (IPSEF) in Dubai, Dr Warren Fox, the KHDA’s chief of higher education, said, “Dubai has shown to the world it can become a leading global business hub, and is leveraging this success to attract international students to come to the Emirate to pursue higher education studies here. This reputation as a world-class commercial and trading centre is one of the top reasons why international students are coming to Dubai.”

For additional background, please see:

• “UAE leads the world in English-medium international school enrolments
• “Using social media to reach students in the Middle East and North Africa
• “English skills a key for mobility and employment in the Middle East and North Africa



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