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UAE leads the world in English-medium international school enrolments

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • We are pleased to present the following guest post from Diane Glass, Director for Higher Education and Business at The International School Consultancy (ISC), a market intelligence and research firm focused on international English-speaking schools
  • New ISC research highlights the United Arab Emirates as the global leader in English-medium school enrolment: 545,074 students are now enrolled in 548 international schools in the Emirates, a significant lead over the Saudi Arabia’s second-largest enrolment of 260,989
  • More broadly, ISC calculates that more than 4.3 million students are now being educated at over 8,200 international schools worldwide; by 2026, enrolment is projected to reach 8.7 million
  • This has become an increasingly important recruitment channel for universities as nearly all students enrolled in English-medium K-12 schools intend to pursue undergraduate studies abroad

New ISC research – reported in the ISC Market Intelligence Report for the UAE – shows that the United Arab Emirates is the leading country in the world in terms of the number of students attending English-medium K-12 international schools, and that UAE English-medium K-12 students are almost all aiming for undergraduate degrees at Western universities. The UAE is also competing in a very tight race with China for top spot when it comes to the country possessing the highest number of international schools.

A closely watched sector

English-medium K-12 international schools have become a highly targeted sector for many Western universities, because virtually all of these schools’ students are aiming to pursue undergraduate degrees abroad, and because the schools prepare students with the academic and personal skills relevant for this purpose. Representatives from 81% of international schools surveyed by ISC in separate research said that over 95% of their students plan to attend universities overseas for their undergraduate degrees. Higher education destinations of choice are Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, as well as a growing number of reputable universities around the world offering English-medium degree courses.

UAE is the global leader for enrolments

The ISC Market Intelligence Report for the UAE reveals that there are 548 English-medium K-12 international schools in the UAE. Of the seven Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have the most international schools; Dubai with 260 and Abu Dhabi with 191. More schools are under construction with 14 due to open during 2016 including GEMS International School in Mudon, Canadian International School in Dubai, Sunmarke School in Jumeirah Village, and a new school for Alder Academies in Abu Dhabi. Several more schools are in various phases of development.

The total number of students aged between 3 and 18 attending English-medium international schools in the UAE is 545,074. This is the highest enrolment of any country in the world by a significant margin (Saudi Arabia follows with 260,989). Four in ten (41%) international schools in the UAE offer education for 16-18-year-olds.

There are several reasons why student enrolment is so high at international schools in the UAE. The governments of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are purposefully increasing their expatriate populations, as well as allowing unlimited enrolment of local children at international schools (some countries have government quotas restricting the number of local children able to enrol). This – coupled with the wealth of the country, the already huge expatriate population, and demand for high quality, English-medium education by both the expatriates and wealthy locals – explains why student enrolment is so high.

A multinational mix of students

The ISC report shows that Emirati students compose the single largest student nationality (25%) enrolled at international schools in UAE with the exception of Dubai, where they are outnumbered by Indian children (29%). However, in no Emirate do local children exceed 50% of the student population. British (6%), Pakistani, Egyptian, and Jordanian students are other significant student nationalities in the overall student population; Americans make up just 2% of the whole.

Almost half (47%) of international schools in the UAE follow a British curriculum and 73% offer IGCSE, GCE AS, and/or GCE A levels. A US style of curriculum is the next most popular choice.

Falling oil prices may bring tuition fees down

Families of secondary students at the premium international schools in the UAE are currently paying an average annual tuition fee of US$18,006. However, the ISC report states that several school Heads are noticing an increasing number of expatriate students applying without having access to full school fee funding from an employer. The report says that this is most likely caused by falling oil prices and the impact this is having on the region’s economy as a whole. Many companies in the oil and gas industry have, in the past, covered or contributed to the cost of school fees for the children of staff, and these companies may have to cut back on such expenses. This may cause school fees to stabilise or come down over the next two years.

An expanding population means the sector will continue to grow

Nevertheless, the ISC Market Intelligence Report notes that the international schools market in the UAE continues to flourish with Dubai’s population projected to grow by 13% within the next two years. Together with further expansion in Abu Dhabi, demand for international school places in these two Emirates will continue to increase substantially. The report also suggests that the Northern Emirates, which currently have 29 international schools, represent a potential growth market for the UAE where new developments have been emerging over the past two years. “Further growth is inevitable, spurred by increasing demand from both the expatriate community and local families,” the report concludes.

Local families have a global view for their children’s education

Looking globally, enrolment in K-12 English-medium international schools is increasingly dominated by children of local families, primarily those of the richest 5% of non-English-speaking parents seeking the most reliable route to Western higher education. With increasing competition, international students need more than just good grades from their local state school to gain much sought-after places at reputable universities in Britain, the US, or Canada. For many of these families, the combination of learning in the language of English and Western higher education is considered to be their child’s passport to global career opportunities and prosperity.

This is why so many local families are turning to the English-medium international schools in their home country. ISC data suggests that an average of 80% of students attending international schools around the world today are children from these families.

Such demands from local families in many countries around the world, combined with the educational needs of expatriates, means that the English-medium K-12 international schools market has grown significantly in recent years. In the year 2000, there were 2,584 international schools around the world teaching fewer than 1 million students. Today more than 4.3 million students are being educated at over 8,200 international schools, and by 2026 ISC predicts student enrolment will reach 8.7 million.

Diane Glass is the Director for Higher Education and Business at The International School Consultancy. ISC provides an online market information and communication tool for international undergraduate recruitment and marketing targeting the international schools sector. Please see the ISC website for additional information or contact Diane directly.

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