Health & Education

Abu Dhabi’s Education Sector


The Federal government of the UAE is determined for education to fuel economic growth and Emiratization, and international links and foreign students confirm its success.

The UAE has 78 licensed institutions of higher education, and over 700 accredited programs, compared to just nine universities a quarter of a century ago. And even a cursory glance at the system reveals a strong technocratic orientation. Recently, the federal government, having canvassed public opinion on educational reform, has committed to a radical raft of educational amendments to the system. It is also determined to incentivize people to enter the teaching profession. The amendments themselves start at the outset of the educational journey with a new assessment of nursery school performances. In secondary education, changes include an end to pupils making early choices between science and humanities subjects. Moving onto the tertiary educational level, one stand-out reform is the end of the traditional preparatory year at university to be replaced by a university-oriented, secondary school restructuring. Meanwhile, stricter evaluation and ranking of universities is to be implemented.


Keeping higher education in the UAE competitive and at the top of its game since 2001 through licensing and accreditation is the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), the Federal Government’s Quality Assurance Agency. A part of the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research, the CAA licenses non-federal educational institutions to grant degrees and other academic awards. The CAA is also mandated to promote education in the international arena and liaise with other accreditation organizations abroad.


Among the top five institutes of higher education by web ranking, the top three are based in Abu Dhabi, though the first is present in other Emirates. In descending order, they are Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), established in 1988, United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) established in 1976, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, established in 2007, Zayed University, eponymously named after the founder of the nation, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and established in 1998—was opened for women with campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai—and University of Sharjah, founded in 1997.


The HCT—the largest higher education institution in the UAE—works in step with the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT), its commercial, research, and training arm. This setup provides the university with a think tank, commercial wing, and internal research bank. Vice-Chancellor Dr. Tayeb Kamali notes that the 2013/2014 academic year saw 6,000 new student enrolments, up a notable 35% YoY, “…which indicates that we are providing Emirati students with the right options.”

The UAE is above all determined for education to feed directly into a tangible economic advantage. And as Dr. Sulaiman M. Al Jassim, Vice-President of Zayed University (ZU) told TBY, “for the Abu Dhabi economy to be internationally competitive it must have a strong local innovation system with research centers in universities and business incubators linked to universities.” ZU is the sole internationally accredited state university in the MENA region. Beyond this, ZU prides itself on the prestige its graduates enjoy in the workplace, and by extension, its contribution to Emiratization and the national Vision.

UAEU was the nation’s first university and is a state entity. Commenting on the role industry plays in education, Vice-Chancellor Ali Rashid Al-Noaimi notes that, “…many of the faculty in engineering, science, and IT get support from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), private companies, the military, or the police force.” Indeed, a high water mark for the university was the receipt of a patent in the US, the EU, and Hong Kong for its development of a new diagnostic technique for Parkinson’s disease and related illnesses of similar pathology.


The Emirates Institute for Banking and Financial Studies (EIBFS) was set up in 1983 to deliver superlative education in banking and financial studies so as to advance the local skilled workforce, and has contributed to meeting Emiratization levels. The institution has two campuses in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, with a third planned for Dubai. It offers a Higher Banking Diploma Program, and also an Islamic Banking Diploma Program, important given the rapid rise of Islamic financial instruments and need for locals skilled in promoting them.


Abu Dhabi University has announced a freeze on tuition fees for the 2013-2014 academic year, and in a bid to dissuade top-scoring alumni from foreign postgraduate study is extending discounted fees on Master’s courses. Gulf News reported that graduates with a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or equivalent would enjoy a 25% tuition fee discount. The university, founded in 2003 with 900 students, today accommodates over 5,000 due to its success in welcoming staff of international pedigree. Just seven years later, it became the first university to garner the Sheikh Khalifa Excellence Award. Chancellor Dr. Nabil Ibrahim explained that the university has “…over 40 local and international partners who enrich our academic mission…” partnering “…with public and private organizations such as Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency, Tawazun, Etihad, and the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED),” and international institutions such as University of Illinois and Purdue University.


In the 2012/13 academic year, over 42,000 international students hit the books in the UAE, with 72% of international students originating from the Middle East. Meanwhile, the top three overseas addresses for UAE students were the UK, the US, and Australia. Among a wide array of foreign university activity in the Emirate, one interesting cooperative venture is the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. As Vice-Chancellor Dr. Eric Fouache puts it, “The government is building a society where intellect from around the world comes together here in the Middle East.” The institution boasts a 95% success rate at the Bachelor’s level. “The idea of obtaining a French degree in the UAE with French and English competence in an Arabic country boasting strong economic growth is very attractive,” he continues.

As Gordon Slaven, Country Director of the British Council noted, while there are nine British universities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi thus far only hosts the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, UAE. The local environment is complex here with the Emirate level, the federal level, and then the private and the public sectors. The British Council places medical students in the UK. “Our flagship education event, the Going Global conference in March 2013, attracted 1,300 participants from 80 countries, and HCT was our key delivery partner for that.”