Health & Education

Hey Teacher!


Dubai's educational system is the pith of a complex story of development and change. The latest statistics show that the Emirate is the entrenched regional leader in higher education and didactic diversity.

Ten years ago, catching a cab ride from the Georgetown University lecture halls to Middlesex University’s research library would have struck anyone as futuristic, and would have required suspension of the laws of physics. At the heart of the Gulf, Dubai has eliminated the time and space separating these prestigious centers of learning, by establishing satellite campuses for both schools that are just minutes apart—and the year is 2015. This remarkable achievement occurred due to a state of constant flux that has characterized the Emirate’s demographic and physical state. As millions of expatriates come and go, they bring with them changing demands and progressing skill sets that require constant tweaking of policies and options. This trend is especially pronounced in Dubai, where, a decade ago, the central role of construction and energy demanded craftsmen and technical skills. But as the service sector eclipses these traditional economic bulwarks, universities have agglomerated around education incentives and free zones to train the next generation of lawyers, doctors, and scientists. As the Emirate has grown over the last two decades, the demand for private education has grown in tandem, driven by large numbers of expatriates who arrived to staff a wide spectrum of jobs. Labor migrants, who constitute at least 87% of the local population, tend to skew towards young, and male. That said, many still come with families, or start one upon arrival meaning that, sooner or later, these expatriates start looking at educational options for themselves or their offspring. According to a recent World Bank publication, 88% of all students attend private schools, which are able to respond to their client’s evolving needs in real time. The surge in demand around the turn of the century was so significant that authorities created the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in 2007 to oversee the sector’s expansion.

In order to support KHDA’s educational development activities, the Executive Council established the School Agency within the KHDA, with the mandate to develop the school sector by determining targeted outcomes for the school system, supervising teaching, and monitoring performance to ensure compliance with quality standards. The agency was also tasked with improving the teaching profession and elevating the position of teachers in society. In addition, governmental schools were granted more authority and provided with new administrative support services.

Today, the KHDA is responsible for the growth, direction, and quality of private education and learning in Dubai. It is the regulatory authority for the Government of Dubai, whose primary mission is to support the improvement of schools, universities, training institutes, and other human resource sectors. The KHDA describes its mission as being, “to assure quality and to improve accessibility to education, learning, and human development, with the engagement of the community.” The authority also acts as a regulator of the sector, for example curtailing unauthorized fee hikes at private schools in early 2015 that overwhelmingly hurt lower-income expatriate families.


According to the most recent KHDA data, 158 private schools are currently operating in Dubai, with an additional 10 having opened their doors during the 2013/14 school year. Enrollment in private schools was up during this time by 8.3%, or 18,616 students. These additional pupils pushed total enrollment in private schools up to 243,715—30,994 of whom were Emirati nationals. Emirati national students were also up, but by a smaller margin of 3.2%, or 950 students. These numbers mirror the Emirate’s demographic trends, where expatriate residents are growing faster than locals, especially as the region regains its luster in the wake of the 2008-2009 economic malaise. Future growth in student enrolment is expected to grow, and reflect the underlying economic conditions of the region.

Enrollment by nationality is another interesting reflection of the Emirate’s demographic composition. During the early years of the oil boom, the majority of guest workers in the Gulf region hailed from other, less resource-blessed parts of the Arab world, like Egypt and Yemen. Their cultural and linguistic similarities made these labor migrants well suited to handle the initial development projects. Over time, however, political transformations, like the demise of pan-Arabism, and economic shifts, such as the viability of east Asian labor saw millions of Indians, Pakistanis, and other workers from the east arrive to start their lives in the Gulf.

Now, there are students from 184 different nationalities attending Dubai’s private schools, underscoring the diversity that comes with Dubai’s location at the nexus of major markets, regions, and cultures. These recent immigrants place a premium on educational attainment, and schools in Dubai reflect this. Indian students make up the largest bloc, representing 34.5% of students in private schools alone. The next largest group is UAE nationals, at 12.7%, followed by Pakistanis with 9%. Private schools also reflect the prevalence of Indians in the region, with 30.8% classified as Indian schools by the KHDA. However, American and British schools are also popular, representing 20.9% and 32.2%, respectively. Only 6.5% of schools on the other hand are run by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which reflects a top-down push for private-sector solutions to social needs like education and healthcare in the Emirate.


There are 57 higher education institutions established in Dubai, which are broken down into three federal, 26 international, 25 local, and three vocational institutions. These four categorizations are differentiated as follows. Federal institutions are funded by the UAE government, and as of 2013, fall under regulatory jurisdiction of the KHDA. These universities include the likes of Zayed University, a bilingual English/Arabic institution that offers globally recognized bachelor degrees in the arts and sciences, business, education, IT, and media. The International University category consists of Degree-awarding institutions that instruct with an international institutional quality assurance and accreditation. These institutions include the aforementioned famous international schools that have flocked to the emirate to capitalize on a rapidly growing student body; their local counterparts are ‘Local Universities,’ which are accredited by the CAA, but do not have international institutional quality assurance and accreditation. Finally, vocational schools are the minority, and do not award degrees, but rather train students in technical skills that are in demand.


The 2013/14 school year was the first time that private universities established in the Free Zone provided the KHDA with electronic student data. As a result, the administration was able to provide a detailed analysis of the student population, which showed how developed higher education has become over the last decade.

While enrollment has steadily risen over the last decade, its pace quickened in 2011. Between 2010, and 2013, enrollment in universities shot up from 39,127 to 52,585 representing a 34% increase in just three years. Last year’s increase showed that students are still fighting for desk space, with an impressive 9.4% increase.

Emirati’s are also better represented in higher education, where they make up 43.2% of the student body. Unlike college enrollment at the western campuses of Dubai’s international universities, males make up a clear majority of the student population, or 56%. However, educational opportunities for women are strongly backed by the government, and this disparity is quickly fading. Just as importantly, in the Gulf region, women comprise 60% of engineering students in universities, compared with 30% in the US and Europe, according to UNESCO. As the regions educational leader, the enrollment numbers in Dubai define this trend.

Once again, Indian students are the most prominent international attendees of these universities at 16%; however, especially with the foundation of traditional western institutions in Dubai, more and more American and European students are finding their way to the region thanks to increasingly popular exchange programs.

A final note on the makeup of attendance for the Emirate’s schools underscores the changing nature of the region’s economy. For Dubai, which was the first in the region to launch ambitious diversification programs, these trends are playing out in career ambitions that have been nurtured throughout the educational tenures of its graduates. The service sector is king. 44% of students enrolled in 2013/2014 were pursuing business degrees, outpacing the runner up—media and design—by more than fourfold. At 10%, media and design, which are also in the services sector, show that students are responding to job market incentives for intellectual skills that have universal application.

This development stems from the 1996—2000 Strategic Development Plan, where human resource development was featured as a prerequisite to achieving sustainable economic and social development. The development focus shifted from an almost exclusive emphasis on the industrial sector, towards developing human capital, advancing the workforce, and increasing the participation of nationals in the labor market. This became the basis of a knowledge-based, skill-intensive economy. Decades ago, Dubai’s students had ambitions of steady employment and growth in the energy sector, but now they would rather open a design firm, or try their hand in the financial sector. The world is their oyster.