UK involvement in UAE education

86: UAE-based British schools

32: UAE education bodies with UK links

4: UK universities with a campus presence in the UAE

Source: British Council

With a fifth of its indigenous population aged below 14, the UAE has made education a priority for government and private investment. In 2010, the government allocated 22.5 per cent of the federal budget to education, representing a planned spend of AED9.8bn ($2.7bn).

Reaching a critical mass of students is very important. It can be tough for universities to recruit Emirati students

Sunita Mirchandani, British Embassy, Dubai

The Ministry of Education has set itself 10 objectives. These include improved primary and secondary education, an upgraded curriculum, new federation-wide standards and better provision for students with learning difficulties. Other priorities include open access to education through a mixture of private and affordable state schools, promoting a UAE national identity, encouraging parental input and improving training to create home-grown teachers and education professionals.

Abu Dhabi offers generous endowments to prestigious foreign schools and colleges. Beneficiaries so far include the AED1.6bn ($436m) Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and the liberal arts school, New York University, which received $50m this year.

Accountable and relevant education in Dubai

Meanwhile reform is under way in neighbouring Dubai to make education more accountable and relevant. In 2006, Dubai created the Knowledge & Human Development Authority (KHDA) to supervise standards and attract new providers. KHDA supervises Dubai’s 224 schools, including 145 private schools. Controversially, KHDA has introduced caps on school fees. It argues that high cost is no guarantee of high quality and says it will reopen the market to competition once school standards improve.

Dubai has created specialist free zones to attract private and international colleges, universities and training bodies. Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) and Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) are both managed by government body Tecom Investments. DIAC focuses on higher education, while DKV will focus on non-degree and vocational training.

Sharjah has its own Education City, home to a cluster of universities and the higher colleges of technology. Most of the northern emirates have their own education free zones.

British education has carved a niche in the UAE, which is home to 86 British schools. Observers believe the market continues to offer new opportunities. Currently the UAE’s 474 private schools teach 85 per cent of the country’s primary and secondary school students, while the state school sector comprises more than 700 schools. There are particular opportunities for British curriculum schools, where the numbers seeking places far outweigh current supply, particularly at secondary level.

The UAE has among the world’s highest enrolment rates in tertiary education: an estimated 90 per cent of Emirati secondary school students go on to further studies. But figures from the British Council suggest that more than 100 tertiary education bodies, nearly half from overseas, are competing to recruit just 91,000 college-level UAE students. Emirati nationals account for just 11 per cent of students enrolled in the UAE’s tertiary education sector. In consequence a number of new universities have struggled to hit recruitment targets. This summer Michigan State University closed its Dubai campus, having failed to recruit 1,000 students and last year George Mason University closed its Ras al-Khaimah campus for the same reason.

Dubai’s response has been to recruit from Africa and India to make up the shortfall in home-grown student numbers. The market is dominated by students from South Asia. The disproportionate number of students from lower income backgrounds makes UAE education more price-sensitive than the country’s high per capita GDP would suggest.

“Reaching a critical mass of students is very important,” Sunita Mirchandani, trade and investment adviser for education and skills at the British Embassy in Dubai says. “It can be tough for universities to recruit Emirati students, many of whom still prefer to study abroad. In future, though, governments will make less funding available for nationals to study overseas.”

Teacher training needs in the UAE

Meanwhile, the UAE urgently needs to train teachers, IT professionals, doctors, nurses and medical administrators and to create home-grown research and development. All seven emirates are keen to attract top-level medical schools from overseas.

There are opportunities across the UAE for non-degree, vocation-based training, too. Here, Mirchandani is cautious. “Training companies seeking to enter the market will need to demonstrate that they can add value,” she says.

Other opportunities for UK education companies will come from UAE-wide plans to restructure sports education, investment in school construction, maintenance and IT equipment. The UAE will also need specialist training programmes to support expansion of the aerospace and renewable energy sectors.