Education’s top brands go global


Dubai gives elite schools and colleges a new location for their successful teaching ethos, finds Diana Bentley

Nowhere is the economic boom in Dubai more evident than in the education sector. A rash of new schools, universities and colleges have opened and many more are planned. Dubai’s government believes that education will help boost its talent pool and achieve the knowledge-based economy envisaged in its Strategic Plan for 2015, launched in February 2007 by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. In May last year, his educational foundation was established with a personal endowment of about £5 billion to help realise improvements in the sector.

Infrastructure for education has expanded to include dedicated learning precincts and demand for training and education in a rapidly expanding workforce is at an all-time high. As the boom continues, the government is introducing measures to regulate the quality of existing and new educational bodies.

Education zones

Two special precincts in Dubai are devoted to learning – the Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV), launched in 2003, and the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), founded in 2007. ”We’ve now got 400 business partners in areas like HR training and development, management training, e-learning, linguistic institutes, executive development and HR consulting and an assessment and testing centre,” says Dr Ayoub Kazim, executive director of both villages.

The 25m square foot DIAC is a natural offshoot of the growth of DKV, he says. “This cluster is devoted to higher education and is the result of the huge demand for it from regional and expatriate students.” Together, the villages host over 25 universities from around the world. “More land may be allocated to learning when both zones reach their maximum capacity,” says Kazim.

Both villages are free zones, which means they are not subject to the regulations of the UAE Ministry of Education and institutions operating there enjoy 100% foreign ownership, 100% freedom from taxes and repatriation of profits. Both have an array of common amenities like restaurants, car parks, gardens and shops. However, they are choosy about who gets in. “We ensure a proper balance of the institutions coming here based on their standing and programme quality. Last year 54 applications were received and four universities were selected,” Kazim reports. “Two institutions have been asked to leave DIAC when the quality of their programmes failed to match the standards of the parent institution.”

Regulators at work

“The UAE ministry of education has been decentralising the administration of education in the UAE for some years. It understands that states in the UAE have different challenges,” says Dr Abdulla al-Karam, director general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Formed last April, the KHDA oversees the development and supervision of Dubai’s education sector.

Dubai has 200,000 students in public and private schools and universities he points out. “Twenty different curriculums are taught here, which is remarkable for a place with a small population. But that reflects Dubai’s cosmopolitan nature,” says Karam. While Dubai is already an economic regional hub, development of social services such as education will help drive further growth. “We need a high-level workforce to reach the goals of the strategic plan and trying to achieve that is challenging.”

The KDHA licenses companies that provide education and training and is creating new bodies to regulate the sector. “About five years ago, branches of foreign universities started opening to satisfy demand for higher education. We have universities from 13 countries here. We need to triple our number of graduates but we need to maintain quality. From last year, more due diligence is being carried out on educational institutions wanting to open here,” Karam says.

“Quality assessment has always been there but we established the University Quality Assurance International Board [UQAIB] in March, which will help strengthen it.”

Composed of an international panel of experts, the UQAIB will ensure that higher educational bodies opening in Dubai’s Free Zones are properly accredited in their home countries and that degrees earned in Dubai match the standards in their country of origin. From next year all schools will be inspected by the new Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. A body to oversee early learning bodies will be established next year.

The local population enjoys free higher education and is catered for by federal institutions such as the UAE University and Zayed University for women. However, private universities – some with fees of about £27,000 for an MBA – can be expensive for locals. “Scholarships for locals to attend private universities may be a good idea – more support is needed in this area,” Al Karam admits. The Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation is also interested in wider regional development he reports. “Dubai has a unique opportunity – we’re better placed than anyone else to create a global educational system.”

Higher education

When they want further study, Dubai’s expats and locals can chose from a range of higher education institutions from around the world. Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) already houses 29 universities and colleges, including European University College Brussels, Mahatma Gandhi University, Manchester Business School Worldwide, the University of Exeter, the University of Wollongong in Dubai and the University of Phoenix. Last December the Rochester Institute of Technology announced it would open a campus in late 2008. Michigan State University, too, will open next month and a Dubai branch of the St Joseph University Beirut will be established.

Middlesex University Dubai’s first students were admitted in January 2005. The Dubai school is the university’s first campus outside the UK. Based in Dubai’s Knowledge Village, (DKV) it started with 25 students and now has 950 from 45 countries. “We should grow to 3,000 students in the next four to five years,” says deputy vice-chancellor Terry Butland. “We cater for expats and locals but we also have students from Nigeria. They could go to our campus in London but some want to stay in a Muslim world.” There have been no difficulties working in the Muslim world, he says. “We have mixed classes and operate on the Muslim calendar.”

Edinburgh-based Heriot-Watt University opened its Dubai campus in 2005. Ruth Moir, head of campus, says: “We now have about 700 students, mostly from the expat community, but will have 900 next year and possibly more.” Like Middlesex University and others, Heriot-Watt’s undergraduate and graduate courses are designed to meet local interests.

“We have a good range of courses including accounting, business and finance, engineering, science, construction management and quantity surveying and factories management,” says Moir. New courses will include urban real estate management, logistics, supply chain management and transport.

Undergraduate Neeru Kundvani, one of its first students, considered the local universities before selecting Heriot-Watt. “My parents wanted me to stay in Dubai and I did, too. With Heriot-Watt you can study with an internationally recognised university and with an international mix of students and you can transfer to Edinburgh.”

Kundvani, 21, is now completing her studies in Edinburgh. Although she praises the level of teaching at the Dubai campus, she notes that until now Dubai has lacked student services. “It’s not as good as it is in Edinburgh. But last time I visited Dubai, I saw that student life has improved – there are more sports and clubs available.”

Executive training

“Companies are recruiting heavily for Dubai. About 25,000 people arrive each month and want to acquire new business tools and disciplines,” says Fawzi Bawab, a partner of Meirc Training and Consulting, a training and human resources company.

“It’s very competitive and companies are starting to distinguish between those who are quality suppliers and those who aren’t. The business world is evolving fast,” says Bawab. “You have to stay close to clients and accommodate their changing needs – now there’s a great need for training in real estate and customer services, which can be a weak area here.” Dr David Reay, of Gibson Consulting, moved his business to Dubai from the UK three years ago and provides training on sales, marketing, relationship management and customer services, mainly to the leisure industry. “The competition is high quality and widespread,” he says. “People wanting to set up here need to research the market well and find a niche area they can work in. There’s a huge number of nationalities in the workforce and people need training to smooth out cultural differences and operate in an international environment.”

Institutions providing higher executive training such as executive MBAs (EMBAs) are proliferating. Designed for experienced executives or active entrepreneurs who want to further their education while they are still working, EMBAs normally offer programmes that can be more easily be combined with work and a range of readily applicable business and management subjects that will also help boost analytical skills. Often, students are sponsored fully or partially by employers.

Last September London Business School (LBS) launched its Dubai-based EMBA with 78 students. “It’s the first time we’ve had our programmes at a foreign location. It’s one of the best strategic and business locations in the world. We have students from all over the region and the UK, Germany, America, Canada and Italy,” says Professor Zeger Degraeve, faculty director of the Dubai programmes.

LBS teachers fly in from London and the 17-month programme follows the London format with four-day modules each month. Some students are based in Dubai while others jet in for classes. The school is housed in the Dubai International Financial Centre, where many of its students are based. “The course is oversubscribed so from 2009 we’ll run two courses a year with a new course starting in January,” says Degraeve.

London’s Cass Business School launched its EMBA programme last September. While it largely follows the London course, the programme offers elective streams on Islamic finance, economics and law. “There’s a huge interest in these subjects,” notes Cass’s associate dean, Stefan Szymanski. But will the market for MBAs get saturated? “Schools like the LBS are excellent schools and we compete, but we’re not locked in mortal combat. In a market like Dubai, there’s huge demand and people here are looking for good educational brands,” he says.


A wide selection of private primary and secondary schools serve Dubai’s various expat communities. Schools offering the English curriculum include the Dubai English Speaking School, the Jumeriah English Speaking School (Jess) and Dubai College, a secondary school.

In 2005, Jess opened a second primary school and a secondary school. “We’ve got 1,800 students and will have 2,000 when the secondary school is fully operational in 2010,” says school director Rob Stokoe. “Dubai is expanding incredibly fast. We built the new primary as we were heavily oversubscribed but we’re still facing huge waiting lists – currently 1,600 for our primary schools.”

Patterns of expat behaviour in Dubai have changed, Stokoe notes. “Expat families would remain for three years then move on. Now people are staying on long-term and buying property. Children often returned to secondary schools in the UK but this is happening less – hence our new senior school.”

The school has been getting UK Ofsted officers to inspect it annually, but from next year will be visited by the new Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. “Schools here have a good relationship with government and we’re consulted on initiatives like this,” Stokoe comments.

The 450-year-old Derbyshire-based Repton School opened a primary school in Dubai two years ago. A senior co-educational establishment with boarding accommodation will open this September and increase the total school intake to 1,000. “It will serve Dubai and the wider Gulf region,” says marketing director Cathy Twigg.

In May, Dubai-based Zabeel Capital and ANC Holdings (a conglomerate with property, manufacturing, trading, and hospitality interests) joined forces to create Kings’ Holdings to invest in education. Its first project will be Kings’ College, a 1.2m sq ft British curriculum school for 1,500 children aged from 1 to 18, including special needs students.

“The campus will be built using the latest ‘green’ technologies and represent innovation in school design,” says Tayeb Baker, ANC’s chairman. “ANC is committed to green practices in all its ventures, reflecting a commitment to benefiting the community over the long term. We are looking for an international partner for a windmill power venture.”

Teachers for Kings’ College are being recruited in the UK. “The market for teachers is competitive. But they are not just coming for the money – they can contribute to great educational improvements here,” Baker says.

School report

— The “emiratisation” of teaching staff in government schools is scheduled to reach 90% by 2020 to maintain Islamic principles and the UAE’s cultural traditions.

— More than 40% of pupils attend private schools in the UAE.

State schools are single sex, most private schools are coed.


“I work in the business world but haven’t had any formal business education, so I thought it would be good to get some professional input on management,” says Valerie Bönström,right, a Berlin-based German national.

Now studying for an EMBA at the London Business School’s Dubai campus, Bönström, 29, trained in computer science but is now managing director of Mrs Sporty, a chain of about 170 women’s sports clubs in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.

She started the EMBA last September: “I could only study part-time and chose Dubai as I thought it would be great to be exposed to a wide array of cultures. I’m particularly interested in experiencing the Middle East and Dubai is a great driver for the whole region. It is inspiring for an entrepreneur like me. I was also interested in seeing what business opportunities there are in Dubai.”

Bönström has spent one week a month in Dubai since and says her expectations are being fulfilled. “We’re doing a good range of accounting, finance, marketing, organisational behaviour and strategy. My fellow students are from all over the world and they think differently, so you get to see all aspects of a topic through their eyes. I’m also building a network of regional and international contacts.”

Bönström, who paid about £32,500 for the course and received some financial support from her employer, may do some elective modules in London due to work pressures, but she says that is in itself an attractive feature of the LBS offering. “Having that flexibility is a great advantage.”


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