Students at Dubai College, one of the oldest not-for-profit schools in the region Image Credit: Gulf News archives

It is well known worldwide that the UAE has undergone a highly ambitious transformation over the past five decades and the education sector has experienced its very own overhaul too. From humble classrooms, kept cool through wind towers, to the state-of-the-art buildings we see today, the UAE has transformed itself into a global hub for education over the past 50 years.

According to the GCC Education Industry Report 2021 from Alpen Capital (ME) Limited, as of 2019, the UAE was home to more than 76 higher education institutions and 1,262 K-12 schools, with the private sector accounting for 51 per cent of the total schools in the country. Moreover, the number of private schools reached 643 in 2019, of which 97 per cent are international schools — the second-highest number in the world. Clearly the education sector has prospered.

Coping With big changes

While the education sector has seen immense success, it was affected during the Covid-19 pandemic like many industries. With educational providers finding themselves having to close suddenly, the tried-and-tested means of pedagogy were no longer viable and institutes were quickly forced to adapt. This saw further changes in the sector and, inevitably, technology became a driving force for the next generation of teaching in the UAE. Although UAE students are now back in the classrooms, the education sector in this region continues to evolve to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution.

“All schools in the UAE have had to become much more adaptable since the outbreak of Covid-19,” says Hamilton Clark, Superintendent, American School of Dubai (ASD). “While we did some online work in the past, last year, our teachers had to learn how to teach online classes and also hybrid classes, engaging students in class and online at the same time. At ASD, our classes are dynamic, student-centred, and involve a lot of class discussion, and our teachers had to learn quickly how to keep their students engaged and participating while in online and hybrid mode.”

Certainly, due to the urgent nature of having to change the way teaching was undertaken overnight, the process meant educational institutes needed to drive engagement in creative ways.

“We learned during the pandemic that some students who were very engaged in face-to-face learning had trouble focusing during online classes, and we learned that the reverse is also true — students who were often shy at school came alive and became more engaged in online classes,” Clark says. “All of this goes to show that schools have a responsibility to get to know each of their students and their learning style, and then to provide them with the most optimal circumstances to learn successfully.”

Educators have seen their fair share of difficulties in the past two years with the requirement to adapt, but this sudden change forced upon them should prove propitious in the long run.

Celebrating milestones

As the UAE celebrates its golden jubilee, the oldest school for Indian expats in the country — The Indian High School (IHS) based in Dubai — marks its diamond jubilee this year, showcasing how closely the journey of this academic institution is intertwined with the glorious progress of a nation. “IHS, which began its journey in 1961 from a villa in Bur Dubai, has traversed a distinguished trajectory and is today counted as a benchmark of quality education,” says Girish C. Jethwani, Honorary Chairman of IHS. “This milestone is all the more satisfactory this year as the UAE celebrates its golden jubilee and Dubai welcomes the world to Expo 2020 Dubai.”

UAE Education
Students at The Indian International School, DSO. Schools in the UAE are implementing experiential learning solutions to increase student engagement Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Elaborating on how the school and the education sector has evolved in the UAE, Punit M.K. Vasu, CEO of IHS, says that the school continues the legacy of providing outstanding quality education with a not-for-profit ethos and has not deviated from this core vision for the past 60 years. “We firmly believe that our values enable us to fulfil our mission of creating tomorrow’s community members who can contribute in a meaningful way to the progress of the country and society.”

Whether it’s in embracing new technology, prioritising the mental health and well-being of students and staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, or rolling out programmes to spread happiness among learners, the school has always stayed attuned to its goals even during a time of disruption for the sector.

“Our commitment is to keep delivering excellence and keep a close eye on developments in the education sector — especially on the impact of technology on how we engage with students,” he adds.

Another long-serving education provider in the UAE is Gems Group. Over the years, it has seen many positive changes within teaching models.

Sunny Varkey, Founder and Chairman, Gems Education, says, “Education in the UAE and across the globe should never stand still; it should always be evolving to reflect the changing world around us — the world for which we have a duty to prepare each new generation.

“That is why we must learn the lessons of the pandemic, embrace technology and use it to continually enhance the learning experiences, opportunities and possibilities for our students. As such, I think we can expect to see increasingly personalised education that utilises the latest technologies and advances to enable learning anywhere, any time.”

As teaching methodologies are given an overhaul, there will be further transformations to come.

Innovation in higher education

“As more and more students make the UAE their home, the sector is set for further growth,” says Prof. Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice-Principal, Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

“At the same time, the sector is also undergoing change. In the future, technology will continue to make deeper inroads into education systems in new and diverse ways, ultimately improving the quality of teaching as well as learning.

“We will also see newer and newer programmes being introduced, in line with the changing demands of the marketplace. Studies predict that the jobs of 2030 include roles such as Smart Home Design Manager, Human-Machine Teaming Manager and more. Education in the future will evolve to ensure skill sets for these jobs are supported. Educational institutes will also need to support lifelong learning by offering options for upskilling and reskilling.

“At the same time, emotional, social and soft skills will prove to be critical for future employers, as these are the skills that no machine can emulate.”

The one thing that the pandemic proved to us was the power of human connections and relationships. A KHDA report found that the pandemic fostered a greater sense of solidarity between parents, teachers, students and the community.

Therefore, while technology will play a big part in the future of education, we must address the human element too, as we approach future generations.

Prof. Kaka suggests, “In general, education of the future will need to become more flexible. The university student may not necessarily be an 18-year-old but a working adult who attends college part-time or even juggling childcare.

“School students may look for an education that leaves them with enough time to develop hobbies and focus on extracurricular activities. In response to this, educational institutes must strive to offer a holistic yet flexible education experience.”

Lifestyle changes imposed upon us by the pandemic have put the focus squarely on mental health. “More than ever before, educational institutions need to put the well-being of students above everything else, which in turn will set them up for academic success,” he adds.

Set to thrive

As institutes consider how to effectively rethink the curricula and teaching methodologies for a dynamic future, students and educators in the UAE are set for further success. Additionally, with the advent of the Dubai University Free Zone and the Ministry of Education’s National Strategy for Higher Education 2030, which aims to achieve the highest scientific and professional education standards, the future generations of the UAE certainly have a lot to look forward to.

Evolution of the education landscape
Education has changed considerably since the early years when Dubai’s Al Ahmadiya School was founded in 1912. Fast forward to today, and according to a KHDA report, there are now 215 schools in Dubai alone, with 21 new schools having opened in the past three years. Thanks to the policymakers of the UAE, the education landscape is continuing to transform through their dynamic policies.
“The education sector in the UAE is fortunate to have the full support and guidance of the country’s leadership, who have from the very beginning always placed education at the centre of their vision for the nation,” says Sunny Varkey, Founder and Chairman, Gems Education. “This has enabled investments in schools and universities that have played a major part in the growth of the UAE and will continue to play a leading role in its transition to a knowledge-based economy.”
The past two decades, in particular, have seen a massive transformation of the education landscape in UAE, says Prof. Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice-Principal, Heriot-Watt University Dubai.
“The UAE has taken significant steps towards education. The Ministry of Education’s National Strategy for Higher Education 2030 is a clear and ambitious commitment towards building and achieving the highest scientific and professional education standards and will benefit the UAE’s youth and future generations.”