Dubai: Today, the UAE is a regional leader in education, with its universities and students topping in many world rankings, as well as the second home for leading global colleges that have set up campus here.
It was a different story back in the day, long before the UAE came into formation in 1971.
In the hot, sandy swathes that dominated Sharjah of the 1920s, a peculiar development was shaping up — the first school ever in what is now the UAE was established. Known then, in 1925, as Al Eslah School, the mud-walled small rooms offered the only formal education available. Naturally, being the only one around, the school had an aura of prestige. Only rich parents could afford to send their children to Al Eslah, which in 1935 (then also known as Al Qassemia School), charged a full two Indian rupees — worth 10 fils today — per month.
Few and far in between
Its branches, in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, formed the first set of schools in the area (along with some schools established by the British and Kuwaiti governments). Since there was no UAE then, there was, of course, no UAE curriculum to follow. Instead, these early schools adopted the Kuwaiti curriculum, for which secondary school Emirati students completed their education by taking exams — in Kuwait — until 1967.
Villa schools for expats
Shortly before the UAE formation, the expat population was starting to boom, with the discover of oil fuelling the economy and attracting workers and business persons. Schools for children of foreigners started opening up in the 1960s, such as the Dubai English Speaking School (set up in a villa with 10 pupils) and GEMS Our Own English High School (set up in a room with less than 30 students) in Dubai.
The founding of the UAE in 1971 brought in rapid changes to education. Government-funded public schools came up across the new country, imparting education to citizens for free. One of the first federal government bodies to be set up was the Ministry of Education and Youth (today called Ministry of Education).
State-run universities too started opening, with United Arab Emirates University, based in Al Ain, being the first one in 1976. Cross-country campuses of Higher Colleges of Technology and, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, campuses of Zayed University soon followed.
Today there are around 1.16 million students in about 1,230 schools in the UAE.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) launched the first curriculum for the UAE in 1985, which offered instruction in Arabic and divided learning in the higher grades into Arts and Science tracks. Eventually, by the early 1990s, public schools began teaching the sciences and math in English, and Computer Science was also introduced as a subject in the 1994-1995 academic year.
In 2010, Abu Dhabi’s education regulator launched a new curriculum in for public school in which science, technology, math and engineering were heavily emphasised. Instruction was provided in both Arabic and English, but the sciences and math were delivered solely in English.
Another initiative in Dubai, the Mohammad Bin Rashid Smart Learning Programme, began introducing smart education by 2012, providing students from Grade 6 and higher with tablets. Both of these changes were geared towards developing smart learners who could keep pace with students from the most advanced educational systems.
In 2017, the federal and Abu Dhabi curriculums were unified into their current format at all UAE public schools. The sciences and math are still taught in English, and history, social sciences, geography and economics have been combines into a single subject. A number of new subjects are also part of the curriculum: Innovative Design, Health Sciences, Career Guidance, Life Skills and Business Management. The curriculum also includes a stream for gifted students, which teaches sciences more specifically.
As part of the 2017 unification, the UAE also standardised its school inspections, which began to rank institutions into six categories. Complementing the focus on teaching quality during the inspections, the MoE also launched a mandatory teacher licensing system the following year.
Alongside this, schools across the country began teaching Moral Education as a mandatory subject, with the goal of promoting tolerance, ethical living and community development.
In Abu Dhabi, the shift in education standards has been particularly visible over the last decade. From 2008 onwards, the Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) systematically phased out villa schools — private institutions housed in non-purpose-built structures.
The authority also began to stress performance improvements in international student assessments, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study, while also calling for greater understanding and preservation of the national identity.
A range of new universities also cropped up, with a number of them like the New York University Abu Dhabi and Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi established under collaboration with renowned international institutions, and others like the Khalifa University merging existing science and research institutions.
The development in the UAE’s educational standards — both within universities, public school curriculums and private school facilities — clearly coincide with the country’s aims of transforming into a knowledge economy, one that fosters the development of space engineers and technical experts while also inculcating strong ethical values in students.
International offering, local setting
As the country grew, so did demand for schools and universities, by Emiratis and expats, who comprise around 90 per cent of the population. School chains and stand-alone schools, mostly teaching British, Indian and US curricula, flourished.
Today, the UAE has more international schools than any other country, offering some 17 different curricula, to keep up with demand from a mix of nationalities who live in country. The booming school market also attracted well-established Western brands to the UAE, some of which are centuries old.
With such a large number and diversity of international schools to oversee, the UAE formed independent establishments for the task, such as Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and Sharjah Private Education Authority (SPEA).
Education free zones
Alongside, the proliferation of higher education providers who wanted to start a campus in the UAE led to the creation of education “free zones” where they could operate with financial independence, while still regulated by local bodies.
Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) is “the world’s largest” such zone dedicated to higher education. Established in 2007, DIAC is home to 27 universities from nine countries, providing more than 500 certificate, diploma, undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD programmes to over 27,000 students of 150 nationalities.
Its predecessor, which is now called Dubai Knowledge Park, is “the world’s only ecosystem” dedicated to human resource management and vocational training. Launched in 2003, it now has more than 500 business partners.
(Universities outside free zones, mostly government-run or those originating in the UAE, continue to be governed by the Ministry of Education and the federal Commission for Academic Accreditation).