An Overview of the UAE Higher Education System

uae 67366By Arabia Higher Ed Staff

The higher education landscape in the UAE has been developing at a fast pace,  a reflection of the rapidly growing population and the increased societal needs.

The UAE higher education sector currently comprises just over 100 institutions enrolling over 120,000 students.  Three of these institutions (Higher Colleges of Technology, the UAE University and Zayed University) are sponsored by the federal government, and operate at the national-level through branches in different emirates.

The three federally sponsored institutions account for about 34% of total student enrolment (about 40,000 students) and provide access to higher education primarily to Emirati citizens, which make up more than 90 per cent of the federal student body. The other higher education institutions are non-federal institutions, also referred to as private institutions although some may benefit from emirate funding.

There are 37 international branch campuses from 11 different countries, which cater primarily to the expatriate community, and increasingly to international students from the neighboring regions.  The UK is the highest sending country with nine branch campuses, followed by India with eight, and the USA with six. 

With over 70 per cent of all foreign branch campuses in the UAE, Dubai is the emirate that has contributed the most to the significant changes in the country's higher education sector over the past decade. 

Dubai has 54 higher education institutions, with an estimated total of about 48,000 students, registered in 468 academic programs. In addition to three federal institutions, enrolling just over 8,500, there are 24 non-federal local institutions and 27 international branch campuses from 10 different countries (Australia, UK, USA, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Ireland, France and Lebanon) which have been attracted by the favorable conditions offered by the purpose-built free zones in the emirate and the potential of Dubai.

The majority of all students in Dubai (69%) are enrolled in bachelor's programs (accounting for 52 per cent of all programs), 19% of students are enrolled in master's degree (33% of all programs), and 8% in foundation programs.

International branch campuses in Dubai offer 237 programs, many of which (43%) are at the master's degree level.  The majority of programs (37%) are within the field of business. Indeed, with more than 160 business programs on offer, Dubai has become a niche destination for international business students. However, in the recent years the emirate has been able to diversify the range of programs available, extending to areas such as media, humanities, law and natural and physical sciences, due, in particular, to international branch campuses offering a wider range of programs than the local non-federal institutions. Students studying in Dubai are from a wide range of nationalities. Emirati students make up the largest group (43%), followed by Asian students (21 per cent), and other Arab students (13%), with a recent substantial increase in the number of African students.

In 2000 the federal government established the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) as the federal quality assurance agency charged with licensing non-federal institutions and accrediting their programs.

All non-federal institutions providing a higher education program of one academic year or longer must be licensed and have its programs accredited by CAA in order to be legally recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR).

CAA currently oversees 75 licensed non-federal institutions enrolling over 75,000 students, 55% of which are non-Emiratis.

The three federal institutions have traditionally been regarded as self-regulating and subject to their own quality assurance mechanisms. However, starting from the 2013-14 academic year, in the attempt to bring consistency across the sector, the MOHESR has mandated that they also be regulated by CAA.  

The only providers currently exempt from federal licensure and accreditation requirements are foreign institutions operating within free zones. These institutions are subject exclusively to the local emirate authority, although they can voluntarily apply to be reviewed and accredited by CAA as some have chosen to do.

Currently there are 23 non-CAA accredited institutions in Dubai's free zones, and five in Ras Al Khaimah.

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