Private higher education institutions in Abu Dhabi work to boost enrolment


The tertiary education landscape in Abu Dhabi is characterised by a small number of private providers competing with several well-established public institutions. While the majority of pupils at independent schools are expatriates, at the university level the bulk of students (73% in 2015/16) are citizens, according to Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi. Emiratis are entitled to free undergraduate education in public universities, and so it is perhaps not surprising that over 80% of 38,049 Emirati students attended 14 publicly funded institutions in 2015/16. Meanwhile, the 10 private universities in Abu Dhabi recorded a total of 15,480 students, of which 7116, or 46%, were Emiratis.


In 2017/18 private universities faced significant financial pressure. Austerity measures at key government departments and government-owned enterprises resulted in the departure of many expatriates, while those who remained may have felt less secure about enrolling children in three-year programmes, or signing up for mid-career degrees themselves. The addition in January 2018 of a 5% value-added tax to tuition fees at private universities also served as a challenge for recruiters, though public institutions were exempt from the charges.

French Connection

To deal with these challenges, in 2017/18 Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi adapted its recruitment strategy. “The target for the university is to increase local recruitment with the support of the Department of Education and Knowledge, and we hope to achieve a market equilibrium through a system of scholarships,” Eric Fouache, vice-chancellor of Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, told OBG. This paid off in 2018, when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, announced a grant to fund master’s degrees for Emiratis already studying at the university or those wishing to enrol.

Market Forces

In a highly competitive MBA market, where over a dozen private and public institutions vie for new recruits in Abu Dhabi, it has become a buyers’ market. “Everyone is cutting their fees or offering early-bird discounts and scholarships to try and maintain recruitment levels, but in some cases I think it is neither practical nor achievable,” Ron Bradfield, director of University of Strathclyde Business School UAE, told OBG.

It is a different case for Abu Dhabi School of Management (ADSM), which has been offering MBA courses for seven years. It was founded by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry in association with London’s Imperial College Business School, and 95% of its MBA students are Emiratis. “The MBA programme is delivered in an intensive format mode with a main focus on entrepreneurship. The programme targets professionals who wish to develop effective managerial skills for the knowledge economy,” Daniel Kratochvil, academic dean of ADSM, told OBG. “Our association with the chamber and extensive use of experiential learning for solving real-world business problems has given us a strong reputation in the local market. We find that our students and alumni are very active ambassadors, and as a result we consistently meet our enrolment targets without engaging in extensive marketing campaigns.”


While public universities may not face the same financial challenges, their performance is under the microscope. In the World Economic Forum’s 2017-18 “Global Competitiveness Report”, the UAE slipped one place in its overall rankings to 17th, though the forum suggested it could boost its standing by spreading the latest digital technology and improving education, two pillars for which the UAE ranked 36th. There are encouraging signs in other measures, however. The newly merged Khalifa University of Science and Technology climbed to 32nd place out of 359 Asian universities in the 2018 Times Higher Education Asia University rankings, making it the highest-rated university in the UAE, while New York University Abu Dhabi has seen 10 students in five cohorts win Rhodes Scholarships to cover postgraduate fees at Oxford University.


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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2019

Education chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2019

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