At crossroads: Education in the UAE

One of the greatest challenges that the UAE faces today, which has to a large extent been successfully addressed, is the establishment of a sustainable ...

One of the greatest challenges that the UAE faces today, which has to a large extent been successfully addressed, is the establishment of a sustainable economy and the diminution of its reliance on energy resources. One of the most current catchphrases in modern economic discourse in the Emirates over the past decade has been the creation of a knowledge based economy. While this phrase has been liberally used across the board by UAE publications, as well as those working in the knowledge industry, the nation continues to suffer from major structural problems within primary and secondary education. As of yet, public schools in the Emirates have only been accessible to Emirati citizens, whilst expatriate children have been left at the mercy of private educational institutions.
Perhaps the most obvious issue with the monopoly of the private sector over the education of expatriate children in the UAE is that unlike private schools in other countries, which are often forbidden from making a profit, the private education sector in Dubai is unashamedly run by transnational corporations including SABIS, Educational Services Overseas Limited, and GEMS. The high costs associated with this form of profiteering means that many families face a high financial burden. The families must either leave the Emirates or send their children to a second rate school during times of economic hardship. On a daily basis, students are harangued with commercialism in the form of uniforms, event tickets and unsavoury cafeteria meals. I would argue that our schools have taught my generation very little about becoming responsible citizens and have instead produced a generation of consumers, conveniently spending often-borrowed money to fuel our neo-liberal economy.
Another consequence of corporate education in the Emirates is that non-Emirati Arab children tend to have a weak command of written and sometimes spoken Arabic as schooling is mostly in English at private schools. Whilst The Knowledge and Human Development Authority, a government regulator, makes surprisingly ambitious academic demands on Arab students to attain a certain level, even those who have grown up in the diaspora, these demands are not accompanied by a complementary programme to make quality Arabic education more accessible to non-Emirati students. I find the paucity of internationally accredited Arabic schools for expatriates regrettable. The experiences of the Arab youth in the UAE vary considerably from those of our co-ethnics in the region as we live in a cosmopolitan, high-tech and postmodern milieu. If expatriate children were afforded more avenues for Arabic language education in all disciplines, the result would likely be nothing short of a linguistic revolution, turning Arabic into a language of science, technology, and pop-culture of international appeal.
Since private school systems in the UAE are based on Western, or as in the case of the IB nominally international but nevertheless Eurocentric, curricula, much of the knowledge imparted to students is only marginally relevant to our regional context. Whilst history students at UAE private schools are required to systematically memorise places and dates connected to the world wars and the Cold War, they learn comparatively little about parallel events in the so called third world. An excessive focus on the West in education encourages students to think of their region as this third world, which only gains significance by association with the West. The outcome of my generation’s Eurocentric education remains unknown, though I cannot imagine that our general ignorance of the Sepoy Mutiny, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, or the Tanzimat reforms will be beneficial in the long term.
Furthermore, private education in the UAE is extremely wasteful and in my opinion this system decreases the global competitiveness of our country. Private school curricula assume that all graduates will pursue college education. However, in my experience, this is not always the case and thus many students end up wasting years of their time and much of their parents’ resources in a school system which does not cater to their needs. This could be avoided by creating a broader, national education system responsible for educating all school aged children and adolescents, regardless of citizenship. This approach could on one hand allow for the establishment of more specialised schools, catering to the specific needs of all students, not only those who wish to pursue a four year college education. Moreover, the UAE could benefit from massive economies of scale, saving millions if not billions of dirhams in expenditures for both schools and students by sharing facilities between schools — currently not an option in the competitive education industry — and creating large, centralised schools, rather than the many dispersed, remote and small facilities we currently have.
Of course non-citizens should be required to pay a tuition fee for the maintenance of these schools; I am not proposing a welfare program. Nevertheless, I believe that the establishment of a strong, non-profit education infrastructure in the UAE will both lower the cost of education for students and improve the general quality of education as there will be less of a need to cut corners in a non-profit industry. Whilst I believe that corporate schools should not be banned, I think it is necessary that all expatriate children are at least given the option of attending non-profit or public schools. States with strong education systems tend to perform better in international competitiveness rankings. By suppressing capitalist market competition amongst UAE schools, our economy will be able to continue competing against other smart economies in the long term.
Ashraf Abdel Rahman is a columnist. Email him at
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