Much has been achieved in the education sector since the federation was formed in 1971. Today, the UAE offers a comprehensive education to all male and female students from kindergarten to university, with education for the country’s citizens being provided free at all levels. There is also an extensive private education sector, while several thousand students, of both sexes, pursue courses of higher education abroad at Government expense.
However, despite the steady investment in education over the years, government policy is focusing on the need for an overhaul of the system, especially at primary and secondary levels, to meet the needs of a knowledge-based economy and to bring the system in line with international best practices. In pursuit of this goal, the UAE Ministry of Education adopted Education 2020, a series of five-year plans designed to introduce advanced education techniques, improve innovative skills, and focus more on the self-learning abilities of students. Funding has been allocated to support the strategy’s ambitious objectives and the UAE hopes to train 10,000 public school teachers within five years, while also pursuing its stated goal of reaching 90 per cent emiratisation of its staff by 2020.
The Ministry's Strategy for Educational Development (2011–2013) was devised to further the development of a world-class integrated education system that uses state-of-the-art technologies. Education councils set up in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah help to turn the principle of decentralisation embraced by the Ministry of Education into a strategy for developing and modernising the country's education system.
In addition, the Rashid Al Maktoum Intelligent Education Initiative was launched in 2012 at a cost of Dh1 billion with the aim of creating a new learning environment in schools. Touchpads will be distributed to all students and all State schools will be connected to high-speed, fourth generation (4G) networks. Teachers will receive specialist training and new syllabuses will be developed. The project will be carried out jointly by the Ministry of Education and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and will be directly overseen by the Office of the Prime Minister.
Compulsory schooling begins at the age of six and ends at 18. In 2011–2012, there were 1,186 public and private schools with 796,836 students compared to only 74 schools and 12,800 students in the 1971–1972 academic year when the Federation was established.
The Department of Special Education, which was established in 2008 in the Ministry of Education, promotes the rights of students with special needs and ensures that they have access to the same educational opportunities as students in regular education. It has taken rigorous measures to integrate this category of students into 114 integrated education schools, which are fully equipped with a range of assistive technologies.
Ninety-five per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys who complete their secondary education enrol in a higher education institution in the UAE or travel abroad to study under government-sponsored schemes. Nationals can attend government tertiary-level institutions free of charge, and a rapidly increasing range of private institutions, including branches of internationally acclaimed higher-education institutions, supplement the public sector, making the UAE a very attractive place to study for thousands of students from neighbouring countries.
The Al Ain-based United Arab Emirates University continues to be the country’s flagship national institution of higher education, whilst Zayed University, which has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was established by the Federal Government to educate national women. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), on the other hand, offer a more technically oriented education in 12 well-equipped colleges spread throughout the United Arab Emirates. HCT, in conjunction with its commercial arm, the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training prides itself on responding quickly and effectively to current needs in the regional and international workplace.
Other institutions include Khalifa University of Science and Technology, the American Universities of Sharjah and Dubai, Sharjah University, St. Joseph's University in Dubai, the Ajman University of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi University, Al Hosn University in Abu Dhabi, George Mason University in Ra's al-Khaimah, as well as UAE-based campuses of international institutions such as Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and NYU Abu Dhabi . For its part, Dubai International Academic City houses 27 academic institutions from 11 different countries.
The UAE also has several acclaimed business, vocational and technical educational centres for those seeking practical training in their chosen careers.
The focus is on ensuring that the youth of the country are ready embrace the opportunities offered by a knowledge-based economy and to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century workplace. In addition, to ensure that there are enough jobs for these emerging graduates, emiratisation of the workforce is encouraged by the Government, especially in the private sector, where UAE nationals account for a very small percentage of the total workforce.