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Considering Studying at a Private University in the UAE? Here’s 5 Things to Consider

Countries around the world seek to attract international students to their university systems and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is no exception. International students are students who travel to other countries in pursuit of an educational degree or other educational opportunity. While immigration has long been essential to its transformation into a global economic hub, the UAE is now increasing its inbound international student enrollments in its university sector.

 I’ve written elsewhere that private universities in the UAE primarily serve foreign expatriate students who were most likely raised in the country but are not Emirati nationals (Buckner, 2022). However, in recent years, such private universities have begun attracting more international students who are similar to foreign expatriates, and most likely to be educated in the private sector as the public sector is reserved primarily for Emirati citizens. Yet the needs and priorities of international students may be quite different from foreign expatriates. While some may aspire to settle and work in the UAE post-graduation, others may be part of an internationally-educated and highly mobile group of professionals who are willing to travel and work in many countries in search of jobs, opportunities, or citizenship.

My research examines private universities across the UAE, including those inside and outside of free-trade zones like Academic Village in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah’s Education Zone. It attempts to understand the role of private universities and the regulation policies associated with them. I conducted interviews with a number of leaders at private universities and government regulators in the UAE.

One of the more surprising findings of my research concerns how the country’s emerging status as an educational destination affects discussions of policy and practice in higher education. I found that there are conflicting visions around quality with regard to federal and emirate level regulatory bodies. A key debate has emerged around the role of branch campuses in particular, as many are being encouraged to pursue Emirati-level accreditation in the name of quality.

In Regulating Private Higher Education Quality in the UAE to Become an Educational Destination, I discuss how quality is conceptualized differently, with federal regulators strongly emphasizing that all institutions, including branch campuses, should uphold high standards and pursue accreditation from the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), which is in line with any world-class higher education system. In contrast, many private institutions and emirate-level regulators emphasize the need for a diversified sector. They view themselves as serving students with different career and life goals, many of who want the option of a shorter three-year degree or degrees that will seamlessly transfer to other countries like the United Kingdom.

Despite these different visions, all interviewees acknowledged that private universities in the UAE operate in a very competitive market for students. This fierce competition can lead some actors to engage in unscrupulous practices, which can harm students. In recent years, regulators have begun cracking down on many of these practices, yet it is still important for prospective students and families to do their own research.

Therefore, the following five considerations have been compiled for students interested in pursuing higher education institutions in the UAE. If you are considering studying at a private university in the UAE, here are the top five things you should consider:

  • Understand Who is Accrediting Your Degree

While accreditation might seem like an overly technical topic, it is important to understand who is accrediting your degree. In the UAE, all private universities are required to be registered in the country, but not all are accredited within the UAE. Registration is essentially a license to operate, and it is required of any company. For example, registration checks that appropriate policies are in place regarding financial and human resources policies and standards. However, the registration process does not monitor the academic or educational quality of the degree. That is what accreditation does. In the UAE, all universities operating outside a free-trade zone must be accredited by the federal body called the Council on Academic Accreditation (CAA). However, this is not the case for the institutions inside free-trade zones. In those cases, the degree is most likely accredited by its home institution – not the UAE. Accreditation matters because it can affect where your degree will be recognized for employment, licensing, or graduate degrees. When choosing a university program, it is important to know who is accrediting the degree to understand what that means for your future options.

  • Think Carefully About Your Future Plans

Because there are so many different universities operating in the UAE and different regulations for those inside and outside free-trade zones, it is important to think carefully about your future plans and what you will need from your degree. Do you want to live and work in the UAE over the long term? If so, you will need to study at an institution that has been accredited by the CAA in the UAE. Studying at a CAA-accredited institution is typically required to have your degree recognized by the government and most employers. It is also necessary to work in the Emirati public sector and to pursue a graduate degree.

With that said, there are exceptions for those who study in Dubai. Students who study at institutions recognized by Dubai’s educational agency, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), are able to work in Dubai and can even work in the public sector. Many students find fulfilling work in Dubai by taking this route. However, in the long run, some career opportunities in the country, including those in the federal public sector, may not be available to you if you study at an institution that is not accredited by the CAA.

Meanwhile, if you want to study in the UAE but don’t plan to live or work there long-term, you may not need to study at a CAA-accredited institution. Instead, it may make more sense to study at a branch campus of an internationally-recognized university. Compared to CAA-accredited institutions, which are typically four years, many programs at branch campuses are only three years. This may save you time and money in the long run. Branch campuses may also bring name recognition in other countries. This name recognition could be useful if you are planning to migrate in the future.

  • Check Out Public Information on the Quality of Your Program

The CAA and emirate-level regulatory agencies like Dubai’s KHDA and RAKEZ Academic Zone have compiled detailed information on the institutions and programs they oversee. Most of this information is publicly available. For example, the CAA has recently begun classifying universities in terms of their operations and educational quality, and KHDA has introduced a star rating system. When considering options for universities, be sure to check out the public resources on the program and institution. This information will provide you with key things to consider, including academic quality, the financial stability of the university, and it may also highlight red flags.

 Here are some useful links for you to consult before making your decision:

  1. For institutions with CAA-accreditation, the list of CAA-accredited programs is here.
  2. For Dubai-based universities, KHDA’s directory of programs is here.
  • Watch Out for Deceptive Practices

Private universities in the UAE are competing against one another for students, and in many cases, the competition is fierce. Unfortunately, some engage in marketing practices that target students. For example, some universities have been exposed for misrepresenting the composition of their student body and others for not including the branch campus’ location in the UAE on diplomas.

The Federal CAA and many emirate-level bodies have cracked down on many of these deceptive and non-transparent practices. This is something you should always keep an eye out for. Also, recognize that employment after graduation is never a guarantee, so be mindful of universities that offer this pledge.

  • Ask for More Information

You should always feel free to ask for more information to make an informed decision about university selection. High-quality universities will want you to succeed and should be able to provide you with clear and detailed information about tuition and fees. They should also have a variety of student services and resources available to support your academic success. Try to gather information about the jobs recent graduates of the program have obtained and where. This way, you can make an informed choice about where and what to study.

 In short, it is an exciting time for higher educational institutions in the UAE as they continue to welcome more international students from around the world. However, the regulatory framework for private universities in the country remains a patchwork of different regulations. Therefore, it is important for students and their families to do their own research as well.



Buckner, E. (2022). Degrees of Dignity: Arab Higher Education in the Global Era. University of Toronto Press.