The UAE's higher education sector has been characterised by rapid growth over the decades since UAE University (UAEU), the country's first such institution, was established by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1976. UAEU started with a cohort of 500 and now 12,279 students are enrolled, with female students representing 75 per cent of the population.
From limited university options with a handful of students admitted, the UAE is now a higher education hub with three federal universities and more than 70 ministry-accredited institutions in the country. There are about 120,000 students enrolled at various institutions in the country.
The UAE has provided for Emiratis by making federal university education free of charge.
After the UAEU was established, the more technically oriented Higher Colleges of Technology was established in 1988 and is the largest higher education institution in the country. There are more than 19,000 students at 17 men's and women's colleges across the Emirates with more than 90 English-taught programmes.
In 1998 Zayed University was established by the federal government primarily to educate Emirati women with campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Today, the university is educating more than 6,000 male and female students from 19 countries to compete in a global environment at various campuses.
The private sector addresses the needs of the large expatriate population in the UAE, enrolling primarily South Asians and other Arab nationals.
To move away from its dependence on oil wealth and to create a knowledge economy, the UAE has opened its doors to several branch campuses and local private institutions with international links.
Serving their country
The late Shaikh Zayed commented on the development of education: "Youth is the real wealth of the nation. The discovery of oil provides the necessary finances to improve the education system and develop academically and technically qualified citizens — men and women — able to serve their country in its future progress."
While some universities have standalone campuses, others operate within education free zones or education clusters.
University City in Sharjah is home to University of Sharjah, American University of Sharjah, HCT colleges, Skyline University College and the Dr Sultan Al Qasimi Centre of Gulf Studies, among others.
Dubai established several free zones to facilitate international investment and economic growth with about 40,000 students enrolled.
All of these institutions in the emirate are under the remit of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which grants higher permits and oversees the quality of programmes offered.
First year of operation
Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) opened in 2003 and in its first year of operation in the free zone it attracted eight higher education institutions.
The popularity of free zones encouraged the Dubai Government to establish more, including Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Dubai Health Care City (DHCC) and Dubai International Academic City (DIAC).
Since the establishment of the DKV in 2003, there has been a 77 per cent increase in the number of higher educational institutions offering international programmes to students in Dubai, according to the KHDA's 2010 figures.