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Learning for Life — Higher Education in the UAE

Expat students approaching higher education in the UAE will soon learn that tuition is high and that the local competition is fierce. Whether you are looking for a typical university, degree courses offered through global partnerships, or a hands-on approach, we have put together a brief directory.
The American University in Sharjah is a private institution which is popular among expat and Emirati students.
  • Altogether, 95% of female and 80% of male Emirati students approach higher education.
  • Public universities are free for Emirati students only and admission is very competitive.
  • Most expat students enroll in private universities where the language of instruction is English.
  • Some renowned foreign universities offer degree courses in the UAE to expats and Emiratis through global partnerships.


In the UAE, higher education plays an important role when it comes to planning one’s career. Unsurprisingly, the admission rate at public, private, and international universities, as well as technical institutions in the UAE, is quite high with 95% female and 80% male Emirati students approaching higher education. Most universities are located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but private universities in particular also have campuses in the smaller emirates.

Where Emiratis Go to Study

As is the case with public schools in the UAE, Emiratis may attend local public universities free of charge. Here too, classes and even campuses are often gender-segregated. However, there are only three public institutions of higher education across the UAE: UAE University, Zayed University, and the Higher Colleges of Technology.

The student body of the UAE University in Al Ain has increased from only 502 students in 1977 to about 14,000 today. The vast majority (about 80%) are women. The university offers several undergraduate and some graduate degrees in different fields, including business and economics, education, law, food and agriculture, engineering, and information technology.

Zayed University in Abu Dhabi used to be an all-women’s institution which has by now been opened to students of all genders. Still, female students make up the majority of the student body. The university has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and offers most of its courses in English. Students can obtain degrees from five different colleges: Arts and Sciences, Business Sciences, Communication and Media Sciences, Education, and Information Systems.

Another great public institution are the Higher Colleges of Technology, with campuses in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, Fujairah, Madinat Zayed, Ras Al Khaimah, Ruwais and Sharjah and a student body that is 23,000 strong. As such, it is unsurprisingly the biggest public institution of higher education in the UAE. More than 40 of their programs, including Applied Communications, Education, Engineering Technology, Health Sciences, and Computer Information Sciences, are taught in English.

All three universities offer high-quality education, but are also rather competitive. For expats, getting a place at one of them is not easy and in some cases even impossible. (The Higher Colleges of Technology, for instance, only accept UAE nationals.) However, even if the institution you applied to welcomes you with open arms, you will have to compete with Emirati graduates who flock to these universities.

Unlike UAE nationals, expat students have to pay tuition fees if they want to study at a public university. At the time of writing in 2016, Zayed University charged international students 75,000 AED per academic year, for instance, while UAE University did not list the fees they charge. So make sure to contact the university directly to inquire about the current costs.

Keeping It Private

On the other hand, the number of private universities in the UAE is quite high. Aside from expat students, many Emirati students enroll in private universities as well, in order to gain an international education. The majority of private institutions have an international accreditation, making them a great starting point for an international career. Some of these universities include:

Beyond Borders — Global Partnerships

Aside from the private universities and colleges mentioned above, there is another type of institute of higher education in the UAE which caters mostly to expat students and those aspiring to an international career: international universities (often more accurately referred to as global partnerships). Unlike international schools, which are usually independent, international universities are branches of or partnered with prestigious foreign universities.

Most of them are located in special zones such as Dubai Knowledge Village and Academic City. They are supposed to attract students who are otherwise unable to attend a university abroad and include the following:

Technical Education and a Hands-On Approach

In addition to the education provided by local and international universities, students can opt for technical or vocational training. Various schools and institutes offer specialized education and training, including the following:

Ready to Learn — Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary depending on the university and the program (undergraduate or graduate) you are applying for. It is important that you know and understand these requirements before you turn in your application to ensure that your application is complete. You will have to submit a complete application form, as well as a copy of your passport and your residency visa.

Most private universities use English as their main language of instruction. Prospective students have to provide proof of sufficient English skills, usually in the form of a TOEFL or IELTS certificate, together with their high school diploma or an equivalent thereof. Most universities expect a minimum overall achievement of 60-80% in the secondary school certificate.

If you apply for a science or engineering program, you may also be asked to take an admissions test in mathematics.

The Cost of It All — Tuition Fees

Expat students have to pay tuition at all universities in the UAE. The fees for an academic year of higher education vary, of course.

For instance, the American University in Dubai charges a basic annual tuition fee (39,000 AED at the time of writing) for students taking between 12 and 16 credit hours, plus a service fee of 300 AED per semester. Students who take less than 12 or more than 16 credit hours are charged per credit. The same system applies to summer sessions.

The University of Sharjah also applies an annual fee to students who have signed up for 12 to 16 credit hours. However, here it also depends on which college students choose to study. Its College of Arts charges an annual fee of about 35,000 AED, while its College of Human Medicine requires a tuition fee of 97,500 AED per year.

The Khalifa University, on the other hand, has no annual tuition fee and charges students per credit hour. Preparatory and undergraduate courses are cheaper than masters and doctoral courses.

Most private universities offer scholarships and financial aid to Emiratis and expat students to help them shoulder the cost. So, if you are unsure whether you can afford higher education in the UAE, you should get in touch with the university of your choice and inquire about the financial aid they offer.


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