The Education Revolution in the UAE

By Tyler Headley

There is a largely unnoticed and positive revolution underway in the United Arab Emirates. While the Global Gender Gap index ranks the UAE a low 105 out of 130 countries regarding gender equality, the UAE is first in terms of secondary and tertiary education gender parity.

A UNICEF MENA Gender Equality Profile on the UAE found that 97% of female youth and 94% of male youth are literate, and that higher enrollment rates for men (22%) are a stunning half of the enrollment rate for women (44%). A similar study by Linzi Kemp found that “although females make up less than half of the national population, they hold more than half of the undergraduate degrees,” additionally finding that women “make up more than 50% of the graduates in all [college] programs except for engineering (18%) and law (42%).”

The education system is relatively new in the UAE – the current system is no older than three decades. Purportedly modeled off the Egyptian model, according to Daniel Kirk and Diane Napier, the education system has, since its inception, seen rapid investment and growth. From the very beginning of formal education in the country, women and girls were granted equal access to education, a right enshrined in the UAE constitution, written in 1971, which guaranteed the right to free education for all citizens. The need and want of the government to educate women is perhaps best demonstrated by the opening of an elite all-female school, Zayed University.

The underlying reasons for the dramatic education phenomenon are less clear than the history of women in education in the UAE. Some scholars, like Natasha Ridge from the Dubai School of Government, attribute this to family expectations and perceived returns to education. Specifically, Ridge notes that there is a larger pressure on women to continue their education than men in the UAE, and that receiving a college degree is viewed as essential to working or finding a good spouse. To back up her claim, Ridge mentions the statistic that only 27% of Emirati males attend higher education compared with over 70% of Emirati females.

Others, like Linzi Kemp, take issue with the perceived returns to education component of Ridge’s methodology. Kemp finds that 80% of female national employees are clustered into three post-graduate occupations: professionals, technicians, and clerks. Further, she finds that there is evidence for post-graduate economic activity because of ‘home responsibilities, unemployment, and further studies.’ Perhaps most notably, Kemp notes that despite the large number of female graduates, there is a stark variation in the number of well-employed women; its appears that while men graduate in lower numbers, they occupy many more of the managerial and leadership positions.

Regardless of the myriad implications, the education push in the UAE has defied Western stereotypes of women in the region. As Sally Findlow writes, in the United Arab Emirates, the ‘shift from elite to mass higher education has been even more pronounced than in the United Kingdom.’ It is a social happening that must be noted by scholars studying the region and Western policymakers who are hoping to impact or partner with the country.

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