A diverse student mix

Aaron Maskrey, Head of Business Information at Global Student Accommodation Group in Dubai, on the key issues in the region

The university student population within Asia is booming, experiencing exponential growth of 7.2% per annum over the past 10 years, compared to global average growth of 5.5%.

A key region of growth in the past 12 years has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has established 35 universities with over 100,000 total student enrolments. Enrolments in the UAE have increased by almost 28,000 over the past five years, a high growth rate of 8% per annum and the opportunity for further student growth in the region is extremely positive.

Dubai is set to become one of the world’s top global cities and is well positioned to spearhead this drive. The city’s growing higher education market is underpinned by the overall growth of the city’s population, its geographical proximity as a central destination for all regions across the world and strong state and federal government support for higher education sector growth. Dubai accounts for almost 50% of the total UAE university enrolments, with total annual enrolments at 48,000.

To continue Dubai’s growth, the city will not only need to attract a skilled workforce, but also draw high-quality learning institutions to secure the next stream of bright minds. Key to this is making a proactive effort to retain the brightest of students when they enter the workforce.

Dubai itself is in quite a unique position. The city is very international, with expatriates amounting to around 88.5% of its resident population. This ratio is also reflected in the student population. There are very few places around the world where students can interact with such a large and diverse mix of nationalities. A large number of international students are attracted to studying in Dubai due to English being the main teaching language. English has become the main language of instruction in the UAE, largely due to the number of private institutions teaching through English in the UAE increasing from a total of 42 in 2008 to 58 as of 2013. This is largely due to the development of international branch campuses in the UAE.

As of 2012, private institutions have attracted the largest share of students, with a combined total enrolment of 73,000. Approximately 72% of students are enrolled in a private higher educational institution. It is unusual for a country to have a majority of its higher educational enrolment in private institutions. However, the UAE (Dubai in particular) appears to be aligned to the international trend of tertiary students desiring English as the main language of teaching and an institution of recognisable, international reputation.

However, one of the main drawbacks students encounter when coming to Dubai is the limited supply of tailored student accommodation. The city has a relatively small proportion of purpose-built student accommodation when compared to student demand. This accommodation is often poorly located or of sub-standard build. By using public transport, students would have to allow over an hour to commute to class. Furthermore, there are very few opportunities for universities to secure accommodation over the longer term. There is currently no purpose-built student accommodation which provides a ‘community’ living environment.

There is clearly a supply and demand imbalance with student housing; the challenge is to meet the swelling demand to help facilitate university targets of growing student numbers. Uninest Student Accommodation is the leading private sector organisation seeking to support the market by providing purpose-built student accommodation which is easily accessible, with all the modern amenities students require.

Beyond accommodation issues, students entering Dubai are also challenged with a significant amount of red tape. The visa process is substantially cumbersome, with restrictions in place preventing students from acquiring many goods and services which they would normally take for granted. For example, the resident visa process must be completed before a student can apply for a lease agreement in the private rental market (which can take up to two months to complete), and students cannot purchase a car (which is essential if they are living off-campus in outer locations).

In its pursuit to become one of the world’s top global cities, Dubai will need to tackle these issues, finding acceptable and mutually beneficial outcomes for a truly global population. Creating and building accessible purpose-built apartments for the swelling student population is a step in the right direction.

Located in Dubai, Aaron Maskrey is Head of Business Information and Research at Global Student Accommodation Group (GSA) with experience across the accommodation spectrum in various international markets. GSA is a global leader in student accommodation, managing more than 50,000 student accommodation beds in over 35 cities across three continents.


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