Established and Emerging Hubs for International Education in Africa and the Middle East

Scores of countries, regions and cities around the world have established or declared their intentions to establish themselves as regional or global education hubs. Typically sponsored and subsidized (to varying degrees) by local governments, the goal of the education hub is to build a critical mass of domestic and international institutions of higher education, often in conjunction with industry and research partners, in a bid to develop and diversify the local economy through the training of local and international students.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Gulf countries of the Middle East where governing authorities are looking to lessen their dependence on extractive industries by developing knowledge-based economies through investment in education, research and innovation. Given that most of these countries have relatively young higher education systems with limited domestic capacity, the model has typically involved importing foreign institutions and academics. In some examples the model has focused on attracting ‘brand name’ institutions with significant financial incentives. In others, the financial incentives are smaller and the ‘brands’ less globally recognized.

What follows is a look at a number of jurisdictions that have declared their intentions to develop regional education hubs in the Middle East and Africa.

An infographic showing the location of international education hubs in Africa and the Middle East. [1]

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own autonomy over educational policy. As such, there is no national plan to establish the country as an international education hub, rather there are individual initiatives of significantly varying scope and success being undertaken within the individual emirates. The most notable efforts are occurring in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah. The UAE has proven particularly attractive for international students due to simple visa procedures and the presence of a significant number of reputable higher education institutions, in addition to low travel costs and cultural familiarity for regional students.

The most ambitious developments have been undertaken in Dubai, which has created three economic free zones dedicated to developing education and training. These zones have been successful in attracting a wide range of international campuses and programs. Abu Dhabi has been much more selective in choosing international partner institutions, providing very attractive incentives including custom-built facilities and significant financial support, while Ras al-Khaimah has a somewhat checkered history with its international education partners.


Dubai has been perhaps the most prolific jurisdiction in the Middle East and around the world in its efforts to attract international branch campuses and develop self-sustaining education and training campuses. According to UNESCO, the emirate has overtaken the U.K. as the third most popular education destination for students from the Middle East, trailing just the United States and France.

Three separate hubs or zones operate and host institutions of education within the city: Dubai Knowledge Village/Dubai International Academic City, Dubai International Financial City, and Dubai Healthcare City. Established in 2003, the largest of the three campuses is Dubai Knowledge Village [2] (DKV), which also plays host to a sub campus, Dubai International Academic City [3] (DIAC). In recent years, all higher education operations, institutions, and facilities have been concentrated in DIAC. Today, DKV has a much broader focus, playing host to approximately 400 training institutes and educational service organizations providing human resource consulting, professional training, testing and assessment, e-learning, and research and development services.

The academic campus at DIAC is host to 23 institutions of higher education [4] from 10 countries, most notably, India, the UK, and Australia. These institutions offer over 400 programs to 24,000 students from 145 different countries. Expatriate students make up over half of the student body, international offshore students one third and local students less than 10 percent. Programs are offered from the certificate level up to the doctoral level.

While the costs associated with offering programs at DIAC, including rent, are borne by the institution, campuses retain 100 percent ownership of their operations and are able to repatriate profits fully, free from taxes and customs duty. The entire Dubai Knowledge Village campus is owned by TECOM Investments [5], the investment arm of the Dubai government, which operates a number of other business parks within the city.

Dubai International Financial City [6] (DIFC) is primarily host to companies in the financial services sector, but also hosts the DIFC Center of Excellence. Five leading business schools [7], including the City University of London’s Cass Business School [8] and the London Business School [9] offer a variety of MBA degree programs. While Duke Fuqua is listed as offering executive education within DIFC, media reports suggest that those plans were put on hold in 2012.

Dubai Health Care City [10] (DHCC) is home to two hospitals and 120 outpatient centers, employing over 4,000 licensed medical professionals. In addition to providing medical services, DHCC also plans to serve as a hub of medical education in the region. Initial plans to import medical programs appear to have changed. The Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences [11] is currently under development and an attached medical university is scheduled to open in 2017. The only operational college within the university currently is the dental college, with others slated to open in the fall of 2016.

One other international branch campus of note is the Rochester Institute of Technology, which has been operating its RIT Dubai [12] campus within Dubai Silicon Oasis [13], home to over 900 technology focused companies, since 2008. It offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in electrical, mechanical and industrial engineering; business, marketing, management and finance; and networking security and systems administration.

Abu Dhabi

The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, has taken a much more targeted approach than Dubai in building its brand as a destination for higher studies, focusing on a limited number of specific institutions with well established global reputations.

Already established are a full-fledged branch campus of New York University [14] and Paris-Sorbonne University, [15] operating from state of the art facilities provided by the government. NYU’s Saadiyat Island Campus [16] features an experimental research building, a library, athletics facilities, an arts center, an art gallery and a large conference center.

New York University graduated its first class of students last year, many on attractive government scholarship packages. The 150 students were admitted from a global applicant pool of 9,000 students. NYU president John Sexton told CNN last year that the institution has extremely lofty goals:

“Our mandate is to create in NYU Abu Dhabi a school that educates the leaders of global civil society, from every sector of the world, and in every sector of society.”

Additional high profile help has been contracted in developing domestic institutions, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology advising [17] on the development of the graduate level Masdar Institute of Science and Technology [18] and Masdar City. The carbon-free Masdar City plays host to start of the art research facilities and graduate programs, with full and significant financial support form the Abu Dhabi government.

Other international institutions with campus operations in Abu Dhabi, operating with generous help from the local government, include France’s prestigious INSEAD business school [17], the New York Institute of Technology [19] and the NY Film Academy [20].

Ras al-Khaimah

Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) has been attempting to build a critical mass of institutions at its free trade zone [21] for over a decade, but appears to have had varying degrees of success due to frequent closures, low enrollment, questionable quality standards, and a mainly franchised-degree model.

George Mason University from the United States operated a short-lived campus in RAK. It opened in 2006, but closed its doors a few years later due to low enrollment and contract misunderstandings with the government. The American University of Ras al-Khaimah [22], which offers “American-style degrees” in a range of undergraduate and graduate subjects, has taken over the former campus of GMU in the education free zone.

In 2007, the Friedman School at Tufts University (U.S) partnered with the RAK government in a project to establish the emirate as a hub for nutrition education and healthcare. Among the projects initiated was an online master’s degree with three to four short residencies in the UAE. That program has since ceased. Other universities or institutions of note that have closed in RAK include India’s University of Pune and France’s Vatel International Business School.

India’s Bharati Vidyapeeth University appears to have also closed down its RAK campus, although it is somewhat unclear if the institution ever opened. Originally it had planned to open in Dubai [23] in 2008. Another group of Indian institutions operating in RAK, and formally Dubai until 2012, under Sudhir Gopi Holdings have all been closed [24] due to quality concerns and lack of accreditation. These include Mahatma Gandhi University, Royal College of Applied Science and Technology, and Universal Empire Institute of Medical Science.

A number of franchised degree offerings are taught by the Wisdom Group [25] in the RAK free zone campus. These are offered mainly in partnership with Indian universities, including the University of Calicut, Sikkim Manipal University, Madurai Kamaraj University, Indira Gandhi Open University, and the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies. The Birla Institute of Technology – RAK [26], in partnership with CORE Education & Technologies, an India-based global education company offers bachelor level programs in architecture, computer applications, and management, in addition to an MBA program.

The University of Bolton from the UK has been operating in RAK [27] since 2009, offering bachelor’s and master’s programs in engineering and business disciplines in partnership with the RAK’s Western International College [28] (WINC). WINC operates a dedicated campus in the RAK free zone, and also offers finance and management diploma and degree programs from the London School of Economics through a validation agreement with University of London International Programmes. Foundation programs in engineering and business and BTEC Higher National Diplomas in electrical engineering, management and computing are offered [29] on the same campus through UK examination board Edexcel.

Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL-ME) has been operating a graduate research center [30] in the field of energy and sustainability since 2009 in RAK. The center offers programs at the master’s and doctoral level, with students taking courses in both RAK and Lausanne.

Another Swiss research institute, the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique, established an applied research and innovation center in RAK in 2004 specializing in sustainable and solar energy. Established with RAK government funding, the center worked with other local research centers and academic institutions including EPFL-ME and the UK’s Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, in addition to industrial R&D centers. The center closed down in 2014, with all assets and activities being transferred to the RAK Research and Innovation Center [31] at the American University of RAK.

Bahrain (Education City)

“Bahrain, First Choice Education Destination for GCC Students”

~National Higher Education Strategy 2014-2024

Lofty Goals

At the opening of its International Conference on Higher Education in the 21st Century in 2007, the government of Bahrain hinted at plans to establish a higher education hub. Details were scarce at the time of the announcement, but were said to involve an agreement between the country’s Economic Development Board (EDB) and the private Kuwaiti Financial Investment Corporation. In the announcement, the EDB said it planned to create a ‘Higher Education City’ in partnership with an unnamed top U.S. university. This would involve a full branch campus in addition to an international center for research and studies, a specialist academy and supporting state-of-the-art infrastructure. Scheduled to open in 2010, the campus does not appear to have come to fruition.

In its 2014-2024 Higher Education Strategy Document [32], the government provides an update, noting a continued goal to “become a regional hub for quality private higher education institutions with a strong quality brand.” Regional hub status was identified as one of six main guiding goals of the 10-year plan, along with ‘quality enhancement,’ ‘skills for the future,’ ‘strategic access,’ ‘technology in education,’ and ‘entrepreneurship.’ To distinguish itself from regional competitors, Bahrain identifies its niche as being “the foremost student-friendly, quality focused higher education destination of the GCC.” However, it also admits that it “has lost some important streams of flow of regional students, mainly Saudis and Kuwaitis, due to concerns over the quality of private HEIs.”

Yet to be Met

The proposed 2010 Higher Education City, anchored by a top U.S. university has not yet become a reality. Hub status, it would appear, is on hold. Other announced plans and international campuses have either failed or failed to materialize:

Some International Programs Remain


There are currently some 53,000 international students attending Egyptian institutions of higher education. Earlier this year, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities [39] announced a plan to grow that number four-fold within three years, under a strategy that has reportedly received funding of US$50 million from external and internal sources for this year alone. The target of international recruitment efforts will be students from Africa and the Arab region.

With funding from the Egyptian government and major donor agencies, most notably USAID and the EU, the plan entails a number of different priorities and strategies, including:

University World News reports that the strategy takes its lead from recommendations made in the European report [40], Review of Higher Education in Egypt, that states that Egypt should “create higher education institutions and programmes in a way that they are attractive for expatriates from neighbouring countries to come to study in Egypt.”

Currently, Egypt’s 23 public universities and 19 private universities play host to approximately two million students. If targets for international enrollment are met, the international student body would constitute close to 10 percent of all enrollments, up from 2.5 percent today.

Low travel, residence and tuition costs will appeal to regional students, as will the generally high standing of Egyptian universities in regional rankings. According to 2014 Best Arab Region Universities Rankings [41], Egypt is the top-performing country, with 21 universities in the overall rankings, accounting for 23 percent of all the ranked institutions. And Egypt has a long history of welcoming international students to its institutions of higher education.

Nonetheless, security concerns due to recent political instability and major protests and crackdowns focused on Egyptian university campuses will prove a difficult hurdle to overcome. As the Bahrain example above demonstrates, ambitious plans are one thing, but the proof of the pudding will always be in implementation.

Qatar (Education City)

Qatar has been a leader in the education hub movement, setting its stall out early and following through with major investments designed to attract some of the world’s best universities to a large-scale campus located in Doha known as Education City, with an adjoining Science and Technology Park. The move, like most in other education hub aspirants in the region is designed to decrease Qatar’s dependence on fossil fuels by establishing itself as a knowledge economy.

The main appeal for the institutions, research institutes, and companies that have been attracted to the campus is that the costs, including operating expenses, of all physical infrastructure and facilities are covered by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development [42], the non-profit organization behind the enterprise.

In the 20 years since its founding by the Emir of Qatar, the campus has attracted six major U.S. universities – beginning with Virginia Commonwealth University in 1998 – one British university and one French university. It is also home to the new graduate-level Hamid bin Khalifa University, in addition to a number of academies for talented youth, a university bridging center, and a research and innovation park. The international campuses currently teach more than 6,000 students from Qatar and around the world.

The institutions offering programs on the Education City campus have been selected in a targeted manner such that there is no direct competition for students with little to no overlap in programs, and a goal of synergistic collaboration between programs and innovation hubs that addresses labor market needs and the vision of the Qatari future.

The six U.S. institutions are:

European institutions:

A number of other institutions operate campus in Qatar outside of Education City. These include: the College of the North Atlantic Qatar [43], the University of Calgary in Qatar [44], and Stenden University Qatar [45] (Netherlands).

Botswana (Botswana Education Hub)

The government of Botswana introduced plans in 2008 to establish the nation as a regional hub for education, developing a coordinating office within the Ministry of Education and Skills Development named the Botswana Education Hub [46]. The new office outlines its mandate as such:

“Botswana will be recognized internationally as a preferred destination for international students, scholars and trainees. The education sector will be vibrant contributing to economic diversification and sustainable growth.”

Noting that Botswana spends a significant proportion of public funds on educating its citizens overseas, the government’s education hub policy is designed to increase capacity within the national education system through the expansion of existing institutions and also through the creation of new ones. This expansion strategy is focused on developing programs and institutions relevant to both national and regional economic and social needs. Through targeted promotional efforts of the national education system in neighboring countries and with a focus on programs of study and research related to regional needs, the government hopes to attract an increasing number of international students from the Southern African region to all levels of the national education system.

Between 2006 and 2008 the then newly created Tertiary Education Council [47] registered seven new tertiary institutions, including the Botswana International University of Science and Technology. After promotional efforts and education fairs in neighboring countries, the number of international students in Botswana, a country of just over 2 million people, rose from 258 in 2010 to 1,250 in 2013.

While the education hub plan calls for partnerships and investments from international education providers, there is just one international branch campus currently operating in the country, Malaysia-based Limkokwing University of Creative Technology [48]. The private university has a full-fledged campus in the capital Gaborone, one of 13 that it operates on three continents around the world. The Gaborone campus enrolls both domestic and international students from around the region.

In promoting Botswana as an educational destination, the government’s promotional campaign, Study in Botswana [49], is focused on developing capacity in areas relevant to regional economies and social and healthcare needs. These include medical science and research; mining and energy; agriculture and veterinary science; and democracy, governance and economic management.

One example of a successful international collaboration, which actually precedes the Education Hub initiative, is the government’s ongoing relationship with the Harvard School of Public Health. Established in 1996, the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership [50] is a collaborative research and training initiative focused on areas including virology, molecular biology, immunology, genetics, epidemiology, and social and behavioral issues relevant to the AIDS epidemic in Botswana and southern Africa. The training center includes a fully outfitted research laboratory and offers clinical and laboratory research in partnership with a major hospital in the capital.

The government has plans to develop medical research and training capacities further so as to be able to meet the demand for treatment of shared regional health care issues such as TB, HIV/AIDS and malaria.


A reported 30 international institutions and groups are involved in some capacity in tertiary education in Mauritius, and the government has set a goal of attracting 100,000 international students over the next decade. Given that there are currently just 1,000 international students on the Indian Ocean island, some might consider that a pretty lofty goal, even more so when one considers that there are just 50,000 local students within the higher education system. Nonetheless, the nation is well placed to make significant inroads into meeting its goals, sitting as it does at the crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia.

Mauritius is a small multi-cultural, multi-lingual country of 1.3 million people that enjoys political and social stability. Fully 50 percent of school leavers currently enroll in higher education, and the government has a goal to increase that to 70 percent within five years. The island enjoys relative wealth compared to its African neighbors and it is focused on developing human capital both domestically and internationally. The country has close historical ties with Europe, particularly the United Kingdom and France, while relations with China and India are strong for both historical and commercial reasons.

Combined with its touristic appeal as a sun-drenched tropical island, the government believes the nation is well situated to act as a bridge between African and Asian students looking for an international education and mainly European universities looking to export their services. Currently, most transnational education provision on the island is being delivered by British and French institutions, along with a couple of Indian tertiary institutions with operations on the island. The focus of the government’s recruitment efforts will be in Africa where it sees significant opportunity and need.

Looking to the future, the centerpiece of the government’s efforts to attract international students and universities is Medine Education Village [51] – an integrated higher education, research and lifestyle development that is currently under development. Current tenants at completed sections of the development include France’s prestigious ESSEC Business School [52], and Centrale Nantes [53] – a prestigious French ‘Grande Ecole.’ Together, these schools comprise a new sub campus at Medine called the International Campus for Sustainable and Innovative Africa [54], offering undergraduate and graduate programs in law, engineering and business.

Other institutions that currently lease space at Medine include the VATEL International Business School of Hotel and Tourism Management [55], SUPFINO International University [56], and ESCP Europe Business School [57], one of France’s oldest and most prestigious management schools. Located on the Pierrefonds section of the development – the first to be completed – these three institutions offer bachelor’s and master’s programs in hotel management and tourism, computer science engineering, and management strategy.

The TALENTS training center [58] opened in 2011 on the Pierrefonds campus, offering a blend of vocationally and professionally oriented courses in addition to executive leadership and management training through Hemsley Fraser [59], a UK-based short-course provider.

Outside of the Medine campus, there are 11 public institutions and approximately 50 private institutions offering programs through a mix of local provision, distance learning and international franchising agreements – mainly with British institutions. There are also a number of international branch campuses on the island, of which three are from the UK: Middlesex University [60] (2010), the University of Wolverhampton (2012), and, most recently, Aberystwyth University [61] (October 2015).

For the past three years, the government has hosted the Mauritius International Knowledge Investment Forum, a platform for sharing ideas and also marketing the island to potential investors and institutions. Last year the forum was moved from Mauritius to London [62] where Mark Simmonds, the UK Minister for Africa, told the conference that there are currently 15,000 students, a third of higher education students in Mauritius, working towards British qualifications from 25 awarding bodies. According to an article in University World News last year, the market in Mauritius is worth US$12 million a year for the British education sector.

The 100,000-student goal seems like a lofty one for Mauritius, but the island does look well placed to make significant progress on its hub-status plans over the next decade.