Establishing the framework of higher education in the UAE – an overview of the Higher Education Law

The United Arab Emirates recently introduced Federal Decree by Law No. 48 of 2021 on Higher Education, being the first of a number of expected steps in the development of higher education regulation in the country. This Higher Education Law implements a legal framework that will see the licensing, accreditation, and regulation requirements for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) enshrined within formal legislation, as administered by the Ministry of Education.

The Higher Education Law came into force on 1 December 2021 and contemplates the issue of Executive Regulations in due course. We anticipate the regulations will provide detail on matters currently dealt with by the Standards (being the threshold requirements an HEI must meet as issued by the Commission for Academic Accreditation, an arm of the Ministry which currently deals with the regulation of Higher Education). The Standards govern requirements of HEI programs such as language requirements and qualifications and permitted workloads for teaching staff. Until such time as the regulations have been issued the Standards will remain in place and govern licensure and accreditation for higher education.

This legal framework is supplemented by the announcement made on 22 May 2022 regarding the establishment of the Federal Authority for Quality and Standards of Education (which will measure and audit, amongst other things, the quality of education) as well as numerous ministerial appointments as part of the restructured education system. It is too early to fully assess the impact these changes will have on HEIs, but the intent is to improve the quality of education and thus the competitiveness of the economy.

What is Higher Education?

Higher Education is education that follows the stage of general education and is provided by HEIs. An HEI can be either a public or private institute based in the UAE that offers study programs of a scientific or professional degree in accordance with the following stages: diploma; higher diploma; bachelors, postgraduate diploma, masters, and PhD. Once an HEI has been appropriately licensed it must apply to have its programs accredited by the Ministry before it advertises any of its programs or takes steps to recruit or enrol students.

The Higher Education Law does not apply to any HEIs operating in the UAE free zones.

What changes will this make to Higher Education institutions?

The Higher Education Law will see the Ministry undertake a new Institutional License and Program Accreditation for all HEIs in the UAE, in particular addressing licensing controls and standards for accreditation, which ensure that all HEIs are regulated and performing to a particular standard. The exact requirements of the Institutional License and Program Accreditation will be set out in in the regulations, and determined in due course.

Further to setting up the framework for Higher Education in the UAE, the Ministry will also:

  • Evaluate the performance and output of HEIs, the quality of their educational outputs, their classification, and periodically monitor them.
  • Develop and support scientific research activities in the UAE, in coordination with HEIs and private entities.
  • Amend the Institutional license and Program Accreditation as required, regulating and managing HEIs and taking the necessary measures to maintain the rights of students.
  • Any other tasks as may be required.

How is a HEI license obtained?

The Ministry maintains a register of HEIs permitted to operate within the UAE. Licensure (and admission to the register) are a pre-requisite for any HEI wishing to operate in the UAE. Operating an HEI without a licence or running a program not approved by the Ministry is punishable by imprisonment of up to a year and a fine of no less than AED10,000. Currently, an HEI must submit an application to the Commission for licensure, which will contain a variety of requirements including submission of:

  • A letter from the chairman of the board requesting the licensure.
  • An application form.
  • A self-study report, which is a self-critical and analytical document addressing in support of the HEI's satisfaction of applicable standards.
  • Internal documents of the HEI, including missions, goals, and objectives, organisation charts, policies, and procedures, handbooks, financial reports, strategic plans and research strategies, quality assurance documents, and list of accredited programs or those pending accreditation.

These requirements are in accordance with the current standards and may change following issue of the regulations.

When will the executive regulations be released?

There is no time frame projected for the regulations, however once the regulations are released we will be provided with, amongst other things, conditions for granting of the institutional licenses as well as general requirements for monitoring HEIs and any penalties for non-compliance.

Who will this effect?

All HEIs currently operating in the UAE will be required to update the status and the conditions of their employees and coursework within one year from the date of enforcement of the regulations. Any HEIs intending to open in the UAE after the regulations have been issued will be required to open in compliance with the standards set by the regulations. It is expected that the regulations will make some changes to the current framework, but for the most part will entrench and consolidate the various principles and policies found in the numerous Standards documents.

If you are currently operating an HEI in the UAE, or are intending to open an HEI, you will be subject to the regulations once issued and be required to ensure that your HEI is in compliance with any new standards put in place. Our team are highly experienced working with HEIs and can assist in licensing or compliance requirements, or general enquiries regarding the Higher Education Law.



Authored by Imitaz Shah, Alexandra Harding, and Sidrah Shah.


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