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Warren Fox, KHDA chief of higher education, Dubai

There was a real dialogue here, a real focus on how to make change.
April 17 2019
6 Min Read

Warren Fox is the California-native who is seen by many as the face of educational development in the UAE, and the Emirate of Dubai in particular. The PIE met him on a recent visit to the city state, and asked what drew him to the emerging economy, and what keeps him in the desert?


The PIE: Can you describe what attracted you to Dubai and KHDA?

Warren Fox: I came 13 years ago to work for the Ministry of Higher Education. This gave me a perspective on the entire country, focusing on the federal colleges and universities that are mainly for Emiratis. They’re beginning to recruit international students now, or allow them to enrol -it’s a great opportunity for foreign students.

“The Knowledge and Human Development Authority is different, it’s not just education, it’s a journey”

In Dubai, there was a real interest, as in many states, about education reform and about improving student outcomes – as we all saw back in the 1980s from Finland to the U.S.

This began to set a tone across the world – to take a little more seriously how to focus on policy options to fix things.

The UAE did this in the early 2000s, looking at the issues around the performance of students and about the quality of teachers and teachers education. Dubai created a separate group called the Dubai Education Council over 10 years ago, to focus on how to improve.

The PIE: So you moved to a nation trying to reform – but why Dubai exactly? 

WF: Dubai doesn’t have a lot of oil. Abu Dhabi, a different Emirate is blessed with a lot of resources and its economy is different. Dubai, like Singapore, really looks to its people as its resource – and to its geographical location, because it is a trading centre in the Gulf.

Dubai then embarked on this process of developing as a trading centre, and this is still happening now. Dubai trades on tourism, construction, finance, its financial technology, the tallest building in the world for construction, hotels to attract people.

So this is the very aggressive outward-looking plan for Dubai to become a hub in various areas.

And they looked at the education reform and said ‘we need to make sure that our human resources are developed the best we can. We need a knowledge economy, better trained people, and we have all these expatriates moving here to live and work. What options do they have for education?’

“Our priorities are changing a lot because our Emirate is changing”

This led to the creation of the Dubai Education Council, which then was successful [and] led to the permanent establishment of an education arm of the Dubai government, called the Knowledge and Human Development Authority. And if you look at the term it is different, it’s not just education: it’s a journey.

When it was established it had a mission, to look at this journey in early years K-12, HE and so forth.

There was a real dialogue here, a real focus on how to make change in schools. Now most students here go to private schools, not public, because those are for Emiratis.

The PIE: A majority of Dubai’s inhabitants are not citizens – they’re immigrants – how has that affected this development?

We have hundreds of thousands of expatriates, but not a lot of higher education options for them as they can’t go to the federal campuses. We wanted to make sure that there were education options available for them. It so happened that we ended up concentrating on branch campuses.

That was married with an economic development model in Dubai put together… for economic development and for direct foreign investment. And some of the free zones are dedicated to building higher education opportunities. But there are universities in other free zones, for example London Business School is in the financial free zone.

This is very exciting, all new, growing. And like many who come to this part of the world, [when] I joined I thought, ‘Well I’d love to help set up KHDA, it’s kind of a start-up, very energetic’. Now I’m older but the average age when KHDA started was 29.

And I thought that this is a real opportunity. So I came here, and I thought I’ll take a few years… and then I’m still here ten years later. This happens to many people in the Emirates: they get started on something, and they stay with it.

The PIE: You mentioned the startup feeling. I’ve heard a lot about the KHDA and that it still remains energetic. How do you think it does that?

WF: Well it does, and I think one of the reasons [why] is it doesn’t stand still and the leadership doesn’t a stand still.

We now have a minister of the future and of tolerance. And these are areas where Dubai is kind of pushing the edge, to say we’re talking about quality of life, we’re talking about what it’s like to be here, and we want it to be a successful place for others to come.

And so KHDA keeps that in mind and doesn’t stand still. For example, Dr. Abdulla Al Karam said we’ve moved on to several new things, like happiness in our workplace, and moving on to ‘holocracy‘, the idea of anti-bureaucratic decision making within organisations.

Our priorities are changing a lot because our Emirate is changing because the government has new plans. So I think it’s because we’re in motion. We’re open to new ideas and we are… unburdened by years of stagnant bureaucracy.

The PIE: So where you might say in the West if everyone focuses on growth, it could burn out… You’d argue bureaucracy is really what’s holding it back? So would you say in Dubai, there’s no reason this kind of economy can’t keep going?

WF: Yeah! There’s always evolution at the macro level here. [Recently] the UAE launched a satellite totally built by Emirati engineers and construction.

“Where the Amity campus is I used to see camels grazing”

This is totally done by Emiratis. It energises people to say ‘look beyond, look to space, look where we’re going’. There’s even things around Mars exploration. This also led to the Expo 2020, in the UAE, but headquartered in Dubai. It is a country effort for 2020, But Dubai led and focused the efforts to get this.

In KHDA this kind of enthusiasm is also there. We have a large number of Emiratis that work there. We have some ex-patriots and people from different cultures who all work together on the same team.

Not everything we do is moves on to tremendous success, like anything, you’ve got to try a lot of things and then follow it successfully.

But I think it’s because of the leadership of Dr. Abdulla, it’s because of the leadership of the Emirate, and because of the commitment to change and progress it’s been able to sustain it.

Plus, even though things large physically – largest building in the world, et cetera, it’s a still a manageable size [education sector].

You can see people and know them, talk to them, meet students… and it’s not overwhelming like in very large countries or if you’re in the US working on federal policy on schools, the bureaucracy would be endless.

Here you can actually see all your projects, and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. So we’ve been very fortunate to maintain it.

The PIE: You said that you can see people and you can travel around easily, but I’m not sure the perception is that. Instead, people look at the distances and the difference between the UAE and their home – how do you counter that?

WF: There are several perceptions to get over.

I travel to the United States and elsewhere, and there’s a there’s a perception about the Middle East that’s unfortunate and it’s that all the Middle East is the same.

Here in the UAE, young Emirati women are graduating from high school, they’re going on to college, in English, they go to accredited universities – they’re high quality. They drive, they can hold jobs, there are female ministers.

70% of the students in the federal universities are female and this is all 80 miles from Iran. It’s just an incredible story.

And there are visitors constantly here from Saudi and the Gulf, and they come here because it’s a progressive, safe, forward thinking, business and education-friendly place. So we draw a lot of people.

But it’s hard to get the message out, and there is an inherent bias.

But still this country is still young. The whole country is 40 years old. KHDA 10 years old. Our quality assurance is nine years old, half of our universities have been here a bit over five years.

So in that instance we’re still young and learning how to become mature.

So if you look at it that way, it’s remarkable the achievements that have been made.

And for where we are in higher ed, we have world class universities coming here. But obviously we’re in a stage of maturity to really get what you would find in other countries.

But that also gives people kind of the spirit of some of the new campuses, like the Amity campus, beautiful campus a lot of amenities for students entrepreneurial set-up.

And where it is, I used to see camels grazing just a few years ago.

So it’s that transition that’s so quick I think keeps people enthused because they see that change can happen very quickly.

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