Numbers of university students studying in Dubai have dropped for the first time since 2015, new figures have revealed.
The decline follows years of growth for the higher education sector in the city, which has succeeded in attracting students from around the world.
Student numbers rose more than 10 per cent between 2016 and 2017, from 26,125 to 28,972.
But recent figures suggest a marginal drop. There were 30,375 students enrolled in 2018, compared with 29,989 this year - a reduction of 1.2 per cent.
“All universities [in Dubai] experienced a drop in student numbers last year,” said Professor Mohamed Salem, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Wollongong in the city.
"There’s a general belief that some of the [foreign national] students have decided to go back home to study.
“It could be the cost of education or because families have relocated because of the [slowing down of the] job market.”
The new figures were revealed in a report published last month called Dubai Higher Education Landscape.
The study was commissioned by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai’s educational regulatory body.
In recent years, the emirates has attracted significant international investment in the education sector.
Dubai’s free zones – where the bulk of universities are sited due to generous tax incentives – now boast 33 branches of international universities, meaning the city is now the world’s largest hub for branch campuses. Malaysia is second with 16, while Singapore is third with 14 international campuses.
In 2017, a KHDA report entitled From Now to Next: The Last 10 years of Private Education in Dubai - and Beyond, found annual enrolment growth in higher education had risen 9.6 per cent in six years.
And last year, a report by QS World University Rankings, an annual publication, named Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman on a global index of cities offering the best student experience.
The trio ranked a joint 61st on the list, with London, Tokyo and Melbourne coming joint top. They could have ranked higher but for feedback suggesting some students were put off by higher living costs.
Cedwyn Fernandes, pro-vice chancellor of Middlesex University in Dubai, said his university had not experienced a recent drop in enrolment, but that the sector continued to be “a tough market”.
He said other emirates were also encouraging international campuses, heightening the completion.
The American University of Ras Al Khaimah, the Swiss Business School and the University of West London are all now operating from RAK.
“Ras Al Khaimah is an expanding market and there are good universities with international brand names there,” said Mr Fernandes. “That’s a lower cost option so that may be a factor.”
Professor Christopher Abraham, head of the campus at SP Jain School of Global Management, said Dubai’s recent drop in students could be down to rising numbers of households choosing to move abroad.
“The reduced number could be students whose parents were working here and they decided to relocate for some reason,” he said.
"[But] the domestic market [for students] is stable for us. We have students coming from all over the world and a large percentage comes from India."