Why overseas students flock to Dubai in thousands to learn English

More than 12,000 students from 80 nationalities have flown to the Emirate to hone their English in the past two years


Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 7:30 PM

Last updated: Tue 28 Feb 2023, 2:59 PM

Dubai is the first choice for people looking for family vacations and overseas homes, but did you know it is now also the most preferred destination for international students wanting to learn the English language?

Over the last two years, nearly 12,000 students from 80 nationalities have flown to the desert city with just one overriding purpose: learn to speak and write good English.

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“Today, students from around the world see Dubai as a premium destination to study English,” said Montserrat Taylor. The Colombian expat is the CEO and founder of English Studies (ES) Dubai, which alone has attracted more than 9,000 foreign students since 2020.

Curiously, Dubai wasn’t even a blip on the radar when Taylor (pictured below on the right) moved to Dubai in 2010 and launched the institute with younger brother Daniel Rodriguez.

“Back then, there were no visa provisions for short-term students. Student visas were only granted to those pursuing higher education,” recalled Taylor. “The concept of students from key international markets, such as Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam coming to study in Dubai was completely unheard of. There was a gap in the market; we were perfectly positioned to fill it.”

Co-founder and marketing director Rodriguez recalled how people baulked at their idea when they decided to open an English learning school in Dubai. “They thought we were crazy. They would look at us incredulously and say, ‘Who would want to go to Dubai to study English?’ Now they know better.”

Today, it sprawls across three entire floors at BB1 Mazaya Business Avenue in Jumeirah Lakes Tower.

Courses are offered for every skill level — from beginner to proficient. Students are also prepared for IELTS, CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) exams, and ACCP (Advance College Credit Programme), which allows learners to begin their university studies well ahead of their peers.

Jake Borland, who co-founded Speak English Institute with Richard Lewis in 2013, said their initial clients were mainly Dubai residents.

“However, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the English language learning landscape in Dubai. Suddenly, we saw a huge shift in our clientele,” said Borland.

“As borders stayed closed in English-speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia, and Ireland, people started looking at Dubai as a destination to study English. We adapted to this shift. Now we welcome anywhere between 15 and 40 international students every month. We also provide them with student visas. A majority of our overseas students come from Japan, Colombia, and Brazil. Of late, we have also started getting students from Italy, Spain and France.”

Encouraged by the response, Speak English Institute has branched out to Ras Al Khaimah.

Swiss International School Dubai, which has 1,850 students from over 100 nationalities, said they have seen a significant increase in the interest and demand, not only for day school places but also for boarding places, from families across Europe and Asia in the last two years. “Families are looking for quality educational options for their children, primarily to support their learning of English. As a bilingual and language-focused school, students often come to the school with French or German mothertongue, and a desire to learn English,” said Alison Roberts, head of marketing and admission.

The school offers boarding places for students from age 11 onwards. “This is an ideal way to immerse a student into an English environment, and inherently accelerate the language learning,” said Roberts.

The newest entrant in the market is English Path. It is a part of the Global Education Group, which includes GBS — one of the most prestigious higher education colleges in the UK. Since opening in Dubai in 2021, GBS and English Path have been attracting students from all over the world, including countries like Russia, Turkey, Japan and South America.

“Our courses are designed to help students develop their language proficiency in a variety of contexts and situations, such as everyday communication, academic writing, and Business English,” said Gareth Smith, centre manager, English Path

The school also offers courses for English language exams, such as IELTS.

Montserrat Taylor said Turkey (1,083) tops the list of countries with the greatest number of students who enrolled at ES Dubai in the last two years, closely followed by Russia (1,062), Colombia (1,055) and Brazil (1,021).

“We also welcomed students from Japan (848), Thailand (804), France (597), Italy (513), Saudi Arabia (402) and Ukraine (198), in addition to more than 2,500 students aged between 14 and 17 years who attend our summer classes.”

So, what is it about Dubai that makes it so highly sought after by overseas students?

“Safety, English-speaking environment and a cosmopolitan atmosphere among a whole lot of other things,” said Taylor. “Unlike many other places, exchange students in Dubai don’t have to show proof of income or buy a return ticket when applying for a one-year visa. In fact, it’s the school that handles everything for them. Each exchange student gets an Emirates ID, which includes basic medical insurance and allows them to open a bank account. Many also opt for Dubai as it’s accessible and cheaper compared to similar schools in Europe and North America.”

ES Dubai offers a hotel apartment accommodation in Dubai South. A fully equipped kitchen, special rates on breakfast, lunch and dinner and complimentary shuttles to ES Dubai are all included as Speak English Institute hosts overseas students at Yugo, a student accommodation in Dubai Academic City that boasts of world class amenities. Similarly, English Path has partnered with ESAW to provide long and short stay accommodation options to students in Dubai.

Boarding students at Swiss International School Dubai live in houses, situated on the school campus, and have access to sports and leisure facilities on site.

Brazilian student Matheus Furmam said he didn’t know much about Dubai until he found out about the amazing benefits that come with studying in the Emirate.

“I am glad I choose to come here to learn English,” said Furmam, who recently landed a job at a newly opened luxury hotel in Palm Jumeirah.

Angolan student Joice Chipenda, 19, said enrolling for an English learning course at ES Dubai helped her get admission to a top British university.

“English was an alien language and Dubai an alien city when I came here in 2019,” recalled a Colombian student. “Now I speak English like a native, and Dubai feels like home.”


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