Educating migrants: An ethnography of Indian private schools and middle-class lives in Dubai, UAE

by Dr David Sancho

1 Sep 2015

The growing circulation of students, educational institutions, curricula across national borders has captured the attention of scholars and policymakers worldwide. Focus has primarily been on North to South flows, and specifically on institutions from the English-speaking world providing offshore services in third countries, as well as on the experiences of expatriate children. Research on growing South to South educational flows, on the novel educational practices emerging from these, and on the impact that these have on the lives of South-to-South migrant populations, remains almost entirely neglected. My British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015-2018) will allow me to address these gaps by examining the robust Indian private school sector in Dubai and its role in the emergence and consolidation of a transnational Indian middle class. The aims of the project are threefold: to understand the establishment and functioning of Indian private schools in Dubai, and the modes of belonging and aspirations being transmitted within them; to identify how private schooling in Dubai may foster and sustain processes of social and spatial mobility among Indian middle-class migrants; and to produce comparative data and analyses that can critically engage with and provide insights to initiatives for the delivery of private education elsewhere.

Since the 1990s, the fast growing economy of Dubai has undergone important changes to diversify the economy and attract foreign business. This has entailed important demographic changes in a population that consists primarily of foreign nationals (88%). The most important shift has been the changing profile of Indians in Dubai – the largest migrant community, at nearly 30% of the total resident population. Hitherto consisting primarily of semi- or unskilled workers, nowadays there is a growing Indian middle-class – professionals, traders and white-collar workers – who constitute the cornerstone of the city’s expanding economy. With a government school system open only to Emirati nationals, a private schooling sector has grown to satisfy the educational needs of the vast expatriate population. Dubai’s 158 private schools cater to nearly 90% of the total school population of nearly 250,000. These offer a wide range of curricula, languages, and fee levels to cater for a population that is highly segmented and stratified according to income and nationality. Prestigious British or U.S. schools exist alongside more affordable counterparts catering predominantly to Indian migrants. Although almost entirely neglected in existing research, Indian private schools have played a significant role in the educational development of Dubai and today account for a substantial share of the private schooling sector. Indian schools in turn vary widely, reflecting particularistic ethnic/religious affiliations. Yet they converge in fostering some form of belonging to both India and the UAE, and a concern for producing subjects equipped to operate successfully within global labour markets. This study diverges from classical theorisations of schools as sites where national belonging, or ethnic identities are reproduced through seeking to capture a range of practices, modes of belonging, aspirations that are intrinsically diasporic. I hypothesise that these schools are at the forefront of the production of novel transnational subjectivities constituted on a notion of ‘mobile citizenship’, whereby belonging to both India and Dubai is mediated through the appropriation of values and practices normally associated with neoliberal capitalism, such as technocratic competence, meritocracy, and entrepreneurship.

The study of schools will be complemented by an exploration of how, and according to what aspirations of social/geographical mobility education is experienced and put to use by Indian families and their children, the largest consumers of education in Dubai. Literature on transnationality links policies of economic liberalisation with the emergence of a new ‘global’ middle class and the surfacing of ‘flexible’ individual and family strategies, who imagine themselves as part of a global landscape with far-flung horizons, and for whom education is conceived as a strategic way to acquire skills and credentials that facilitate international migration. Building on this work, this project uses schooling in Dubai as a crucial lens to capture experiences, subjectivities and aspirations which are ‘diasporic’, not bounded by nationality and engendered by migration to and the experience of living in Dubai. Engagement with different school ‘choices’ might be shaped differently according to different community orientations and familial projects of mobility, as well as by efforts to achieve recognition in the Emirate.  Indians constitute not just the main consumers of education, but also the most successful educational entrepreneurs in the region. Indian entrepreneurs have employed their expertise to establish schools modelled on ‘western’ institutions, but adapted to the cultural requirements of a socially and religiously segmented migrant population. The circulation of migrants across the Indian Ocean has led to the establishment of similar institutions in India. Recently this circulation has reversed direction: branches of reputed Indian-based schools have been imported into Dubai. Indian entrepreneurs are also responsible for the creation of private schooling companies operating internationally, such as Global Education Management Systems. These developments, which have produced one of the most privatised education systems in the world, have been facilitated and policed by rigorous government agencies and regulations. This project will examine the relationship between education providers and state regulations. The globally growing phenomena of education privatisation, and the role of philanthropists and entrepreneurs in supporting the provision of education has generated a highly polarised debate about the potential contribution of private schooling to achieving Education for All objectives – a literature that concentrates on the so called ‘lowcost private schools’ (LCPS). Despite opposing views, all research on LCPS agrees that regulation of private schools across the world is highly deficient, with typically only a small portion of private schools being recognised and regulated. Dubai’s private schooling could offer policy options for governments interested in better engaging the private sector in delivering quality education across all sectors of the population.

David is an anthropologist of education with degrees from the University of Sussex (MSc, 2008; PhD 2012), the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (MA, 2005), and the University of Florida (BA, 2003). His doctoral research focused on the (re)emergence of the private schooling sector and its role in the (re)production of inequalities within the spectrum of the middle classes in urban south India. As a Leach/RAI Research Fellow at Brunel University London David completed a monograph (with Routledge) based on his doctoral research titled Youth, Class and Education in Urban India: The year that can break or make you. David is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Sussex. His current work is concerned with the production and circulation of transnational schooling between Indian and the Gulf countries of West Asia, and its relationship with the emergence of a transnationally mobile Indian middle-class and ideas of transnational belonging and citizenship.

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