Sarah Palmer: Where the world of education comes together

Sarah Palmer, Brand Director, GESS Education
Sarah Palmer, Brand Director, GESS Education discusses the changes in the GCC’s education sector, procurement trends, and highlights of GESS Dubai 2023 

The GESS Educaton Conference and Exhibition has been growing from strength to strength over the years, with events in Dubai, Turkey, Africa and Asia. Now in its 16th year, GESS Dubai has been the focal point for education in the Middle East.  

Whether you are a principal, head teacher, head of department, head of ICT, dean, professor, teacher, or head of procurement, there’s something for everyone. For providers of learning solutions looking to establish or expand their presence in the region, the event provides an opportunity to meet with more than 6,000 educational professionals including key buyers and decision-makers. This year GESS Dubai will host 350 plus education brands from more than 40 countries around the globe. 

As GESS Dubai gears up for its 16th edition, scheduled to be held from October 30, 2023, to November 1, 2023, at Dubai World Trade Centre, we speak to Sarah Palmer, Brand Director, GESS Education about the latest developments in education in the region and the highlights of the event this year. 

Tell us what’s happening at GESS Dubai this year? 

We have a lot in-store for exhibitors and educators alike at GESS Dubai 2023.  There are three main pillars to look forward to: the exhibition space, the rich and comprehensive CPD accredited conference programme and the awards. 

At the exhibition space this year GESS Dubai welcomes its biggest ever Chinese pavilion with the largest contingent of Chinese exhibitors with 40 plus providers exhibiting. There will also be a dedicated UK pavilion, supported by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) with more than 30 UK education providers. The North American representation at GESS Dubai continues to flourish. We also see an increase in exhibitors from Australia and New Zealand, and the return of international pavilions and clusters such as the Finnish pavilion. 

For the conference the latest addition is the GESS Talks (Live Stage), a lineup of speakers and guests from GESS podcasts and webinars. Due to its popularity, we’re now taking these conversations live so the audience can interact with the thought leaders in real-time. There are also the Leaders in Education Conference, Wellbeing Space, Skills Development and Education Innovations. 

Additionally, the GESS Awards Gala Dinner is set to be held on October 31st. The awards shine a spotlight on and acknowledge the excellence, diversity and quality across a spectrum of educational products, resources, services and individuals, including exceptional educational institutions and the most committed teaching professionals. 

Tarsus has been organising GESS Dubai for the past 15 years. What are the major changes you’ve noticed in GCC’s education sector? 

One of the major changes we’ve seen is the rise of international schools in the region. According to data compiled by ISC Research exclusively for GESS Dubai, the last decade has witnessed a substantial 54.6% increase in the number of international schools worldwide, rising from 8,771 schools in January 2013 to 13,564 schools in January 2023. Among continents, Europe accounts for 14.3% of the global international school market, while Asia takes the lead with around 57.1% of the market share and 64.1% of student enrollment.    

Within Asia, Western Asia, which encompasses the Middle East excluding Egypt, stands out as a hub of international education with 2,068 institutions. The UAE, at the forefront of this educational wave, boasts 769 international schools or a significant 37% of the total. As of January 2023, the region is home to 1.9 million students attending international schools, reflecting a 7.9% increase over the past five years. 

Several factors have contributed to this remarkable growth in international education within Western Asia. These include a surge in expatriate populations from China, Russia and Ukraine, and those from South and Southeast Asian countries; the return of Western expatriate professionals since the pandemic; and rising numbers of Saudi nationals opting for international schools, driven by young parents who have experienced international education themselves. In the UAE’s city of Dubai, with a population that is expected to almost double within 20 years, these schools are being located to support distinct community suburbs that are emerging as the city continues to expand. 

Key shifts are also seen in EdTech, with AI being a prominent conversation for the past year and with the pandemic completely changing the game in online to hybrid models of delivery; holistic wellbeing for all education stakeholders particularly our educators; and sustainability with COP28 on the horizon and this year being declared the Year of Sustainability.

There is a dramatic rise in integration of technology in education. Does the exhibition reflect this change too? If so, in what ways? 

Definitely. We have seen a rise in exhibitors showcasing products that are in line with the different changes and rise in Edtech implementations. Some of these include Metaverse, AI, Immersive Reality, Interactive Boards, LMS systems, as well as different digital resources. 

Globally, the edtech and smart classroom market size is expected to be at $333.327 billion by 2027 as per data culled from ‘EdTech & Smart Classroom Market Intelligence Report – Global Forecast to 2027’ published by Think Market Intelligence. In the Middle East & Africa and Europe, it is projected to reach $120.408 billion by 2027 at a CAGR of 21.78%. 

Do you see any major trends in procurement in the K-12 sector in the region? And what are the key challenges faced by GCC schools in procurement? 

We’ve seen an increasing trend of local and regional suppliers becoming more competitive over the years to meet the demand of the modern classroom in this market. Additionally, there’s a focus on integrating advanced EdTech solutions such as Artificial Intelligence to reshape the educational landscape. 

According to the same ISC Research for GESS Dubai quoted earlier, school leaders in the UAE have indicated that the actual sourcing of necessary resources is not a major hurdle when adequate time and funding are available. However, the real obstacles lie in the protracted lead times required for goods transportation and customs clearance. While inflationary pressures have been felt in the UK, US and Europe, the impact on schools remains relatively subdued, thanks to the resilience of the AED/USD exchange rate and access to more cost-effective products from Asia and local suppliers.  

Resource procurement in Saudi Arabia is a time-consuming process. The sweltering summer months often coincide with storage periods, where temperatures can exceed 50°C, causing potential damage to certain goods such as book bindings. Although many items are available domestically, they often come with premium price tags. To optimise costs, some schools resort to consolidating purchases through the UAE, while teachers, when visiting their home countries, personally procure goods from platforms such as Amazon, covering the additional luggage expenses.  

Across the education landscape in Qatar, leaders are keenly aware of the rapid transformation driven by education technology. Schools are actively fostering agile EdTech environments, with many establishing research and development committees or hiring technology professionals. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies are regarded as pivotal tools for data analysis and expanding students’ horizons. Consequently, there’s a growing emphasis on training students to harness these technologies safely and analytically.  

Across the rest of the GCC, educational institutions face shared challenges when it comes to sourcing necessary supplies. These challenges encompass high customs duties, extended delays, a shortage of skilled labour for equipment maintenance and a limited presence of international vendors within the region. For instance, the scarcity of suppliers for products such as Apple results in elevated costs and shipping delays exceeding four months. The absence of local book publishers, regulated due to curriculum control by the Ministry, forces heavy reliance on foreign publishers, impacting education delivery. Consequently, the procurement of educational supplies primarily originates from the UK and the US but also extends to other regions such as Australia and Asia, which are gaining traction in the market. 

Which countries rank at the top in providing learning solutions to the GCC? 

There’s no definite ranking but we know that UK and US companies have been dominant for a long time. It is worth mentioning that growing globalisation means that companies from all over the world now have opportunities that would be on par with UK and US ones. As long as you have a good innovative product that is relevant to the market, it will do well.