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More Emirati Students Bridge the Knowledge Gap

Melanie Swan, The National
August 03, 2015

Fewer young Emiratis are having to take expensive and time-consuming foundation courses to bridge the knowledge gap between school and university. 

At UAE University in Al Ain, the largest of the three state universities, the proportion of applicants who pass entry exams and begin degree courses straight from school has risen from 10 to 25 percent.

“It’s a big increase,” said Ma’en Odeh, head of the UAEU foundation program. “There has been more communication between us and Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Ministry of Education as to what we require of students and we’ve distributed booklets to high schools. Students have access to past papers so they’re ready for the exams and the topics required.”

Education chiefs have been trying to eliminate the foundation programs because they consume up to a third of university teaching budgets and many students spend up to three years advancing their English, math, and Arabic sufficiently to begin degree courses.

To qualify for entry to UAEU, Zayed University or the Higher Colleges of Technology, students must score 180 on Cepa, the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment, or an equivalent score on two other international English language tests. On average, only 20 percent of students are able to go straight to degree studies.

As well as the increase in the number of young people going straight to university, almost double the number of gifted students have qualified for this year’s fast-track summer foundation course after scoring high-school averages of 85 percent. More than 400 have enrolled on the three-week course.

In the past year, the number of students completing foundation studies at UAEU in one year increased from about 70 to between 85 and 90 percent, and dropout rates fell from about 30 to 20 percent. Part of this is as a result to greater access to materials online.

“Those who couldn’t finish would have been those with very low performances, and they won’t be likely to come back, so we won’t have to cover the cost of that again,” said Mr Odeh.

“Money can be diverted from foundation to other areas,” he said, including research. 

Amna Nasser, head of admissions at UAEU, said proficiency was improving every year. “Usually we choose high school students with a grade average of 90 percent but this year we lowered that to 85 to have more male students,” she said.

At UAEU, 70 percent of students are women. In the summer school for gifted students 25 percent of those admitted are men.

Caitrin Mullan, from the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, welcomed the changes at UAEU.

“English has traditionally been one of the primary barriers preventing Emirati students from going directly into university.”

When the foundation administers its annual English classes to about 400 high school students, most score below or well below 3.5 on the International English Language Testing System, indicating limited or extremely limited competence in the language.

“With such low proficiencies there is only so much that can be done,” said Ms Mullan. “It is encouraging that recent policy changes appear to be making a difference but attention and resources must continue to focus on this issue if students are to successfully enter university directly from secondary school.”