UAE: Poor English limiting university access

Education deficiencies among university entrants in the United Arab Emirates have prompted the government to institute broad reforms of the school system. Although Arabic is the primary language of instruction in state schools, most university tuition is in English. At present around one-third of university budgets is spent on foundation courses designed mainly to help students improve their English.

As a result, one key element in the education reforms will be the expansion and improvement of English language teaching. Under the new system English will be introduced as early as nursery school level.

The reforms also include major changes to the school curriculum, with the emphasis shifting from rote learning to critical thinking and problem solving. According to the Minister of Education, Hanif Hassan, "At present the curriculum is based around textbook learning and memorisation. We need a curriculum that functions through the achievement of nationally recognised standards."

Over the next two to three years, the UAE authorities say, all public sector teachers will undergo retraining. These courses, beginning next month, will focus on ways of teaching the new curriculum.

"This is part of an overall thrust to upgrade education in the UAE across the board," the Director of the British Council in Abu Dhabi, Paul Sellers, said. "The main gap indicating this need was at entry level in higher education."

There are three main state-funded institutes of higher education in the UAE at which tuition is free: Zayed University, UAE University, and the Higher Colleges of Technology which have 16 campuses across the country. There are also a number of private colleges in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other cities.

An indication of the importance the UAE government accords to education is the fact that 34% of the 2008 national budget was allocated to schools and universities. While government statistics indicate that 280,000 Emiratis attend state schools, there is no corresponding figure for nationals in institutions of higher education.

According to the latest Unesco figures (for 2002), 37% of Emirati women and 13% of men gain university degrees. Fewer men than women seek higher education in the UAE because attractive employment opportunities are available to them, especially in the civil service.