DUBAI // The head of the high-school exam board Cepa said 88 per cent of students graduate with inadequate English to cope at university - where almost all courses are taught in English.
Low standards and poor teaching were worsened by many teachers' habit of inflating students' poor grades, said Ryan Gjovig, head of Cepa at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research's National Assessment and Placement Office.
The result is that about 30 per cent of the federal universities' budget goes on remedial courses.
This year, 18,000 of the nation's 23,000 Grade 12 students took the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (Cepa) test.
All high school students learn English to prepare for their final-year Cepa and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) - both of which are required for entry to the three federal universities.
Critics say the Cepa test is too simple and does not prepare students adequately for study in English.
A Cepa score of 180 and above allows direct entry on to a bachelor's degree and equates to about 5 or 5.5 in IELTS. To even qualify for foundation entry, students must score 150. A higher score determines the level at which students enter remedial classes.
The average score is 160; at that level a student can expect two years of remedial classes before starting their degree.
That average has not changed since 2007, Mr Gjovighe said at a forum on English teaching in Dubai this week. "We haven't seen any improvement."
Other universities demand higher scores. Heriot-Watt Dubai, for example, requires an IELTS score of 5.0 even to enter the foundation course, and 6.0 for direct entry to baccalaureate courses.
Even an IELTS of 5.5 is low, said Duncan Perrin, manager of the British Council's Abu Dhabi Teaching Centre.
"It is not an elevated level," he said. "It's an entry level that students will still need to work on after that. Of course if you raised the levels, we'd have fewer students coming in [to university]."
Dr Christina Gitsaki, the associate dean of English at Higher Colleges of Technology, where more than 90 per cent of students start on remedial courses, believes schools should be doing better.
"It's in high school and middle school that second language acquisition should happen," she said. "We just need to create the curriculum that can make this an active pedagogy."
Raquel Warner, head of the international foundation programme at Middlesex University in Dubai, agreed. "Universities shouldn't be preparing students for degree studies," she said. "There are other things they should be focusing on. We should be focusing on the curriculum in secondary schools."
But schools are struggling.
"Often the curriculum is fun, it's the implementation," said Mr Gjovig. "Grade inflation is a problem. The average student has an A grade yet they're two years from starting college. That's why we brought Cepa in, because we didn't know what this A grade was."
Ali Al Khaldi, who taught English in government schools in Abu Dhabi before moving to Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, said the curriculum often failed to give students the right skills.
"Some students from government schools have more than 90 per cent in English language but they can't speak English well," he said. "Cepa focuses on vocabulary, reading and grammar, not language skills."
Habib Ahmad, the head of student affairs at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic and a former member of the capital's Madares Al Ghad ("Schools of Tomorrow") programme, said that in 2008, just 3 per cent of high-school students in Abu Dhabi went straight to degree level study.
Mr Gjovig estimates that figure nationwide is now about 10 to 12 per cent. "We can't turn away 88 per cent of the population," he said.
About 20 per cent fail the remedial course or drop out in the first year.
Mr Ahmad added: "The top universities don't even accept Cepa now and want only a 6.5 in IELTS."
The results of this year's Cepa testing are to be released at the end of July, when students will find out if they have federal university places.
Mr Gjovig said more Arabic study options might be better for some. "There is a need in this country for some Arabic institutions, even just offering two-year diplomas. I wish the kids could have another route that doesn't include English, because it's not for everybody."