DUBAI // A high-tech computer system to help lower the number of university dropouts is being considered by universities in a bid to solve a region-wide problem.
The signals system, developed by a US company, SunGard Higher Education, will centrally track students in areas such as performance and attendance, engagement in online learning and submitting assignments.
These triggers, put together, can identify a troubled student, either academically or socially, and in turn, encourage early intervention from faculty, counsellors and even families.
SunGard, which works with universities such as the Higher Colleges of Technology which implemented a central computerised admissions system, and the American University of Sharjah, has had demand for the system from both the federal and private sectors.
Mathew Boice, a SunGard vice president, says early intervention is key in retaining potential dropouts.
"It dramatically affects the success of the retention rate. If we can even make a modest improvement it will affect a lot of people's lives," he said.
"Pro-active action at an individual level has been really difficult so far because there hasn't been the collation of information. Information is still stuck in filing cabinets and folders and could be a bit more sophisticated."
Michele Jefferson, marketing manager for SunGard, added: "You can also start to see what the problems are more specifically such as if it's perhaps just the wrong class or programme."
Although the system will initially cost around US$100,000 for universities to install, Ms Jefferson says that in the long run, student retention saves the institutions money.
She said that it costs a lot more to recruit new students, with recruitment costs, administration costs, rather than the cost of retaining a student, even with things such as counselling.
Warren Fox, University Quality Assurance International Board chairman and executive director of higher education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, said: "The participation of Emirati males should be much higher. It's a big problem."
He said the problem begins at high school, when about 20 per cent drop out before completion.
"Everyone expects Emiratis to participate fully in the economic and social life of the UAE and secure public and private sector jobs for the future growth of the country but Emirati males are not represented at the level they should be in getting college degrees. We all want Emiratis to have appropriate leadership positions in the Emirates, male and female."
Bryan Gilroy, vice provost at Zayed University, said schools, families and the community must come together to tackle the issue.
Non-completion comes mainly during the foundation, or academic bridge programme, he says, when students must meet certain standards in areas such as English language and IT before beginning their degree.
About 18 per cent of students drop out during that time but Mr Gilroy says the figure reduces significantly the further through their studies the students go.
"Not all students drop out in the traditional use of the term. Some are withdrawn by their families, some marry and start a family, some transfer to other places, some get government scholarships and study abroad and of course some are dismissed. These are not really drop-outs but more non-completion of studies," he added.
Zayed has a number of initiatives in place to identify potential problem students, including advisers, student counselling and weekly progress reports that look at key factors such as grades and attendance.
"I do not think it is a question of growth or decline. I do think that non-completion is something that needs to be constantly monitored. As institutions become more expert at identifying students who need support it gives rise to the belief that non-completion is rising. It isn't, we just get better at identifying students who look as if they need support," Mr Gilroy said.