ABU DHABI // Fewer people have applied to federal universities for admission this year, according to new statistics from the National Admissions and Placement Office.
UAE University, however, has bucked the trend, posting a sharp increase in applicants.
The combined total of applicants to the three federal universities for the 2011/12 academic year is so far down by three per cent from last year to 13,688, according to the latest statistics.
The numbers reflect almost 1,000 fewer applications to the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the largest federal institution with 16 colleges around the country and more than 18,000 students.
HCT has received 5,300 applications, 15 per cent fewer than last year, while Zayed University suffered a drop of five per cent, to 2,377.
However, UAE Universitywas more popular than before, with 6,011 applicants, up 12 per cent over 2010.
Rory Hume, the provost of UAEU, said he suspected the increase was due to the university's increased emphasis on research. The university also has new campuses in Al Ain that include facilities for special-needs students.
The number of entrants to each university will not be confirmed until March, when students have sat their common educational proficiency assessment (Cepa) tests in English and maths.
It is estimated that 90 per cent of applications are in now, but universities can still take last-minute applications from students if they meet the requirements. Students who do not qualify for direct entry - usually around three-quarters of the total - will need to take remedial foundation courses before they are admitted.
The biggest drops so far were seen at the HCT colleges in Abu Dhabi, where the number of applications fell by 27 per cent, and in Madinat Zayed, where they dropped 45 per cent.
The only HCT colleges to receive more applicants than last year were in Sharjah, where the numbers rose by eight per cent.
Mark Drummond, HCT's provost, said the decline could be attributed to this year's switch to online applications, which have allowed figures to be compiled earlier than in previous years. He said there were "surely some applicants that for one reason or another have yet to get their application filed".
As the reputation of UAE University improved, Mr Drummond said he expected it to be the first choice of more students. Not only does it offer a broader range of programmes, but it also gives students the chance to gain some independence by living away from home.
He added: "I would fully expect that when all is said and done that HCT will have approximately the same number of students as we now have."
Farid Ohan, the director of the Sharjah HCT colleges, said the rise there was the result of the colleges' aggressive marketing in local schools, as well as new courses such as animation, fashion and social work.
He said: "People are also becoming increasingly aware that we offer bachelor's programmes. This year, 20 per cent of the applicants have named engineering as their preferred major."
Fatima Abdulla, the managing director of Global Consulting Associates and a research fellow at the Dubai School of Government, was not surprised by the HCT applications decline in Al Gharbia.
"The kids there want to leave," she said. "There aren't jobs, and they'd rather go to UAEU and widen their horizons."
In Abu Dhabi, she said, many Emiratis are now opting for the newer universities, such as Khalifa University and Abu Dhabi University.
"These two institutions are really gaining ground with Emiratis," she said.
Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, where about half of the undergraduates are Emiratis, said applications this year were about 12 per cent up on last year. He attributed the increase to increased marketing, but acknowledged that ADU's specialised programmes, such as those for the military and Etihad Airways, made it a popular choice for Emiratis.
Bryan Gilroy, assistant provost at Zayed University, said the university did not expect much of a drop from last year, although that would not become clear until after the Cepa exams.
A record number of students were offered places at the country's three federal universities for the 2010-2011 academic year.