DUBAI // The federal university system will soon be strained under the rising number of Emirati school leavers, leaving private universities as the only option for more of them.
That means the Government should consider new ways of funding Emirati students at those universities, a study says.
Dr Ali Bhayani, an academic at the University of Wollongong Dubai, has studied the effect of market forces on higher education.
He has looked at the impact of privatisation on quality, as well as on the federal universities and the employability of Emirati graduates.
About a quarter of the 120,000 Emiratis studying at university are at federal institutions, and the number has been rising by about 20 per cent a year.
"Gross enrolment is increasing and in turn, you have to increase the capacity," Dr Bhayani said.
The federal universities have in recent years raised their entry requirements, partly to avoid having to grow more quickly than they can manage. That has led more Emiratis to opt for private universities.
Bolstering that gradual switch, Dubai last year passed a law that gave degrees from universities licensed by Dubai's education regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) - essentially those in the free zones - the same status as federal university degrees in terms of allowing government employment.
That removed a big disincentive for Emiratis to study there.
The most recent figures from the KHDA, show that most Emiratis - 58 per cent - are at private universities.
The rest are enrolled at Dubai's Higher Colleges of Technology and Zayed University.
Of those at private universities, three quarters are at institutions outside the free zones, such as the American University of Dubai or the University of Dubai.
The remaining 25 per cent go to free-zone universities such as the University of Wollongong Dubai and the British University in Dubai.
Dr Bhayani said that had required a change in parents' attitudes towards paying for university.
"The Government only funds the national students but even that hasn't matched the increase in Emirati students," he said. "So now you've got Emirati students paying and making use of the private universities.
"The Government isn't able to shoulder the massively increased demand for higher education, which is a phenomena the world over."
But for the shift to private universities to continue, Dr Bhayani said a new method of funding would have to be found.
He said: "In the UK there have been fee increases and in the US it's the same. Both countries have loans but you pay. In the UAE at present, the Government doesn't have too much fiscal pressure but they realise this burden of higher education has to partly shift to the students."
He suggests a voucher system where the Government provides funds for Emiratis at the university of their choice, public or private, but "the Government is still in two minds about this".
Dr Abdulla Al Karam, head of the KHDA, said a coupon system was already a "subject of great debate".
"The time will come that somebody will do the maths and figure out the cost of the public system versus the private system," Dr Al Karam said.
"It's about employability - the quality of the degree will only be judged by employability factors, such as the type of jobs graduates get, the starting salary and the time it takes to find employment."
In Dubai, 56 per cent of Emirati pupils go on to university. Dr Al Karam believes the number of those choosing private universities will only rise.