ABU DHABI // Hundreds of young Emiratis had their university applications turned down yesterday, and will be offered places instead at vocational training colleges.
The Higher Colleges of Technology, largest of the three federal universities, will take only 4,160 students this year, down from 5,533 last year and 8,024 in 2010 – a drop of almost half in two years.
The numbers have fallen because HCT, which in the past has accepted most low-achieving school leavers, has raised its entry qualifications to match those of UAE University and Zayed University.
The change is expected to reduce the drop-out rate, and also means HCT will no longer have to devote about 30 per cent of its budget to remedial courses in maths and English before students are ready to begin degree studies. The institution has been in the red since 2009, when it began taking loans to cover budget shortages, and started the last academic year with a Dh333 million shortfall.
However, the new system also signals an end to guaranteed university places for all Emirati school leavers. Instead, 3,520 will be offered places this year at Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute colleges.
Adveti is owned by the Abu Dhabi Government and offers career-focused diplomas in subjects such as tourism, interior design and multimedia. It has campuses in five emirates and new ones will open in September in Ajman and Sharjah.
"The reputation of technical education has changed in recent years," Adveti's deputy director general Dr Mubarak Al Shamsi said yesterday.
"Technical education doesn't mean graduates will have lower jobs or less opportunities."
Dr Al Shamsi hopes most of the school leavers offered places will take them up, but he admits the true number will be clear only in January, after the first-term drop-outs.
The expansion of Adveti across the emirates will also make vocational education more accessible to many. Sixty per cent of those with Adveti places are from emirates other than Abu Dhabi.
"Many students don't like to travel, for example to UAEU in Al Ain, or Zayed, which is only in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Dr Al Shamsi.
"We're trying to provide them with education in other cities so nobody would miss out."
Nor will they be stuck. Those who resit their school-leaving exams and manage to improve their grades will have the option of transferring to a federal university.
But that may be too late, according to Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Studies in RAK.
"Students may feel demotivated and discouraged by being selected into Adveti, so the transfer option may not be successful in reality," she said.
Other experts are equally sceptical, largely because of vocational education's association with low-status, low-paid jobs.
Peter Hatherley-Greene, who has taught at HCT for nearly 17 years, fears the project will fail. "I would say they'd get less than 1 per cent of these students to go to an Adveti college," he said.
"The Government is clearly looking for alternatives because the schools aren't turning out college-ready kids, but students aren't culturally primed to to do these work-ready programmes."
He expects many – particularly boys – to simply opt out of education, and take jobs with the military and police, which pay well and require only a high-school leaving certificate.
While HCT almost halved the number of offers it made, the other two federal universities will take more students this year. UAE University in Al Ain offered places to 4,014 students, up eight per cent on last year, and Zayed University will take 2,496, up 10 per cent.
Overall, the number of places at the three federal universities fell by 7.5 per cent, from 11,532 last year to 10,670.
That is despite the inclusion for the first time of students whose mothers, but not fathers, are Emirati. They, like Emiratis, will study free.
* This article has been amended since it was first published. An earlier version of this article gave incorrect admissions figures.