ABU DHABI // As if the jump from state school to university is not daunting enough, thousands of Emirati students face another huge hurdle. Since university courses are taught in English, many simply do not have a good enough grasp of the language to progress.
Because state school pupils are taught almost entirely in Arabic, very few students are able to go directly into university. Most take foundation classes in English, which delay graduation and consume a large chunk of the higher education budget. For instance, Zayed University last year spent about Dh40m (US$11m) on its so-called bridge programme, comprised of remedial classes, about 20 per cent of its academic instructional budget.
Dr Kirk Dowswell, the acting director for the bridge programme at Zayed, said only about 15 per cent of new students went directly into coursework last year, while 85 per cent took foundation classes. It can take up to two years to complete Zayed's bridge programme. "We're teaching the full gamut of academic skills - the ability to read articles, to listen to lectures, to write argumentative essays," said Dr Dowswell.
Half the students in foundation classes last year were at the three lower levels of six. "Their English is probably at low intermediate level," Dr Dowswell said. "It's not very good. They need a lot of work on being able to write." To tackle the problem, more than 4,000 Emirati teenagers spent a month at four federal universities and rural schools this summer, part of a programme run by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which oversees schools in the capital. The programme is aimed at helping to reverse a troubling trend. Last year, just eight per cent of high school graduates posted 185 in university entrance exams, the score needed to have a chance to go straight into classes without taking foundation courses in English at most federal universities.
When summer school started, ELS, an American company hired to monitor the programme, flagged English standards as a "cause for concern". They were in line with a 2005 study by the federal Ministry of Education, which found that, by grade seven, 68 per cent of pupils were two or more years below grade level in English reading and 74 per cent were at least two years behind in writing. In the United States, ELS operates an 11-level intensive English programme.
It starts at 101, where students "know a few words and phrases" and "can respond to simple questions and answers", and ends with 112, where students should be prepared for university-level coursework. ELS centres abroad offer two even more remedial levels, 99 and 100. Level 99 is for a non-user of English. About 60 per cent of Grade 11 students entering the summer programme were in the lowest three levels, with some having no English whatsoever.
By the end of the programme, 60 per cent had jumped one or more levels. "The major achievement was in the written skills of the students," said Dr Deborah Aldred, managing director of ELS Middle East. "They went up by one complete level, and to achieve that you would have to do 100 hours, so the providers did an exceptional job of improving the writing skills of the students." Sixty-two per cent of the students achieved or went beyond level 102, where they have a "basic ability to communicate in everyday situations" and "can understand English when spoken slowly and clearly".
Under the ELS model, however, it would take another 800 hours of intensive instruction to reach level 109, which some American universities accept as English language proficiency. The College of Business Administration in Jeddah accepts an ELS level of 107 or 108. Hamda al Qubaisi, 17, signed up for the summer programme because she wants to improve her language skills and hopes to avoid a year or more of intensive English before university.
A senior student at Al Khamael Model School in Abu Dhabi, Hamda has always studied in state schools. Her mother, Um Sultan, said: "You need English to communicate with everyone, even in an Arabic country like the UAE. "I have some English but not that much, and I wish I could study it more, because it is everywhere - in shops, in hospitals. I think if you don't know English, you can't get the most out of life."
When Adec assessed its English teachers last year, it found that fewer than 10 per cent met minimum language proficiency requirements. A report by Dubai's school regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, found that poorly trained English teachers were hindering students' progress. Last month, ADEC brought nearly 500 native speakers to state schools to teach English. "It should have happened sooner," said Hamda.
"Even from as early as elementary school, the teacher should be just an English speaker to force the student to talk just in English and not fall back into Arabic. Conversation would become easier. "I have never had a foreign English teacher until this year. I have an American English teacher and it makes such a difference." Hamda, who hopes to study engineering or architecture at UAE University next year, fears that she may end up in a foundation course, despite taking the summer programme.
She is considering another course before she sits the Common Educational Proficiency Certificate exam next spring. "I want to take an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) course in the British Council, because I want to improve my English even further, which is something I feel I need to do," she said. * The National, with additional reporting from Hala Khalaf Editorial, page a23