DUBAI // Two recently appointed university chiefs have urged curriculum changes to help students who are unable to read or write in formal classical Arabic.
"Our students are not fluent in formal Arabic," said Dr Leo Chavez, director of Dubai Men's College, part of the Higher Colleges of Technology, since September.
"The business community is correctly trying to emphasise written Arabic, and I'm not sure our students are equipped to do that. Right now we're not doing much Arabic, so that will have to change."
Dr Chavez said that in the United States and elsewhere there was more teaching of national history and culture than in the UAE - a "profound difference".
"I'd like to see us move in the direction of providing a greater understanding of the history, culture and language, so students can make good decisions about what they want to preserve and change."
Dr Ken Wilson, head of Zayed University's Dubai campus, aims to improve the remedial English courses most new students need before they can start their degrees proper, but is also looking at other degree courses to offer - with more of them in Arabic.
"Until now there's been a dominant focus on English, but we need to expand this to Arabic and other subjects too," said Dr Wilson, who also took up his post in September.
HCT, the network of 17 local colleges, stopped teaching Arabic several years ago. "It was mainly for budgetary reasons and the realisation that it was one of the deficiencies from high school we couldn't make up for," said Howard Reed, head of Dubai Women's College, part of HCT, for more than 20 years.
"We were already spending a third of our budget on remedial education and Arabic was something we simply couldn't do."
The onus should fall on schools, he said. "We emphasise the fact the schools don't prepare students in maths, English and study habits, but Arabic is a big problem.
"It should be more of a priority at school level because if students are not equipped in their native language they'll find it a lot harder to learn another."
In 2010, 40,000 pupils at 285 public schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates took national assessment tests that found they were learning neither English nor Arabic to an acceptable standard.
Most struggled to meet the writing and spelling requirements of the national curriculum. Boys scored significantly lower than girls.
Iba Masood, founder of Gradberry, the graduate recruitment website, said Arabic was vital.
"Businesses want fluency in both languages. Seventy-five per cent of our jobs require Arabic, especially for fresh graduates.
"The experienced staff come from abroad, the UK, US and other western countries and they don't speak Arabic - so they expect the junior staff to speak Arabic, translate documents, write press releases, engage with the community in Arabic."
Dr Chavez says his students are generally unprepared for higher education when they leave school. The answer, he believes, is a better school curriculum.
"There's a lot of discussion about the quality of the secondary system and whether they are producing college ready students."
Dr Chavez says that because university teaching is in English, mainly by expatriates, the system has become westernised, with individualised education for students who are more group-orientated.
"They don't like taking tests but they will do group projects together. There's a tension between the western style of education most of us are used to and the culture here."