Students need more help in making the move to university than the efforts being made to improve their English skills, say academics.
While English is at the heart of Abu Dhabi Education Council's New School Model, some university professors say this been at the expense of other subjects and skills.
Dr Howard Reed, the senior director at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Dubai, said private and public schools needed to raise their games in preparing pupils for university.
"Students coming to university should not need to find it so difficult," Dr Reed said. "Public schools need to raise the bar a little, and even private schools. Discipline in private schools is lacking. They see absence as a big joke."
He said there was an urgent need for early intervention to help students develop strong work habits, which they often lack.
"Students from private schools are better in English and their work habits are a bit better, but they need to learn more work-related habits," Dr Reed said.
"They don't know what independent learning is and are not interested to know. We can take responsibility in the summer to train them, but students tend to travel in that time," he said.
Many also needed to improve at maths, time management and teamwork, Dr Reed said.
Dr Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University (ADU), agreed schools could do more to prepare students for the change.
"Certainly, there is a broad spectrum of things we need to do with students to help the transition," Dr Ibrahim said. "We rely on high school for soft skills as well as hard skills that we can build on.
"We spend a lot of time and energy on students from private and public schools just to bring them up to level."
ADU and many other universities each have a department tasked with helping students to make the transition.
MS, who works in the student development programme at UAE University, said students usually lacked computer and time-management skills.
"The ones who have ICDL [International Computer Driving Licence], though, are good. They can do the majority of things," MS said.
Islam, 25, who was taught in a public school in Abu Dhabi before attending UAE University, said her biggest obstacle had been the change in teaching style.
"In school we had no chance to be creative; we were told to learn this and memorise that," said Islam, from the Palestinian Territories. "In university, you have to be independent. We were not taught that in school. We went to university and we got shocked."
But Amal Al Bloushi, from Al Ain, who is now studying at UAE University, said the move was not so difficult for her.
"We have UGRU [University General Requirements Unit] here to help," said Ms Al Bloushi, 20. "They are making the transition easy for us, teaching us English in our first year and additional classes in IT, maths and Arabic."
But for many, proficiency in English remains the biggest hurdle.
Mohamed Al Kaabi, 18, of Dubai, has just finished at a government school and will join the army or the police because of his poor English.
"University is not hard," Mr Al Kaabi said. "It is easy to move from school to university but you need to have good English. Language is important."
Bassam, 18, from Abu Dhabi, said he expected to struggle at university for "not knowing enough English".