The Minister of Higher Education says it will take a few years to revamp the education curriculum in grades 10, 11 and 12 to prepare pupils for university education in the absence of the first year, known as the foundation year.
Foundation year at UAE state universities to be scrapped in 2018
Its abolition will require major changes in the curriculum for the final three years of secondary school to prepare pupils for university education.
Last year only 20 per cent were ready for direct entry to university at the federal institutions - although that was an increase from 16 per cent the year before and 3 per cent 10 years ago when entrance examinations were introduced. Pupils who pass the entry exams are exempt from the foundation year,
Many education experts have long urged the abolition of the foundation year: firstly to improve standards in high schools, and secondly to cut costs. Remedial education eats up a third of the higher education budget and diverts resources from degree courses.
The decision to scrap it was taken at a Cabinet retreat at the end of last year, as part of a wider education overhaul, and the 2018 deadline was confirmed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education, at the Federal National Council on Tuesday.
A few years would be needed to revamp the education curriculum in grades 10, 11 and 12, Sheikh Hamdan told the council. "We are studying how to abolish this year with the Ministry of Education," he said.
Dr Christina Gkitsaki, head of foundations at Higher Colleges of Technology, said the elimination of the preparatory year by 2018 was manageable but must be done with a clear strategy.
"It's a step in the right direction as we shouldn't be wasting higher education resources on language acquisition. The problem should be tackled before higher education.
"If students are going to continue to study in English, there must be some kind of plan in place to raise the level of teaching of English in high schools if this is to happen by 2018. How much time students learn and practise a language is important so a plan towards that direction could achieve this goal.
"Language acquisition isn't grasping complicated concepts. Intensive courses can have fast results."
A foundation teacher at Zayed University said that while the goal was manageable, much had to be done in schools, not only in relation to the English language.
"What we're seeing is students who just aren't ready to study - their maturity, their willingness to work, attitude and general skills and subject knowledge in other areas such as maths and science.
"There has been progress but that would have to be massively accelerated to allow for the programmes to be stopped by 2018. As universities, we can only work with what the high schools send us and the quality right now isn't sufficient to do away with foundations."
Dr Ahmad Alawar, director of Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, was positive about the decision, and saw it as feasible based on what he had seen since 2011 at the technical training institute.
"We've seen a drop of one third of students needing foundations studies since we opened," he said. "The level of English language is definitely improving.
"I believe the academic programmes in high schools are in progression so by 2018 there will be no need for foundations as students will be able to speak English to a level where they can enter directly into university."
At the FNC, Ali Al Nuaimi (Ajman) said the foundation year was a burden on university students and their families, and accused some private companies of profiting at their expense with the tests needed to graduate from the preparatory year.
"It costs around Dh900 to sit through an exam," he said. "In 2012, 14,000 students had undergone those tests. So around Dh14 million had been spent on these exams in one year. This is not including those who needed to re-sit the exams. This is a lot of expense on parents."
He said the exams should be taken at secondary school, not at university. "I ask that you consider holding these exams at secondary schools, since there are English language tests at that level anyway," he said.
Sheikh Hamdan said the language exams were free for one entry per student at state universities and any form of "commercial abuse" was out of the hands of the ministry.
Later Mr Al Nuaimi and members of the FNC's education committee decided to ask the Cabinet to study how the Ministry of Higher Education sets standards for university admission.