x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Universities 'desperate' as funding plan is delayed

Cabinet yet to sign off on new formula mooted 18 months ago, putting students at risk, academics allege.

Academics are worried that institutions that mainly cater for Emirati students, such as the UAE University in Al Ain, may be hurt by delayed funding from the Government.
Academics are worried that institutions that mainly cater for Emirati students, such as the UAE University in Al Ain, may be hurt by delayed funding from the Government.

A promised new model for funding federal universities is still not in place after more than 18 months of discussions, say academics who fear the uncertainty is holding back their institutions and damaging students' education. The extra funding, they say, is desperately needed because the universities, which cater largely to Emiratis, are likely to come under massive pressure in coming years as the number of potential students reaching university age continues to increase annually.

For the past two years, the Government has made up some of the shortfall with stopgap grants. While this has helped, university officials say it has left them unable to plan for the future. The long wait may soon be over, however. Dr Daniel Johnson, the provost of Zayed University, said the uncertainty was "having an impact on the quality of education". He said that enrolment at Zayed was growing at 15 to 18 per cent a year, but budgets had remained stagnant.

"We have to make tough decisions about whether we can continue to grow and serve the needs of students, and we can do that if the funding formula is in place," he said. "We're not able to grow unless we can be assured that the funds can be there. It's only through a realistic formula calculated on the basis of real costs that we can continue to grow and meet the needs." The new funding formula, first mooted 18 months ago, was approved by the Ministry of Finance about two weeks ago, according to Dr Samir Abdalla, an adviser to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, but it has yet to be approved by the Cabinet.

In May 2008, Sheikh Nahyan said he believed the formula was set for approval and the funding issue was resolved, but it is not clear why the Cabinet has yet to sign off on the plan. "Hopefully we are coming out of our educational recession we have suffered from for a while," he said at the time. "As soon as it becomes clear that you link the budget to the number of students, it's very easy for everybody. We don't have to fight to try to justify every addition to the budget."

The standstill was also raised at this week's meeting of the Federal National Council. Amal al Qubaisi, a member from Abu Dhabi, told the FNC that 7,000 students were able to attend state universities this year only because of additional scholarships from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, among other sources. Thousands of students are said to have been denied places at federal universities in past years before the formula was drawn up, because of inadequate funding.

In 2007, a report by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research referred to a "tidal wave" of young Emiratis who would soon be seeking university places. It also noted that financial support per student had dropped 20 per cent in real terms since 1999. The new funding formula was drawn up after talks between the three federal universities - Zayed University, UAE University and the Higher Colleges of Technology - and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Ministry of Finance.

"The technical discussions are OK. I don't think there will be obstacles to getting the final approval," said Dr Abdalla, adding that it was not known when the formula would be considered by the Cabinet. Dr Rory Hume, the provost of UAE University, said the funding formula would be extremely useful. "It would give us certainty of funding into the future," he said. "Without a formula of this kind, we're uncertain about the future levels of funding.

"We are underfunded relative to our mission, so we haven't been able to make some of the strategic investments in the interests of the nation that we would like to." Dr Hume, who said UAE University was currently still able to fund all its students through its general budget, added that additional funding would allow improved research activity and graduate training. "We look forward to the full funding because we have some excellent research projects in the interest of the nation that are ready to go ahead," Dr Hume said.

Among the most important, he said, was a project at the "cutting-edge of genetic research" that had the potential for "early benefit to the UAE". dbardsley@thenational.ae