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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Universities see improvement amid push to prepare Emirati pupils for English language degrees

More hours and a tougher deadline mean many pass first time

Wayne Jones, head of the foundation program at Zayed University. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Wayne Jones, head of the foundation program at Zayed University. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Universities have seen a drop in the number of pupils that require an extra year to prepare them for a degree, amid renewed focus on English in schools and stricter deadlines for students.

Zayed University (ZU) and the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) said increasing the number of language class hours, more conversational exercises and a deadline that it has to be hit in one year is showing results.

Higher education institutes across the Emirates offer pre-university foundation courses, largely for Emiratis, whose English ability means they cannot yet start a degree.

About 65 per cent of pupils attending universities take a foundation year, at significant cost to the Government and also families that pay for extra lessons on top of that.

ZU said the number of pupils going straight into the first year of their degree without the need for foundation courses went from 30 per cent to 50 per cent between 2014 and 2017, suggesting schools are better preparing pupils.

Of those that do need the course, ZU said a third passed in their first semester and close to 60 per cent by the second semester.

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Wayne Jones, who heads up the academic bridging programme at Zayed University, said the course was rewritten to teach students “academic English”. Students are now set listening and speaking exercises, rather than largely textbook work.

“The curriculum includes academic reading, writing, listening and speaking to prepare students," he said.

Until recently, pupils had three years to complete the course before their four year degree - significantly drawing out their time at university, and easing pressure on them.

That has changed to one year - and those that don't pass after that need to pay for extra English lessons themselves. At some universities, they lose their place.

"The new programme is more rigorous and intensive, run with Cambridge University Press textbooks," Mr Jones said.

"However, it does not depend on textbooks, we have a lot of supplementary material and a lot of the work is done out of the class.”

Key to the change is the students.

With foundation courses shortened to one year, “you raise expectations and we have seen higher completion rates," Mr Jones said.

At HCT, just under 42 per cent of students went straight into the first year of their degree, with the remainder put into foundation classes. But the university also said the change to how it is taught has improved the numbers, rising from 36 per cent two years ago to 78 per cent this year.

The number of foundation hours per week increased from 18 to 30 during that time.

Dr Abdullatif Al Shamsi, vice chancellor of HCT, said the previous system that allowed students three years just to pass foundation courses was “wrong”.

“We kept it open and stretched it to three years. Once the students know they have one year - they are more serious.

“Two years ago we decided at HCT that it should be no longer than one year.

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"In the old days... if the student didn’t make it, then they would go to second year foundation, if they didn’t make it there then they would go to a third year foundation. If a student is doing their best they should be able to complete their foundation within one year."

As at ZU, foundation classes, which are largely centred around language, also went from 18 hours per week to 30 hours per week

“This is how we were able to push the passing rate of our students from 36 per cent per year to 78 per cent," he said.

"Students have also taken this matter seriously. They know that if they don’t make it this year then they are out.”

Back at Zayed University, Prof Dr Reyadh AlMehaideb, Vice President, said it has been able to cut the number of special instructors, saving it and the government money.

Two years ago there were 150 native, English speaking language teachers which cost "too much". That has dropped to 80 as students finish within one year.

Despite the issues with English and foundation years, he said the course has been necessary, particularly when English was not taught widely in government schools, which it will be from this term.

"Looking back at the history, only about 15 to 20 per cent of high school students made the 5.5 in the IELTS test, so if you don’t have a foundation programmme, you would lose most of your students and this is not good for the nation as a whole. This was a decision made in the 1990’s. Today, we don’t want to keep it.”

He said the message was clear to high school pupils and those moving to university. If they do not pass the first year, they won't have a place.

“You expect the students to apply themselves. The government will not support them if they don’t finish", he said.