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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

University students describe struggle to meet English exams 

Some spend several years trying to pass foundation courses and IELTS classes to reach university

University student Ayesha* is photographed at her home in Abu Dhabi. Despite scoring top grades she struggled for several years to pass the foundation year, largely because of her English ability. Name changed at the request of the subject. Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National
University student Ayesha* is photographed at her home in Abu Dhabi. Despite scoring top grades she struggled for several years to pass the foundation year, largely because of her English ability. Name changed at the request of the subject. Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National

Students have described their struggle to complete foundation English courses, having left high school without the language skills needed for university.

Degrees are taught in English in all major universities in the Emirates, meaning pupils of all nationalities and tongues have to be up to scratch to enter their degree.

For those that don't they must undergo foundation courses until they are ready for university.

The new unified curriculum announced two weeks ago will see government pupils taught many subjects in English from their first day of school. But for many of those that have come before them, English was taught at a later stage in school, and are not up to 'academic English' standard.

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

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Emirati Houraya Al Balooshi has been trying to start her degree since 2013.

She did not complete her foundation course in 2013 then took the international English language testing system (IELTS) exams five times in an attempt to get a 5.5 score.

“I almost gave up,” she said.

“It was my mother who pushed me and booked for my IELTS exams and put me in centres to improve my English."

This year she passed and was accepted into university. She will be 24 when she graduates.

“We worked hard in school. It’s not that we were lazy, so why put us through this,” Ms Balooshi said.

"I'll work hard so I can remain on the right track and graduate. I'm grateful that I got in.”

Mother of five Mariam Al Kaabi is pleased to see the renewed focus on English to better prepare pupils for university, but said she wishes her children, government school pupils, had been taught from an earlier age.

“My children took all their major subjects in Arabic,” she said.

“Then they go to university and they want an IELTS and all the subjects are taught in English.”

The issue is not exclusive to government schools, parents said.

Emirati Um Bader, who asked not to be fully identified, had two daughters in private schools in Abu Dhabi. They had top grades but did not have strong enough English to start their degrees.

In 2014, her eldest daughter applied to Zayed University after graduating from high school was a score of 99.2.

“My daughter always got high grades. I put her in Zayed University and had high expectations.”

Um Bader said that for over a year she didn’t understand what her daughter was doing. “I kept asking her what she was doing at university and she kept saying, 'English'. I thought she was majoring in English and was happy that she had two years left to graduate.”

It was two years before she found out her daughter had been struggling.

After expensive private language centre courses at "huge cost" to the family, she finally passed the IELTS test and is not in her first year.

But the issue is top of the agenda for universities. The latest figures show ninety per cent of Zayed University now either pass their 'academic bridging programme' or directly enter their courses first time.