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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Universities to start year with Dh428m funds shortfall

Institutions claim the funding system requires urgent changes as three of the country's largest universities face major shortages at the start of the academic year.
The women's campus at Zayed University.
The women's campus at Zayed University.

ABU DHABI // The three federal universities will start the coming academic year with a total funding shortfall of Dh428 million.

The Ministry of Finance has submitted a budget to Cabinet that will give the universities less than their entitlement under a formula drawn up by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2008.

Worst hit will be the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the largest with 17 campuses, which will be short Dh333m, or 25.8 per cent .

Zayed University will be Dh32m, or 8 per cent, below its calculated figure. United Arab Emirates University, the leading federal institution in terms of research, will be short Dh63m, or 4.5 per cent. Sources at the universities say the amount has been calculated without consultation. They say places may have to be cut, campuses closed and courses decreased as the number of teachers cannot meet the growing number of students.

The funding required by HCT is based on its 19,000 students in the 2010-2011 year. The cut comes as the number of students is expected to grow in October by 3,000. "I don't know how we'll cope if we don't get more financial support," one academic said. "We are already stretched … we're running out of space and numbers will be unmanageable if something isn't done soon."

Since 2009, sources say, there have been more than 20 meetings between officials from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, to try to resolve the funding formula issues.

In 2008, the Cabinet approved a student-based funding model to help universities plan resources, with a higher education co-ordinating council (HECC) to run the system.

The Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and the HECC agreed the model would be updated every two to three years.

In December 2009, the Cabinet approved total funding of Dh2.5 billion based on its funding formula. This, say university sources, was the last time it was fully applied. In 2009-2010, the amount submitted by the Ministry of Finance was about Dh140m less than requested by the Minister for Higher Education and approved by the Cabinet.

Records released in December last year showed the HCT began taking bank loans in 2009 but staff say debts started building up to six years ago.

The same records showed Zayed University owed Dh33m in electricity and water bills to authorities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"There are so many ministries involved that it makes decision-making very complicated," a government source said. "The Ministry of Finance wants semester-based funding but the institutions do it on an annual basis and incur annual costs."

Several factors are taken into the Ministry of Higher Education's calculations. The big cost is teaching staff. Then there are transport, housing and student subsistence grants.

The number of enrolled students is made official 20 days into the academic year, so the universities are unable to plan because they do not know how many students on which their funding formula will be based.

They cannot hire extra teachers in advance and the country does not have enough qualified part-time academics to fill the gaps.

"Funding goes back to 2008 levels until the 2011-2012 numbers are submitted to Cabinet, so we are simply not prepared for this influx of students, which gets bigger and bigger each year," said one academic.

Zayed University's funding is short of the amount needed to cope with the 5,600 students it had last academic year, but it expects a rise in student numbers of between 15 and 18 per cent this coming year.

The National approached all the ministries and universities involved. None would comment.

Christina Gitsaki, Unesco chair in applied research in education at Sharjah HCT, said education budgets around the world were suffering.

"Universities are having to seek funding elsewhere. In science and business they are being pushed towards research for private industries. They can make a profit from the product, especially in areas such as medical research."

mswan@thenational.ae