Tougher university entry makes sense

Automatic entry into university did no favours to Emirati students who were unprepared for the jump from high school. Things are about to change.

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Life for Emirati high school graduates hoping to pursue higher education is about to get tougher.

As The National reports today, the Higher Colleges of Technology, the country's largest federal university, will probably refuse entry to hundreds of students this year after a decision to raise admissions standards. For the second year running, the HCT will raise the minimum test score for new entrants. Last year, the university set the bar at a score of 140 in the CEPA high school exams - previously, Emirati students were granted automatic entry.

And now that score is being raised to 150, bringing the HCT in line with the other two federal universities, Zayed University and UAE University. The result is that the number of new students will probably drop by about 20 per cent at the university's 17 campuses across the country.

To be sure, raising minimum qualifications is overdue. In the short term, it should lead to a decrease in the dropout rate among students who find the move to higher education too great a jump. In that context, providing non-degree, vocational courses for such students would be a step in the right direction.

In the longer term, higher standards should push government schools to raise the quality of secondary education. English-language skills, in particular, are necessary to succeed at the next level of education. Too often, poorly performing students must attend remedial language courses, making them more likely to drop out entirely.

The decision to raise standards also comes with pragmatic and economic considerations. The HCT has for several years been struggling with financial troubles, which were addressed by an FNC report last year. The institution's annual budget has been frozen at a little over Dh735 million until 2013. With real concerns about retaining teaching staff, reducing admissions should help to prevent a slide in overall educational standards.

And what about those students who will not find a place this year? It was doing no one any favours to award university spots to students who were unprepared. Remedial-education options should be available for students who want to take the CEPA exams again; vocational training should be offered to young people who have no interest in university in any event. A diploma that isn't earned isn't worth the paper it's written on anyway.