It costs hundreds of millions of dirhams and can come as an unpleasant shock to school leavers.
So the decision to abolish the foundation year, which provides English-language coaching to thousands of federal univerity students, has proved popular with many. But it also raises a question – how best to replace it?
Introduced in the 1990s, the foundation year is a bridging programme for new university students to make sure their English meets degree entry requirements. It also teaches Arabic, maths and information technology, but it is English – the language used to teach in almost all universities – that takes the most time and resources.
For students, many of whom come from schools and homes where the main language is Arabic, spending the first year mastering English can prove a testing introduction to higher education.
Umm Ahmed, for one, will be happy to see it go. The mother of three boys, she studied business at Al Ain University and graduated without a foundation year.
“When I was a freshman, I faced difficulties coping with the new system and environment, which is expected,” says the 38-year-old from Abu Dhabi. Within a few months, though, she had risen to the new challenges.
Now it is the turn of her eldest son Ahmed, in his final year at the Cambridge High School, to prepare for university. There is no need for Ahmed to undergo an extra year of studies, his mother says.
As she puts it: “It’s the responsibility of schools and teachers to prepare students for the university life. When you are a new employee in any company you ought to experience new things.”
When the foundation year is abolished in 2018, the responsibility for ensuring students meet degree standards will fall back on the school system. Many fear they will struggle to rise to the challenge as things stand.
Figures released late last year through Pisa, the Programme for International Student Assessment, ranked the UAE 44 out of 65 in reading literacy. The international league table, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, looked at the skills of 11,500 pupils aged 15 in 375 public and private schools across the country. About half of these were Emirati and therefore eligible to enrol in the three federal universities.
More local studies also show how much needs to be done. In its annual report, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai found that only four out of 10 students had a good command of English, and only 16 per cent were outstanding.
Rami Hamdan, who heads the foundation programme at UAE University in Al Ain, is a supporter of the extra year. “It develops 21st-century skills imperative to success in higher education,” he says.
“These skills include problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, and are very much embedded in the curriculum.
“In addition, students are also able to develop career and life skills such as time management, leadership, accountability, flexibility and adaptability.”
The university’s own research shows that nearly eight out of 10 students – 77 per cent – need additional English support because they lack the necessary language skills, particularly reading and writing, to study for their degrees.
In other subjects, seven out of 10 need extra help with maths to study at undergraduate level and 55 per cent take Arabic classes. The figures, Mr Hamdan says, make the case for the foundation year.
Not all students require a foundation year. At the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, students are tested on admission. Depending on their level of competence, they might spend between one and four terms taking extra classes to bring them up to degree-admission standards. To graduate from the programme the students must earn a certain grade in the International English Language Testing System, which is part owned by the British Council. For those who struggle even to meet the foundation entry standards, the HCT also offers pre-foundation courses.
One concern is that those who are able to afford private education have an advantage when going to university. Amal Thabet, who taught in a government high school in Ajman for 15 years and now works for a university in Sharjah, says privately educated students are “unfairly privileged”.
But those educated in state schools may excel in certain areas, even if their English is not strong, she says.
“Those who graduate from government schools where Arabic is enforced are proven to be more profound in what they know in subjects like calculus, geography and biology,” Ms Thabet says.
Even so, the challenge for non-English speakers is evident in how school standards are assessed. According to Abu Dhabi Education Council only one Arabic school is rated "good". Every school rated "good" or above teaches in English.
Ms Thabet remembers one pupil at her former public school who achieved 97 per cent overall on graduation, only to fail his first term at university.
“This shouldn’t be the case, she says. “Students can get depressed and in many cases go off and change their course to law, for example, because it is taught in Arabic.”
Her view is that students required to study in a language that is not their own lose their creativity.
“In Germany they teach in German. In Japan they teach in Japanese, and their nations are very productive.
“I have noticed how some students who graduated from Arabic-taught government schools used to read poetry and write stories, but after two years of being immmersed in an English curriculum they lost their touch and relationship with Arabic,” she says. At the same time, scrapping the foundation year without a substantial improvement in the teaching of English and related foundation-year subjects in schools increases the risks that more students will drop out or fail when they reach university.
What Umm Ahmed would like to see is a better balance between the two languages in the education system.
As a mother she wants to make sure her sons can speak their native tongue eloquently but also wants them to be fluent in English so they can continue their studies.
First she took Hamad, 14, and Khalid, 13, out of their English-speaking private school and put them into the state system. But she was not happy with the results and will go back to the private system next year.
“Both of them are suffering. I am going to change to private school next year,” she says.