Emirati university students shunning engineering courses

New figures from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research show that 27 per cent of Emiratis are studying only diploma or higher diploma level courses.

ABU DHABI // A quarter of Emirati university students are studying courses below degree level, new figures reveal.

The figures, the first released by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research's new data and statistics centre, show that while the number of Emiratis at university rose from 51,000 in 2008 to 69,000 in 2011, 27 per cent were studying only diploma or higher diploma level courses.

Men are still shunning the kind of technical courses being promoted by the Government as essential to the UAE's post-oil economy. Just 22 per cent of men were studying engineering, with a third (33 per cent) taking business courses. The same proportion of women were studying business, but far fewer (11 per cent) were studying engineering.

Men were, however, more likely to be at private universities, with three in five male Emirati students attending those institutions, and the rest going to a federal university. That was exactly opposite for female Emirati students, 60 per cent of whom were at federal university.

Prof David Woodhouse, leading the project, said the greater tendency of women to go to federal institutions was partly because Zayed University was until recently for women only, which "presumably still brings a historic bias".

The university, which started taking men in 2007, now has about 1,400 male and 5,000 female students.

However, Dr Badr Aboul-Ela, head of the ministry's Commission for Academic Accreditation, suggested the figure might be skewed by other options available to men but not included in the results, such as studying abroad and going into the armed forces.

He said the high numbers studying below undergraduate level were down to poor secondary school standards and the many Emiratis returning to education in a bid to better themselves.

"A significant proportion of those studying diplomas are employed," he said. "They would have left high school and didn't go on to college or university for whatever reason.

"Another factor, though, is that their high school grades did not average 70 per cent – the minimum to enter a federal university – so they would go to somewhere such as Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute."

As it is, a "huge proportion" of the federal university budget is spent on remedial courses for the 90 per cent of students whose English is not good enough to start a degree taught in that language. "It's a huge burden on higher education," he said.

While he welcomed the increase in male engineers, Dr Aboul-Ela said their low numbers was just not enough. "The country needs more technology and engineering students – whether boys or girls," he said.

Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at the Al Qassimi Foundation for Policy Research in RAK, also noted the widespread preference for business courses, which she said "could potentially pose serious competitive problems in the labour market".

The figures were compiled from 64 universities, including 59 ministry-accredited institutions and two in the RAK free trade zone, as well as the three federal universities.

Three statisticians toured the country to collect data including student numbers, and academics' nationalities and qualifications.

Eventually, the data will be made public, but for now institutions can see only their own data, although they can ask for figures for similar institutions.

Excluded from the figures are several ministry-licensed universities that are too new to have meaningful data or lack decent records, and military and police academies, whose details are classified.

McSean Thompson, one of the statisticians, said: "This starts to give institutions a real picture of where they fit with their sphere of work or influence."

Consistency and reliability of data has been an issue to be ironed out as the project matures.

"We don't have any means of checking facts such as the number of publications of an institution," Prof Woodhouse said.

"In time we might be able to do sample checks but you need the staff to do that and we don’t have the resources yet."

While Dr Peter Heath, chancellor of the American University of Sharjah – one of a handful of institutions that publishes its own institutional data online - welcomed the report, he said different standards of data collection meant the figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, he said, "if filled out accurately, it provides an excellent source of benchmarking among the universities in the UAE."