DUBAI // While Emirati school-leavers have guaranteed places at federal university, those who miss that chance often find life is not so easy.
Having dropped out, sometimes to start a family, they often find themselves hindered in their careers by a lack of qualifications and yet unable to go back to college.
Until now, that has been a matter of policy: the Government requires the federal universities to give priority to school-leavers.
But, at one institution at least, that is changing. The Dubai Women's College, one of the Higher Colleges of Technology's 16 campuses across the country, has opened its doors to students of any age.
About time, according to its director, Dr Howard Reed. "We must be the last country in the world that has such an archaic, dysfunctional society where so many people need education."
This year, for the first time, the DWC offered mature students the chance to fill the spare places left by drop-outs and no-shows. Some 90 such women jumped at the chance.
In next year's class, Dr Reed hopes an aggressive marketing campaign will boost that to 120.
"There are lots of people who for whatever reason haven't been able to get as much education as they're capable of and as much as they need to really advance their careers," said Dr Reed.
He is aiming to reach out to women who, he said, can "push their careers forward in a big way" with access to basic education.
"Some of them are working and realising they are not getting promoted like people with other qualifications are, thinking they can't get back into higher education and feeling they missed their chance because they think we will only take school-leavers."
Stepping back into study is no mean feat for these women, said Dr Behjat al Yousuf, the college's associate director.
"These women are superwomen, with jobs, families and studies," she said.
But not all HCT branches are making such inroads. The campus in Sharjah has no system in place for mature students - and the main challenge is funding.
"For me to take a mature student means not taking a school-leaver, and my remit is school-leavers," said its director, Dr Farid Ohan "I wish the Government would see how important this is. There are many Emiratis who are not employed and HCT is a place they could get retrained."
Manal Yahatu is one of the lucky ones. Made redundant after four years with Barclay's bank, she decided it was time to further her education. Now 43, with seven children aged between eight and 21, she is in the fourth term of her three-year business diploma at DWC.
"More women should be given this chance," she said. "As older women we should be setting an example to the young girls, to better themselves and get an education. I'm studying for my future and I want to get a good job."
Natasha Ridge, the acting director of research at the Dubai School of Government, said it was essential for older students to be given such opportunities.
"Many people will have two or three different careers over the course of a lifetime and this requires that they have access to training and development in order to make career transitions," she said.
"Many men are eligible for retirement from the military or police at age 40; they are still young and they want to continue to work.
"The problem they face is finding courses for mature-aged students that take into account their age and previous experiences and help them to learn new skills and knowledge."
Others who leave school to work and later want to study part-time or in the evenings while continuing to work, do not have such opportunities here, she added.
"In the USA ... the average university student is over 25, female and typically studying part time. In the UAE, we will see similar trends emerge over time."
For now, the UAE's two other federal institutions are limited to taking far fewer mature students than DWC.
Bryan Gilroy, an assistant provost at Zayed University, said the greater life experience of the 30 or so mature students enrolled there enriched the university experience for everyone.
"I'm a great believer in education for all," he said. "You can't be held responsible all your life for decisions made as a teenager. If you decided at 17 or 18 not to go to university, you can't not have the option to go later."
Allowing mature students, he said, could also address the shortage of men in higher education. Only about 30 per cent of university students are men.
"Males get jobs but can't progress because they haven't got a degree," added Mr Gilroy. "If there were the chance to come back they would. Resources at some stage need to follow demand."