The graduates: it was tough, but we learnt

As state education finds itself under mounting criticism from experts, graduates stood up for the system yesterday.

As state education finds itself under mounting criticism from experts, graduates stood up for the system yesterday. The emphasis on Arabic made it harder to assimilate in university, teaching was rote, old-fashioned and emphasised memorisation, and little thought was given to research or independent study, they said.

But the abundance of expatriates in the years before the Ministry of Education restricted their number in public schools provided much needed diversity, and the teaching of Arabic and Islamic studies was unparalleled, the former pupils added. "There were two major issues for me, the first is language," said Osama al Aashek, a Palestinian electrical engineer who works in Dubai. "Number two is research. We did not do any. They did not tell us to research online or do papers. I had to learn it all from scratch at university."

Mr al Aashek, 25, attended the UAE's public schools for the last three years of high school, after studying for years in Arabic language private schools. He joined the Ras al Khaimah Secondary School in 2000. "My dad started working for the Government and there weren't many schools in Ras al Khaimah anyway," he said. A year later, he moved to Al Imam Malik School in Dubai. Public schools had one main advantage, in his mind - the discipline imposed by the teachers.

"Public schools were much tougher in terms of being on time," he said. But that discipline had a downside in that teachers rarely had any connection with the student's family, he added. The biggest problem Mr al Aashek found was his lack of a strong grounding in English as he began university. It was the result of a "lack of co-ordination" between schools and universities, he said. "English was very weak. I struggled with it. I was like a deaf person in a parade. I didn't even know what they meant when they said there was a quiz."

Mr al Aashek had to take a foundation course in English when he joined the American University of Sharjah's college of engineering, and he read as much as he could to make up for his language gap - including his physics textbooks. "It took me a while. My grades were not good in my first two semesters," he said. Retaining knowledge of English often depended on the student as well as the teacher, said Fatma al Muhairy, the head of the budget section in Dubai's Department of Finance, who went through the public school system.

She graduated in 1988 from the Maimoona Bint al Hareth School in Dubai, before joining UAE University. At the time, "English was taught and taught well," she said. "We had professionals, whether Emiratis or expatriate Arabs." English classes equipped her to do well in accounting and maths courses. The problem, she said, was the lack of independent research and vocational education. Students had to decide on a career late in their school life, without much guidance.

"They should show you the available careers. Only when you start applying for university they start asking you where you want to go, and then only in brief workshops," she said. "They don't tell you what the market needs. There is none of that and vocational training is absent," she added. The diversity of the public schools at the time was a big advantage, however. "I am social, and I like interacting with different nationalities. It was helpful in my work and it increases your ability to talk with people and softens you," she said.

Ms al Muhairy's school was about 25 per cent expatriate. Since then, expatriate admission into public schools has been restricted and their number has declined. According to Ms al Muhairy, private schools benefited more from diversity since the expatriate students in public schools were almost always Arabs, with a culture similar to that of Emiratis, thus reducing exposure to other cultures. Dr Bassam Mahboub, an Emirati medical consultant and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Sharjah, said while English teaching was probably stronger in private schools, the public school system mostly did not prepare him for the independence he gained at the University of Toronto.

Dr Mahboub studied in three of Dubai public schools, graduating in 1985 from the Dubai Secondary School. "The first problem is language, and I got over it while preparing for higher studies abroad by taking three extra courses and travelling a lot," said Dr Mahboub. "The other problem was in the way of teaching. [In Canada] you have to do your own research and do things by yourself. Here it was lecturing and memorisation, very traditional."