Funding Dilemma for UAE Federal Higher Education Institutions

During the past week the reporters at the National have written a series of articles about the state of education in the UAE. This is the second year where The National has focused on education its challenges and presenting possible solutions. In particular I would like to focus on the freeze on higher education funding.

Melanie Swan in a June 23rd article titled “Universities to start year with Dh428m funds shortfall” reported the folowing:

The Ministry of Finance has submitted a budget to Cabinet that will give the universities less than their entitlement under a formula drawn up by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2008.

Worst hit will be the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the largest with 17 campuses, which will be short Dh333m, or 25.8 per cent .

Zayed University will be Dh32m, or 8 per cent, below its calculated figure. United Arab Emirates University, the leading federal institution in terms of research, will be short Dh63m, or 4.5 per cent. Sources at the universities say the amount has been calculated without consultation. They say places may have to be cut, campuses closed and courses decreased as the number of teachers cannot meet the growing number of students.

The funding required by HCT is based on its 19,000 students in the 2010-2011 year. The cut comes as the number of students is expected to grow in October by 3,000. “I don’t know how we’ll cope if we don’t get more financial support,” one academic said. “We are already stretched … we’re running out of space and numbers will be unmanageable if something isn’t done soon.”

Since 2009, sources say, there have been more than 20 meetings between officials from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, to try to resolve the funding formula issues.

In 2008, the Cabinet approved a student-based funding model to help universities plan resources, with a higher education co-ordinating council (HECC) to run the system.

The Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and the HECC agreed the model would be updated every two to three years.

In December 2009, the Cabinet approved total funding of Dh2.5 billion based on its funding formula. This, say university sources, was the last time it was fully applied. In 2009-2010, the amount submitted by the Ministry of Finance was about Dh140m less than requested by the Minister for Higher Education and approved by the Cabinet.

“There are so many ministries involved that it makes decision-making very complicated,” a government source said. “The Ministry of Finance wants semester-based funding but the institutions do it on an annual basis and incur annual costs.”

As you can see HCT will have the greatest challenge in making the budget. They have little choice but to provide a seat for every student which means up to 22,000 may enter the upcoming term. While HCT & others can and should make the entire operation more efficient which would save some money, it does not seem reasonable they can provide a quality level of instruction with less money.

What alternatives do institutions like HCT have when funding is not sufficient?  Perhaps close campuses in the rural Western Region to save some money. This is of course not fair to the students who live in the region and in all likelihood would not go to college. Perhaps, increase the student/teacher ratio from 16 or 20 to 1, to a 25 or 30 to 1. This method dilutes the ability of faculty to work closely with first year & second year students who are mostly not prepared for higher ed courses & would increase the drop-out rate. Another method is to deferred admission of thousands of freshman until the January 2012 term begins and they can fill in the slots of the students who dropped out. This option can be used but again the game plan to be successful means you would hope students fail or drop out due to lack of encouragement & guidance. It also means many students will becoming disenchanted and not go to college.

The federal higher education institutions provide higher/further education for nearly 40,000 Emirati’s. They will be the majority of the next generation workforce. It is difficult for the private, health, & education sector to find UAE National employees (especially men) at this juncture in history. Budget cuts or freezes further adds to the dilemma.

The UAE correctly has stated, it will move to a knowledge based economy in the upcoming years, yet with funding freezes in higher ed it seems this goal will not be achieved. By all means encourage and implement steps to improve the efficiency of the three federal institutions. Look at ways where they can save money via co-op buy educational products, better use of multi-casting & video conferencing to reduce travel and re-deploy staff. Maybe fewer extravagant events will help save cash & I’m sure there are other ways. However, fully fund the formula program designed in 2008 which would improve the quality of education and reduce drop-outs.  Don’t take the same path many states in the USA are currently taking in order to balance the budget. They are damaging  their future.

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