Neglect of vocational education in favour of poor-quality academic degrees is leading to a failure to produce a technically skilled workforce crucial to economic development, experts warned today.
Young people who would benefit from learning technical skills choose degree courses instead because employers pay higher salaries to university graduates.
As a result, not only are many university degrees devalued, but there is a shortage of qualified staff in key sectors of the economy, a panel discussion in Dubai was told.
Dr Naji Al Mahdi, head of the National Institute for Vocational Education, called for a national strategy to address the issue. Vocational training is a fundamental part of the education system in many countries, he said. "You will find funding is there and the mechanisms are in place." In the UAE, however, "rather than it being part of the overall strategy, it is the exception, not the norm".
"Everybody wants a degree because they want the rewards," he said. "That can't be solved by the education system alone. People in charge of labour laws, the chambers of commerce and those in the workplace must be involved."
Dr Al Mahdi said the view of vocational training as something left over from the traditional education system had given it an unfortunate image.
Dr Warren Fox, head of higher education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which licenses and regulates Dubai's universities and colleges, said vocationally trained workers were vital.
"In the UAE we need to address this gap between high school and university degrees," he said. "A technically skilled workforce is needed for the diversified economy of the future and this is true for trade, tourism, logisitics and retail, keys to the UAE economy."
Dr Abdulatif al Shamsi, director general of the Institute of Applied Technology, a high school that focuses on preparing pupils for careers in sectors such as microchip manufacturing, said: "For the first 30 years of the UAE, the attention wasn't given to vocational education." Now, he said, many ideas were being discussed, including the National Qualifications Framework, which will give formal recognition to all types of vocational and on-the-job training.
The framework may not be ready for several years, but Dr Al Mahdi expects it eventually to be the "cornerstone of vocational education".
Not only will it formalise often informal training, knowledge and skills, but it will act as a measure of quality assurance for employers, in the UAE and internationally.
It will also give those with vocational skills and knowledge a tangible qualification that they can use for entry into further studies.
In September, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) - founded nearly 25 years ago to give Emiratis vocational training - stopped offering diplomas. All its students now take bachelor's courses instead.
That requires at least 80 per cent of HCT's intake to take remedial courses - in subjects such as English, IT and maths - before they can start their degree proper.
"As you push up the numbers, the quality goes down," said Dr Al Mahdi. "Either you have huge attrition or you bring the level down to meet the people."
And because students can study free at the federal institutions - including HCT - there is no incentive for them to consider more appropriate courses elsewhere.
Dr Howard Reed was also on the panel today. He has been director of Dubai Women's College, part of HCT, for 21 years and three weeks ago was also made director of Dubai Men's College.
That means he now oversees a quarter of HCT's students - 4,000 between the two campuses - and his task is to bring the men's college up to the standard of women's counterpart.
He emphasised the importance of having a variety of universities and colleges. "Thank goodness there are a variety of institutions that will fill these needs," he said.