Sending UAE University students to their local Higher Colleges of Technology for foundation courses in English and maths is yielding results, academics say.
Students from Fujairah and Al Gharbia who would have started at UAEU in Al Ain in September are now being taught at HCT institutions near their homes until they reach the required level of English.
Foundation courses have long been a drain on the UAE's federal universities. While government schools teach largely in Arabic, federal universities instruct mostly in English - and more than 90 per cent of students leave secondary school without the language skills to cope.
The remedy is foundation courses, which until recently were taken at the institution to which students had been accepted for their degree. The courses swallow about 30 per cent of the federal higher education budget.
In summer last year, 23 foundation teachers at UAEU were moved to HCT campuses where the programme was being trialled - 19 to Fujairah and four to Al Gharbia.
The move was to allow UAEU to focus on its role as a research university, unfettered from the need to support hundreds of students in need of extra help.
Despite grumbles from some of the teachers forced to move - two of the teachers sent to Al Gharbia and all of those sent to Fujairah have since left, either resigning or returning to Al Ain - the students' results already speak for themselves.
"UAEU did an assessment of this area and found the students staying with us did better than they had done going to UAEU in previous years," said Dr David Pelham, the director of the Fujairah HCT.
The move should also save UAEU millions of dirhams that were spent on housing and transport for its students, many of whom live in remote parts of the country.
"How do you justify the biggest research institution spending 60 per cent of its budget on foundation students?" asked Dr Phil Quirke, the director of HCT in Al Gharbia.
"If they don't have the grades for direct entry, they should stay and study close to home."
Some students were disappointed not to go straight to Al Ain to start their new adventure, but the promise of being able to do so once they passed their foundation courses acted as an excellent incentive, Dr Quirke said.
"We had two students who passed the course in one term," he said. "It shows students it can be done."
The shift of students to HCT has tied in with the colleges' overhaul of their foundation curriculum.
"The previous system was one size fits all," said Brian Keenan, the associate director of Fujairah HCT. "Ninety-five per cent of students had to go through the one-year foundation."
The result, said Dr Pelham, was a high drop-out rate. Across the three federal universities, more than 30 per cent of students quit in their first years.
The new system, Mr Keenan said, was "geared towards the student taking the time they need".
It has four one-term modules studied over two academic years. But students can drop in at the level appropriate to them, so someone whose English is nearly but not quite good enough may only have to study for a term before starting their degree.
"Feedback in terms of attendance, discipline and so on show us that things are going better," said Dr Pelham.
Foundation courses - not only in English but in maths, IT and even Arabic - swallow much of the overall higher education budget.
The long-term aim is to eradicate the costly foundation system by making sure students get the skills they need from school.
That is a long way off. For now the plan is over time to extend the project to all of HCT's 17 campuses.
Already, Prof Rory Hume, the provost of UAEU, is pleased with the academic results and points to the advantage for students of not having to travel home each weekend.
"The travel time and costs are well worth it when students join our degree programmes, but since the foundation programmes are essentially the same at HCT and UAEU, it made good sense to do what we have done," Prof Hume said.