While countries seek to increase their citizen’s entry to higher education to ensure social mobility, the case is not quite the same in the United Arab Emirates, where university attendance of citizens remains low, especially for male students. This is mainly due to the facility for young men to obtain employment in the police or the military, where high salary and retirement benefits are guaranteed. Despite the government’s recent calls for nationals to work in the private sector, young men are encouraged to join in military scouts that begin in middle school, further conditioning their expectation to work in the military upon completing secondary education, instead of pursuing higher education, which does not guarantee a better economic return. In Ras Al Khaimah for example, not more than 20% of secondary school boys would consider attending higher education.
Another reason is that students having a poor level in English during their secondary education are intimidated by university courses given only in English. This is a problem especially for boys in less developed northern Emirates. In Ras Al Khaimah, only slightly over half of the male tenth grade students obtained a pass in a standard English examination. On the other hand, if they choose to attend university, most UAE students would first go through a year-long English foundation course.
As a result, most UAE university students are girls. To motivate students to pursue higher education, the UAE provides free university education to its citizens, and some students even receive a salary to study. However, better education does not imply that female graduates would be able to secure better positions as their male counterparts in the corporate world, as many choose to take up low level administrative jobs in public institutions in the Emirate to which their family belongs, whereas positions that correspond to their qualifications are available mostly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Female over-qualification is commonplace.
Such abnormal phenomenon of the UAE education system is in fact the consequence of wider rentier policies rather than of education policies themselves. As a State where national income is generated from external resources (rent) that does not correspond to the actual productivity of its nationals, the UAE provides State benefits and guarantees of employment in the public sector that significantly reduce incentives to pursue value-adding education. Low productivity of its citizens will then reinforce their reliance on the State rent, making it more difficult to break the vicious circle.