The national drive for economic diversification and the nurturing of a knowledge-based economy, combined with a growing young population, has led Kuwait to develop an extensive scholarship programme to allow students to study abroad. Those on government-supported study abroad programmes are joined by many Kuwaiti students whose families fund their education abroad.
The rapid growth in demand for higher education has left public institutions close to full capacity. This growth in demand has seen tertiary gross enrolment ratios rise from 33.4% in 2009 to 45.9% in 2014, according to the “GCC Education Industry” report published by investment bank Alpen Capital in May 2016. This has led the government to sustain its overseas scholarship programmes, even at a time when it is investing in the domestic tertiary education sector. The number of Kuwaiti students seeking education abroad on government scholarships rose from 1300 in 2009/10 to 3500 in the 2014/15 academic year, according to Alpen Capital.
There is a widespread perception that education overseas, particularly in Anglophone countries, is of a higher standard than that available in the Gulf region, despite the burgeoning of the regional higher education sector in recent years. However, Kuwaitis also study abroad to acquire foreign language skills and to build international networks that can help them in their future careers. The rising cost of education in the Gulf has also contributed to the trend, Alpen Capital reported. Many families finance their children’s education abroad. Kuwait’s GDP per capita of over $70,000, according to the World Bank, makes it one of the world’s most affluent societies, with many households having the disposable income or savings to cover the cost of expensive courses overseas.
Some 16,799 students moved abroad for study in 2012, the last year for which figures were available, according to UNESCO. This number has almost certainly grown in recent years. In the 2014/15 academic year there were 9034 Kuwaiti students in the US alone, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) in its 2015 “Open Doors Factsheet”. The IIE ranked Kuwait 16th in terms of states of origin for students coming to the US. The number of Kuwaitis choosing to study in the US has grown at double-digit rates over the past decade, with enrolment increasing 24% in 2014/15 alone. Of the Kuwaiti students in the US, 64.6% were undergraduates, 9.5% were graduate students, 1.8% were in optional practical training and 24.1% were “other”.
The growth in the number of students going to the US is partly thanks to the Kuwaiti government ramping up its overseas scholarship programmes in recent years. In 2012 it announced a plan to send 4500 nationals abroad in the 2013/14 academic year through scholarships administered by the Ministry of Higher Education and Kuwait University. One of the main aims was to develop workforce expertise in areas in which the state has labour shortages, such as business, engineering and sciences. Candidates must meet academic requirements and apply to recognised universities.
A number of bodies are now involved in administering these scholarships, including some of the most important public institutions in the country, such as the Civil Service Commission, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Kuwait Investment Authority, all of which are keen to recruit more skilled Kuwaiti graduates. A major focus for the government in recent years has been improving language skills, which has seen Kuwaitis rise it to the top seventh most-represented nationality in Intensive English Programmes in the US, according to the ICEF, an education consultancy. The scholarship programme covers tuition, some living expenses and the cost of books. Some students are also granted assistance towards airfare costs or a monthly living allowance, or both.
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