New capacity: Partnerships with international universities are expected to improve local educational standards

With a total allocation of OR1.34bn ($3.47bn) in the 2013 budget, representing a 16% boost in funding as compared to 2012, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has ambitious plans for education infrastructure development. The 2013 budget included funding for 28 new schools, and plans for a new public university have also been announced. The university is set to have a dominant focus on science and technology and include branches of internationally accredited universities on campus, addressing the current research gap in Oman. It will be the second public university in Oman after Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) and will is expected to have an average enrolment of more than 1000 students a year, with total capacity at about 15,000.

The New Public University

The university, which will likely be called the University of Oman, will be established in the Al Fulaij area in the wilaya (province) of Barka. The university will be surrounded by a science and technology city, serving as a centre for research and development in Oman and the GCC. The city intends to attract foreign investment for education and research facilities, particularly through internationally accredited universities wishing to operate in Oman. According to Nabila Al Macki, the head of faculty at Majan College, “International partnerships provide many benefits for Oman. Two of the most important are ensuring credibility and quality for local universities.”

The University of Oman can expect an annual enrolment of more than 1400 students, catering to the technological skills demanded in today’s labour market. According to the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), much of the academic research that is expected to take place there will be integrated into the formulation of national economic and social development policy.

Other Public Projects

At present, domestic research capacity remains in its infancy. While outperforming a majority of its regional peers, Oman continues to fall behind in global rankings with regards to the quality of its research institutions, and mathematics and science education, as well as in the availability of scientists and engineers, according to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competiveness Report” for 2012-13.

In line with the MoE’s goal for Oman’s primary and secondary schools to adopt the Basic Education Programme, upcoming school developments will be designed to implement the new curriculum. This will put greater emphasis on critical thinking and computer skills so as to prepare students for a knowledge-based economy. According to postings on the Tender Board from 2012, the MoE has awarded two contracts for the construction of two basic education public schools in the Al Dakhiliyah region, and one proposed tender is open for a school in the Ibri wilaya.

The MoE is also implementing new school projects in Al Buraimi at a cost of OR3m ($7.77m) to accommodate the growing number of students at the basic education level as well as rising demand for computer labs, science labs and resource centres. As reported by the Oman Daily Observer in April 2013, the recently completed schools include Hafa bint Sarin Basic Education School in the wilaya of Al Buraimi (24 classrooms) and the Wadi al Hiyul Basic Education School in the nearby wilaya of Mahdha (14 classrooms).

Private Projects

The drive to attain international educational standards continues to attract foreign investment. For example, the Indian conglomerate Larsen & Toubro was awarded a $49.3m contract to build the private Al Buraimi University in the eponymous governorate. Initial planning suggests that the campus will sit on 1.1 sq km of land and comprise three colleges, science laboratories and administration buildings. The contract set an implementation period lasting 20 months. Moreover, CORE Education & Technologies has agreed to a 50:50 deal with Muscat Overseas Company through its Middle East-based subsidiary, CORE Education & Consulting Solutions, to establish new international schools and teacher training programmes. They plan to incorporate education technology in all curricula throughout the sultanate. In its drive to strengthen the quality of education by stressing the attainment of international standards during university assessments, the MoHE has welcomed a number of new foreign universities to set up campuses in Oman. Most recently, the UK’s University of Portsmouth won a government contract to oversee the development of courses at a new military technology college in Oman.

The Omani government will fund the new college, and the University of Portsmouth will provide quality assurance according to UK standards. The UK’s University of Wolverhampton also opened a Middle East regional office in Muscat in March 2013 to build regional partnerships with private companies for consultancy projects and to offer professional development and knowledge transfer courses to the local workforce. The Muscat office will oversee all of the university’s activities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and other surrounding states.

In addition, Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Sarmi, undersecretary of the MoHE, announced in 2012 that the ministry gave France’s University of Toulouse the green light to launch its first regional branch campus. According to Latifa Baba Aissa, project manager for the university, the campus will include three colleges, the College of Law, the College of Management and the College of Economics. Tuition for a full academic year is forecast to cost approximately OR3000-3500 ($7770-9065) and there will eventually be provision for scholarships. While the language of instruction will be English, the university will also teach French to support French cultural centres in the country. This emphasis on teaching foreign languages forms only one part of a series of development initiatives, connected to the government’s aspiration to increase the proportion of Omanis employed by private firms. This will require a greater supply of local workers with appropriate skills. “There must be a better understanding between employers and recent graduates. Developing the skill sets of nationals must become a part of the private sector’s business model. The focus must go beyond education,” Lawrence Alva, CEO of the National Training Institute, told OBG.

Student Preferences

According to a recent survey conducted by consulting firm Crowe Horwath, student and parent preferences for higher education have remained constant over the years. The survey sample was drawn from a random group of both student and parent participants from a number of public and private secondary schools throughout the sultanate.

The survey found that when deciding on a university some 50% of students and 68% of parents agreed that international affiliations and accreditations are not just important but essential considerations. The strongest preference is for European and American university affiliations, with the UK coming out on top as the most preferred system by applicants and their parents. Regarding programmes of study, 43% of students and 46% of parents state a preference for the engineering fields for higher studies, primarily owing to the career opportunities this field provides.


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