Interview: Rahma bint Ibrahim Al Mahrooqi

In what ways can the private sector further contribute to research and development (R&D) output?

RAHMA BINT IBRAHIM AL MAHROOQI: The private sector can contribute to R&D through energy-related activities. In this sense, the EJAAD platform, a virtual collaborative programme, has around 40 partners who produce R&D action plans that align industry and academia for an enhanced R&D ecosystem. Additionally, the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MHERI) launched a science and technology development park, Innovation Park Muscat, where private institutions can invest in R&D-related innovation centres.

What are some examples of collaboration between the public and private sectors?

AL MAHROOQI: Examples of partnerships between public and private entities include the ministry’s collaboration with telecommunications firm Omantel to manage the Oman Research and Education Network, and the Upgrade programme. The latter of these aims to transform selected student graduation projects into products for the labour market and catalyse financial support from the private sector to build a knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, the ministry collaborates with Sultan Qaboos University to operate the Oman Research Repository.

MHERI also works with the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) segment, and aims to raise the enrolment rate of women. There is also a collaborative programme with the Ministry of Labour and the vocational training sector to empower and train professionals and trainers at vocational colleges.

How can higher education institutions help strengthen the start-up ecosystem?

AL MAHROOQI: The objectives of the National Innovation Strategy are to establish programmes to support innovation and entrepreneurship in Oman, and to empower the national workforce through the transfer and development of technology. The ministry has developed programmes and initiatives that support startups to fulfil these objectives, including Technology Transfer Offices. These titles were created to manage the process of invention disclosure and evaluation, and evaluate patents. The ministry is also working to establish Oman Innovates, a platform designed to support innovators and start-ups. Furthermore, entrepreneurship and innovation are priorities at vocational colleges, where students are able to receive support from MHERI to turn their projects into start-ups.

Where do you identify the main challenges and the priorities ahead for higher education?

AL MAHROOQI: Due to the financial situation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the primary focus of the higher education segment has been on initiatives that contribute to its growth and development in a cost-effective way, alongside those that diversify sources of funding and make it more sustainable. We are aiming to develop the segment in parallel with scientific research and innovation programmes that will be able to foster a knowledge-based society and enhance national capabilities.

In line with these aims, Oman seeks to have at least three higher education institutions in the top 300 in the QS World University Rankings by 2030. The ministry is cooperating with private higher education institutions to implement effective strategic and operational plans based on technology associated with Industry 4.0.

The labour market is rapidly evolving and it is necessary for academic and vocational programmes to keep pace with these changes, and for higher education institutions to be responsive to future labour market needs. This involves preparing graduates to be adaptable to future changes in the patterns of job creation, which means raising the enrolment rate in an affordable and quality TVET system, where the priority is developing infrastructure, labs and human resources.