Interview: Pankaj Khimji
In what ways can the practical knowledge of students at Oman’s universities be developed?
PANKAJ KHIMJI: If you look at the history of Oman’s education system, you can see three distinct stages. The first, which started around 40 years ago, was really about establishing programmes and increasing access to them. The second, about 15 years ago, focused on boosting the number of Omani faculty. We are now entering the third stage, which is the period in which we will need to focus on evolving the quality of the education system to enhance the practical knowledge that it imparts to our students.
There are a few things that we think can be done to ensure that Omani graduates have more than just theoretical knowledge upon leaving school. First and foremost, it is absolutely critical that students obtain work experience during their secondary school education. This could be a part-time job or a full-time internship, but we need students to see how theory translates into practice in the workplace. We also believe that this will improve the maturity level of Omani graduates.
In addition, we see a great need for increased collaboration between the business community and Oman’s colleges and universities in a multitude of areas, including curriculum design, internship programmes and feedback on student quality. This is why it is so vital that universities be in urban areas close to the country’s business houses and industry leaders, allowing for closer integration and partnerships. If you look at the best universities in the world in cities like London, New York and Boston, they are all close to or in downtown areas. This should be the case in Muscat as well.
By ensuring proximity to the business community, you also enable CEOs and other business leaders to become part of the education system, as it easier for them to deliver lectures and presentations. To hear from a business leader about what is happening in the markets or in a given sector is much more valuable than getting that information from a professor or a book.
This move to more practical learning is absolutely essential to support Oman’s wider efforts towards economic diversification. We cannot succeed in these aims unless our population is prepared and qualified to be part of Oman’s new economy.
How can educational institutions encourage entrepreneurship and nurture student companies?
KHIMJI: When it comes to business education, the learning should be hands-on and as up-to-date as possible, not just theoretical. There continues to be a mindset in many academic circles that case studies should only be brought in at the master’s level – but why should that be? Case studies offer students at all levels valuable insight into real business situations. If we really want our students to develop as entrepreneurs and pursue small business ideas, there is no reason not to have case studies as part of their curriculum.
As you know, universities in Oman are required to teach students entrepreneurship – but entrepreneurship is not necessarily something that can simply be taught. The support that universities can provide goes beyond mere instruction. These institutes need to cultivate an environment and spirit that is supportive of entrepreneurial ventures, and maybe even offer a space in which students can propose and pursue business ideas under the guidance of professors and faculty.
What can be done to attract a greater number of Omanis to technical and vocational fields?
KHIMJI: There needs to be a complete paradigm shift in this matter. Consider the three most successful examples of nations with strong vocational programmes: Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore. In these countries, technical training begins at age 14 and is an alternative to the traditional high school academic path. With guidance, students choose the path that interests them – and a sizable portion go to vocational schools. This is the sort of scheme we need in Oman.
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