Kuwait: Investing in human development

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As the number of Kuwaiti students leaving the country to continue their education continues to increase, a trend that looks set to continue, those students who choose to stay at home will likely be affected by a recent decision to boost enrolment at state-run Kuwait University (KU).

Potential study-abroad participants had an opportunity to meet with representatives of international educational programmes at the “Ambitious Future” forum, held July 11-13 in Kuwait City. Some 40 universities from the US, Europe and Arab countries exhibited at the event, targeted at high school graduates as well as post-graduate students. The conference was sponsored by the prime minister and organised by the executive authority of the National Union of Kuwait Students (NUKS).

Minister of Education and Higher Education, Ahmad Al Mulaifi, spoke at the opening of the forum, calling upon Kuwaiti students to be “ambassadors” for their country, according to a report from KUNA, the state news agency. Bader Al Enezi, the chairman of NUKS Executive Authority, also spoke at the event, noting that every student can choose the programme that best meets his or her needs.

The number of Kuwaitis studying abroad has risen in recent years. Stephen Forbes, the director of the British Council Kuwait, told reporters in January that more than 2000 students from Kuwait were enrolled at UK tertiary educational institutions. According to Forbes, the number of Kuwaiti students studying in the UK has increased steadily since 2004, reaching a record-breaking level in 2010. Similarly, data from the Institute of International Education, a private, non-profit US-based organisation, reported that the number of Kuwaiti students studying in the US increased by 20.2% between the 2008/09 and 2009/10 academic years.

This growth looks unlikely to slow. In February, more than 3000 students attended the annual Kuwait Study Abroad fair. Then, in early July, the Arab Times, citing daily Al Rai, reported that some 3800 applications had been received for 1800 study abroad positions, according to comments by undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, Khalid Al Saad.

The growing demand for study abroad programmes, particularly during the last year, may have been driven by changes in government policies. Last November, then-minister of education and higher education, Moudhi Al Humoud, announced that salaries for students studying abroad would be increased by 20%. Speaking at the 27th annual conference of the American branch of the NUKS, held in Miami, she said, “We look at any increase as an investment in the human factor and our students deserve more.”

The number of Kuwaitis who leave the country to continue their education may be increasing, but at the same time, the number of students at KU, the country’s only public university, is also expected to grow this year. However, this expansion was approved only after some extended debate among politicians and university administrators.

In early June, the KU Council, chaired by Al Mulaifi, announced that the number of students for the 2011/12 academic year would be capped at 6850. By comparison, in recent years more than 7000 students were typically accepted. In the days following the council’s decision, politicians and various organisations, including NUKS, criticised the policy change and demanded that the enrolment cap be lifted. For its part, the school defended the move to reduce the number of students. Abdullatif Al Badr, the university’s rector, released a press statement saying that the decision to cap enrolment was the result of an effort to maintain the quality of academics at the school.

This issue was apparently settled in the weeks that followed with a u-turn by KU. On July 13, the university announced that the number of students would be increased to 8000. According to a report in the Kuwait Times, a “temporary campus” will be established to accommodate the additional students. New staff may also be hired. During his comments at the “Ambitious Future” forum, Al Mulaifi called for increasing the number of teachers at KU.

Any expansion at KU may be costly for the government, but parliament’s education committee chairman, Jamaan Al Herbesh, has said that the government is ready to provide the necessary backing to allow all high school graduates to enrol at KU. Indeed, investing in education – whether by increasing the size of universities at home or by making sure that students are financially able to study abroad – is an important step for Kuwait to take.

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