Oman: Budget boost for education

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The government in Oman is channelling extra funding into education as part of a broader bid to provide its younger generations with the skills and qualifications needed to work in the modern economy. However, although the additional resources are a welcome step toward tackling key issues, such as improving students’ English language skills, it will take time for the benefits to trickle down into the economy.

Education and training were awarded $3.38bn, or 10% of all projected state spending in Oman’s budget for 2013, which was announced in January, up 25% in real terms on last year. The government’s decision to increase its focus on education comes at a time when Oman’s private sector is struggling to fill vacancies, despite high unemployment in many regions.

According to the Public Authority for Manpower Register, more than 150,000 Omanis are currently registered as out of work. A national campaign aimed at encouraging the private sector to hire more Omanis has been only partially successful, with employers citing a lack of skilled and qualified local staff as their main reason for hiring expatriates.

High turnover also remains a problem, with figures from the Ministry of Manpower showing that almost half of the 410,000 locals who took up employment in the private sector between 2006 and 2011 either resigned or were dismissed. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Bakri, the Minister of Manpower, said studies indicated there were a number of reasons for high levels of employee movement, including limited opportunities for career advancement, a preference for working in the public sector, difficulties in adapting to the work environment and an inadequate grasp of the English language.

Weak English has also been identified as one of the reasons why almost half of students at the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) do not complete their courses in the allotted time span, with some having to undertake additional language studies to meet the university’s requirements.

A two-year study conducted by the university found that just 14% of new students in 2011 achieved a pass mark in the English language test, and a considerable number perform less than satisfactorily in foundation programme placement tests. Otherine Neisler, a research consultant with the College of Education at SQU who co-authored the study, said the findings of the survey would be shared with other educational institutions, offering a means of better assessing the needs of their students and helping them to determine where reinforcement might be required.

Good English skills have long been recognised as crucial for workers operating in an increasingly global economy, particularly in the oil and gas industry, which is Oman’s leading source of revenue. Observers anticipate that the number of international education providers in Oman will grow over the next few years, as the Sultanate targets improving standards in academia in preparation for meeting economic demands. The government is also expected to channel additional teaching resources into pre-university level education.

Another area pinpointed by experts as requiring attention is Oman’s use of technology in higher education. Professor Thomas Andersson, a senior advisor of the Research Council of Oman, the Sultanate’s main policy making and funding agency for research, highlighted the issue in an interview carried by the Oman Tribune on December 25. “Oman is doing a lot to invest in education, but unless it takes steps to draw on technology and get a handle on research and innovation, it cannot add value to education,” he said.

Andersson urged universities to invest in new ideas, develop their own identity and interact more fully with the private sector, which he said would help promote a more vibrant learning culture and increase efficiency. “Universities must move from mere education and teaching, to more innovation and creativity. There has to be an ecosystem of people and resources,” he concluded.

Ensuring that investment reaches specific areas of learning is one of many challenges the government faces in its bid to bridge gaps across the education system. However, many will view the increase in funding as a sign that efforts to provide Omanis with an education better tailored to the requirements of the global economy are gathering momentum.

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