Oman forges ties between academic and business worlds

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Institutes of higher learning in Oman are cooperating more closely with local businesses, as the Sultanate looks to boost employment opportunities for nationals in the private and public sectors.

A number of committees and advisory bodies have been set up given the task of creating avenues of exchange between the two spheres, and include representatives of both academia and the commercial world.

“Educational institutions are in continuous dialogue with industry,” Mona Fahad Al Said, assistant vice chancellor for external co-operation at the Sultan Qaboos University told OBG. “A joint committee is working to address how the university can supply industry with the workforce and technical skills which it requires in the short to medium term.”

This will help Oman’s universities achieve what Al Said says she considers one of their strategic roles, that of preparing graduates for the real world. However, to do this, Oman will need to build its research R&D capacity further, both through academic exchanges and collaborative research, she said.

Two-way street

At the same time, employers are becoming more aware of the potential for professional and business development offered by the academic world. Speaking in mid-February at a forum entitled Connecting Success: Bridging the Gap between Industry and Academia, Mulham Al Jarf, the chairman of Takatuf Oman – the firm that acts as the human capital unit for the Oman Oil Company – said collaboration between the two can bring benefits to all involved.

“We are encouraging academia to translate theoretical ideas into executable models and thereby giving companies access to the latest research results and innovative methodologies,” said Al Jarf. “This joint partnership aims to produce local Omani talent, who are equipped with valuable knowledge, and are highly capable of excelling in a competitive work environment.”

Among the outcomes from the forum was a recognition of the importance of industry to identify its future workforce requirements as early as possible, and for educational institutions to use this knowledge to produce well-rounded graduates with areas of specialisation more fitted to the workplace.

According to Ahmed Hassan Al Bulushi, the dean of the Caledonian College of Engineering, private education institutions will be better equipped to modify teaching programmes to meet market demand.

“The private sector is more flexible when it comes to adapting to the market,” he told OBG. “Less bureaucracy makes private institutions more responsive to the needs of industry.”

The role of private educational institutions has grown in recent years. Government data show there are 27 private universities and colleges with an enrolment of around 35,000 students. Since 2000, the state has offered incentives for operators to set up higher education institutions, including land grants, Customs exemptions and a matching grant system for private universities of 50% capital contribution to a maximum value of OR3m ($7.82m).

According to Maha Kobeil, the dean and CEO of Majan College, private colleges review their curriculum taking into consideration feedback from industry. “Businesses require a well-rounded workforce that has soft skills as well as academic knowledge,” she told OBG.

Calls for qualified staff set to rise

Quite apart from the increasing demand for educated and trained employees stemming from economic expansion – GDP is tipped to grow by 4% annually for the next few years – Oman’s manpower requirements are also undergoing a shift due to a change in government policy.

In mid-February, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Bakri, the minister of manpower, told local media that the percentage of expatriate workers employed in the private sector would be reduced to 33%, down from the current 39% over the coming years. This would mean at least 100,000 positions in the labour market would become available for nationals.

Further openings are being created in the public sector, with the government announcing at the beginning of March that almost 500 foreign employees of the Ministry of Civil Services, mainly at middle and senior level positions, will be replaced by Omanis. While around 90% of state employees are already nationals, the goal is to raise this figure to 95% or more.

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