A combination of far-reaching reforms, major government investment and cross-border partnerships has paved the way for Qatar to begin developing a more competitive education sector, but ensuring graduates are adequately suited to the workplace remains key.
The state began targeting its education sector for reform over a decade ago, recognising that its development would be key to diversifying the economy and meeting the objectives mapped out in the long-term roadmap, Qatar National Vision 2030.
In September, Qatar received a major boost when University College of London became the eighth international institution to open a branch campus in Qatar’s Education City. However, ensuring graduates are adequately prepared for the workplace remains a challenge for many GCC countries, including Qatar, and a major concern among employers.
The Qatari government is already one of the world’s biggest spenders when it comes to education, having doubled its budget for the sector over the past five years, with a record $6bn allocated to education for the current fiscal term.
Schools will receive a major portion of the spend, with the government keen to increase its focus on primary and secondary education systems. The country first began overhauling its earlier-years education systems over a decade ago, after a sector-wide assessment concluded that the existing K-12 format, which covers kindergarten through to 12th grade, was failing to adequately prepare students for tertiary-stage learning and the workplace.
Major reforms included the setting up of a Supreme Education Council (SEC) to oversee the sector and the adoption of an “independent school” strategy, which will lead to government schools gradually being replaced by accountable, but autonomous institutions, operating under centrally determined guidelines.
With a new academic year now under way, the national effort to overhaul the K-12 systems looks to be making ground. A total of 178 independent schools have already opened their doors to Qataris and others living in the country who are eligible for free education, with nearly 100,000 students enrolled in the new schools as of the beginning of the current academic year.
Preparing students for the workforce
Reforms have earned Qatar 10th place for its education system in the latest “Global Competitiveness Report” from the World Economic Forum (WEF). However, the same report, which ranked 144 countries worldwide, also cited an “inadequately educated workforce” as one of the biggest challenges when doing business with the state.
A study carried out by the educational curriculum and research company, Pearson Education, supported the WEF findings, concluding that businesses across the GCC face challenges when it comes to finding applicants with the competencies they require.
Mark Andrews, the firm’s regional director of qualifications, said the most common complaints made by GCC businesses about prospective employees were a lack of “workplace etiquette, IT and English language skills”. Other research undertaken by Pearson, which was released in September, highlighted the disparity between students’ education plans and employers’ needs.
This mismatch was also a key focus in a recent study carried out by the Ideation Centre, part of the Middle East operations of global consultancy Booz & Company, on a group of 1300 students in Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Researchers found that despite the growth in independent schools, students in Qatar were still frustrated by the lack of control they had over the content of their education. A total of 40% of Qatari respondents wanted more choice when it came to their education, significantly higher than the overall figure of 29%, while 21% said they lacked confidence in their teachers.
The Ideation Centre study, which described students as “too often overlooked” in the reform process, suggested the responses could be related. Students who felt they had no influence on reforms risked becoming disenfranchised from the entire process, the study said. It also described trust between stakeholders as an essential component of effective education reform.
However, some analysts question whether high levels of dissatisfaction among Qatari students could simply be an indication that the younger generations expect more from their education. Some 65% of respondents in the Ideation Centre’s survey said they wanted to live in an “educated, intellectual” society.
Qatar’s plans to continue investing heavily in education, which include increasing funding for the sector by 15% this year, should strengthen its ongoing reform efforts.
Growing trust in the independent school model is another positive for the government, confirming progress in one of the state’s key initiatives. According to the Ideation Centre survey, independent schools were viewed more favourably than private institutions by students and had higher enrolment numbers.
Qatar’s reforms have given weight to industry complaints that graduates are inadequately prepared for the workplace, with the SEC’s 2011-16 Education and Training Sector Strategy emphasising the importance of aligning K-12 with the needs of the labour market. As the reform process matures, and with interaction between educational institutions and businesses likely to increase, the gap between students’ qualifications and industry’s requirements could soon begin to narrow.