High-quality schools and educational training to leverage Oman's favourable demographics

 

The education sector has been expanding fast, thanks to population growth, economic development and the policy of Omanisation, which seeks to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign workers, technicians and managers. Despite a temporary slowdown caused by the oil price slump of 2014-16, education is set for further expansion, creating new opportunities for private sector investment.

Structure & Oversight

Education provision has grown rapidly from fairly minimal levels in 1970, when there were fewer than 10 schools operating in the entire country. Sultan Qaboos University, which remains the only public university in the country, was set up in 1986 and currently has over 15,000 students. Since 2012 overall education strategy has been set by the Education Council, a body which includes the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Higher Education. The council has been developing a National Education Strategy, which is due to culminate in 2040. Another important institution is the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA), which carries out quality assurance.

The Omani education system is divided into four levels. Pre-primary education caters to students aged between four and five; primary education, six- to 11-year-olds; secondary education, 12- to 17- year-olds; and tertiary education, 18- to 22-year-olds. Data compiled by UNESCO puts the total population being educated in 2017 at just under 1.1m, of which 13.4% were in pre-primary, 32.9% in primary, 26.5% in secondary and 27.2% in tertiary.

Slightly more recent data from the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) covers the first three of these levels and shows there were a total of 770,481 students in 1808 schools across the country in the 2017/18 academic year (the academic year begins in September and ends in June). Just over 75% of those students were enrolled in government schools, while 13.7% were in private schools and 8.2% were in international schools. A further 2.6% of students were in other government schools, a category that includes institutions run by the Royal Guard of Oman, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, and various women’s associations.

According to NCSI data, 10.3% of students attended pre-primary, while 3.1% were enrolled in the basic education first cycle (grades 1-4). The largest group, 39.3% of the total, were in the basic education second cycle (grades 5-10), while post-basic education (grades 11 and 12) accounted for 11.1% of students. The NCSI data also showed that across the education system each school had an average of 426 students, with 26 students in a class and one teacher for every 11 students.

UNESCO data shows that the number of out-ofschool children is small and has been falling. From over 10,000 in 2011, it more than halved to just under 4500 in 2017. The gross enrolment rate, which means enrolled students as a proportion of the population of the corresponding age group, was 107.2% in primary education and 102.5% in secondary education. The literacy rate in 2016, the most recent data available, was 96.1% for the population aged 15 years and older. Of that total, people aged between 15 and 24 had higher literacy, at a total of 98.7%. UNICEF’s representative in Oman, Lana Al Wreikat, has praised some of the achievements of the government in its policies related to children and education. “Over the past four decades, economic stability and income growth have been accompanied by a rapid decline in child and maternal mortality, universal immunisation of children against diseases and basic education for all,” she told a public meeting in July 2018, also stressing the importance of teaching IT skills to schoolchildren (see ICT chapter).

Policy

The fall in global oil and gas prices in 2014-16 had a negative impact on the economy, forcing the government to introduce a degree of austerity to narrow the fiscal deficit. Although oil prices subsequently began to recover, the period focused attention on the need to diversify the economy and make it more competitive. Education has a significant long-term role to play in this. In an Article IV consultation exercise by the IMF in April 2018, the mission stressed the need for reforms to promote private sector development, productivity, competitiveness, diversification and local job creation. The IMF said the reforms should include more labour market flexibility for Omani nationals, along with sustained efforts to improve education and training.

Government officials have answered this call by working on a long-term plan for education titled the National Education Strategy 2040, and it has been well received. “The National Education Strategy 2040 helps the country achieve its goals. The government provides specific guidelines for education institutions to follow in all areas of the sector,” Maha Kobeil, dean and CEO of Majan College, told OBG.

A February 2018 report by the Public Authority for Investment Promotion and Export Development stressed the importance of the education sector for wider national development. It said that with 18 public and 20 private colleges, seven private universities and one state university, the country was well placed to meet its objectives, adding that “International and local businesses are far more likely to base their location decisions on the skills of the local workforce than they are on Oman’s tax regime”. The report also underlined the importance of amenities, including those related to the natural and built environment. Omani cities, it suggested, should connect their urban landscapes with waterfront promenades, urban bicycle lanes and parks. Measures such as these would have the effect of attracting younger, qualified, international talent.

Budget

According to UNESCO, government spending on education in Oman has been on an upward trend, as a share both of GDP and of the total government budget. Education spending went from 4.2% of GDP in 2009 to 6.7% in 2017. In terms of the overall government budget, education spending rose from 11% in 2009 to 16% in 2017. Government spending per student per year – measured in US dollars calculated on a purchasing power parity basis – was $12,744 in the primary level in 2017, and $14,536 in the secondary level. The NCSI says that spending on primary and secondary education rose 130% in 2008-2017, to OR1.2bn ($3.2bn). This increase reflects the combined effects of a major rise in staffing levels in 2011 and a salary boost introduced in 2015. Salaries represent around 88% of total MoE spending. Teachers and other staff employed by the MoE account for about 50% of total public sector employment in the country.

Higher Education

Higher education institutes (HEIs) are regulated by the OAAA, which seeks to ensure they meet international standards and are focused on continuous improvement. Since 2008 all licensed HEIs have been required to undergo a three-stage process. This starts with an initial quality audit, which is followed within four to five years by an institutional standards assessment led by a five-strong panel of experts, two of whom are from Oman and three of whom come from abroad.

Institutions which do not meet the required level of quality in this second phase are then subject to a third phase: an institutional standards reassessment that must occur within a year. If they have not met targets for improvement, the MoE will consider whether or not to terminate their licence to operate. As of October 2018 a total of 53 HEIs were at different stages of this quality assurance process.

Jenny Walker, deputy CEO for technical affairs at OAAA, told OBG that the quality assurance process is particularly rigorous. HEIs are benchmarked against quality standards for similar institutions in 30 countries around the world. The international members of assessment panels are brought in to Oman to investigate performance and interview teaching staff directly in the field.

Each HEI assessment considers over 1000 items of evidence and produces a detailed report of over 100 pages. As of 2018, two institutions, namely Majan College and Caledonian College of Engineering (now part of the National University of Science and Technology), had successfully completed the second phase. According to Walker, the rigourousness of the process had delivered something of a “wake-up call” to HEIs, ensuring that they focus on quality improvement. “We have one of the most rigorous quality assurance systems in the region,” Walker said, pointing out that for employers, this means that an Omani HEI graduate is as qualified as a graduate from anywhere else in the world. “A lot of excellent education and training takes place here. To take an example, the Royal Air Force of Oman’s aircraft are entirely maintained by locally trained, highly competent Omani engineers,” she told OBG.

Regional Job Market

A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) helps to paint a picture of the regional context in terms of job markets and human capital, and underscores how the quality of education will be critical to the livelihoods of over 300m people in MENA. The region has low but rising levels of workforce participation by women; high rates of unemployment and underemployment, especially among young people; and elevated but falling levels of public sector employment. Around 30% of unemployed people are university graduates, suggesting that skill mismatches may be impeding a smooth transition from university to employment.

For the MENA region as a whole, one-fifth of employed people are in high-skilled roles, while two-thirds are in middle-skilled roles. The UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have the highest proportions of skilled jobs. Some of the most common high-skill roles in the region are commercial bankers, corporate finance specialists, accountants, schoolteachers and academics. There is also a significant pool of talent orientated towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles.

A key factor to bear in mind is that Oman and the rest of the MENA region will be exposed to the expected global transformation of work brought about by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term applied to the spread of digital technologies, automation and robotics. The WEF report finds that, for a group of seven other MENA countries, between 41% and 52% of existing work activities are susceptible to being supplanted by automation.

Although there is no specific estimate for Oman, the implication is that it, too, could see a comparably large loss of traditional jobs to automation. In addition, the jobs that do not disappear will likely change radically. By 2020, 21% of the core skills required in GCC countries in 2015 will have changed significantly. While this level of disruption is a potential challenge for countries like Oman, there is also scope for creating new, high-value-added formal sector jobs. Agile public-private cooperation will be necessary to manage the disruption and take advantage of new opportunities (see Global Perspective).

Private Education

According to a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Oman’s private school sector has the potential to grow from a turnover of $1bn in 2016 to $1.8bn in 2023. The report says that 23% of the country’s students attend private schools, which is below the GCC average of 30%, suggesting there is opportunity for expansion. Revenue growth has mainly been caused by rising enrolment. Private school enrolment has been expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7%, ahead of a 2% CAGR for government schools.

The BCG report described the private school sector in Oman as relatively immature, with a restrictive regulatory environment. While the government is engaging with the private sector to increase enrolment, there is still space for private international schools with high standards but low to mid-range fees. “Omanis continue to have an appetite for high quality education that is of an international standard,” Yusra Mouzughi, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, told OBG. “The provision of such education in Oman has become more important due to the changing geopolitical situation in traditional study destinations, as well as the changing economic climate at home and in the region.”

Vocational Training

Traditionally, a significant part of the population has been made up of expatriate workers, recruited to meet the need for a number of key market skills. The foreign population grew from 26.7% of a total of 2m in 1993, to 46.1% of a total of 4.55m in 2016. The proportion of expatriates is now trending down, however, for two main reasons. The first is the strong growth rate of the native Omani population, and the second is the ramping up of the long-standing government policy of Omanisation, designed to increase the education and skill level of nationals, and to ensure that they grow their share of skilled jobs. The first signs of this change became evident in 2017 and 2018. According to the NCSI, the total expatriate population fell by over 43,000 to 2m in the 12 months to June 2018, and the share of expatriates in the total population dropped to 44.1%. Among the reasons cited for the decline were Omanisation and a six-month ban on the issuance of employment visas to expatriates in key sectors, such as media, air traffic control, IT, engineering, accounting and finance, insurance, marketing and sales, and human resources.

These demographic changes are important, as they define the context in which vocational training providers operate, Lawrence Alva, CEO of the National Training Institute (NTI), told OBG. As a result of the fact that the Omani population is both youthful and expanding, tens of thousands of people are completing their education every year and entering the job market. “Getting them ready for work is a national priority, particularly as Oman is seeking to reduce its dependence on expatriate workers,” Alva explained. “So the emphasis is on how we get people ready when they graduate, bridging the gap between academic study and competence for work. The promotion of training programmes initiated by major companies is sure to lead to a more efficient and adaptable workforce.”

The need for reform of the education system is seen by many as an essential step. “One way to enhance the value-added capability of fresh graduates is to provide additional training towards the sector they are planning to join. Enhancing the quality of education has a ripple effect – higher quality graduates and higher quality institutions,” Ibrahim Al Harthy, managing director of consulting firm Takatuf, told OBG. One of the difficulties is that the supply of graduates is rising steadily as a function of the country’s demography, whereas demand for labour is driven by the business cycle and is thus prone to rise and fall. The 2014-16 slump in oil prices has also had a negative effect on employment. Recruitment needs have fallen, and the training market has seen increased competition among providers, as well as tighter cash flow. However, the recovery in international oil prices should change this situation for the better through to 2020.

Outlook

The outlook for the Omani education sector is one of continuing enrolment growth and institutional development. This positive view is led by population expansion and a recovering international oil and gas market. Schools and universities can expect a strong and steady increase in 2019-20, while vocational training will gradually emerge from the fall in recruitment levels caused by the oil price slump. For some institutions in the sector, the next few years may be rather complex as they face the challenge of rigorous second-phase accreditation tests. However, the tough process of ensuring quality curricula and teaching staff is one of the reasons why the outlook for the education sector is bright.

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The Report: Oman 2019

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Oman 2019

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