Broadening horizons: New developments will focus on improving quality and capacity

As a key component of Vision 2030, the government’s long-term economic planning document, Kuwait’s education sector is poised for substantial expansion in the coming years. Indeed, improving the quality of the education on offer in schools and universities is widely considered to be a prerequisite to achieving the state’s overarching goals of developing a competitive local workforce and diversifying the economy away from hydrocarbons dependence.

With this in mind, a number of education-related initiatives are currently ongoing or in the early planning stages. Broadly, these developments are expected to boost private sector participation at all levels, increase the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in local schools and universities, and expand vocational training programmes. At the same time, the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) have made a point of reiterating the government’s longstanding commitment to providing free education for all Kuwaiti citizens, as guaranteed under the 1962 constitution.

OVERSIGHT AND REGULATION: For the first four decades of the 20th century, the local education sector was made up of a handful of Quranic schools, which were funded primarily by wealthy local citizens and focused on instruction in basic subjects, such as reading and writing. In 1939, just one year after the discovery of oil in Kuwait, the nascent government launched the public school system. By 1945 the state operated a network of 17 schools in total. In the years that followed the government invested heavily in education, pouring money into the public school system. By 1960, on the eve of Kuwait’s independence, some 45,000 students – around 40% of whom were female – were enrolled in public education institutions. The 1962 constitution codified education as a fundamental right of all Kuwaiti nationals, and in 1965 schooling was made compulsory for locals between the ages of 6 and 14. Kuwait University, the country’s first institution of higher education, was founded in 1966. Beginning in 1967 the government offered subsidies for private education providers in an effort to boost competition.

REGULATING BODIES: Today, a substantial number of organisations are involved in managing and regulating the sector. The MoE operates Kuwait’s public school system, which includes four cycles, namely kindergarten (ages 4-6), primary (ages 6-10), intermediate (ages 10-14) and secondary (ages 14-18). As of the 2011/12 school year, the ministry oversaw a network of 794 public schools. Education in the public school system is conducted in Arabic, though English is taught from the second grade onwards. Female and male students attend separate institutions in the public system and are separated in many private schools as well.

In addition to overseeing the country’s public schools, the MoE regulates the state’s 475 private schools. The ministry’s Private Education Department sets and enforces educational standards and fee guidelines for private institutions.

Universities and other higher educational institutions in Kuwait are overseen by the MoHE. The ministry sets educational standards for both public and private entities. Additionally, the ministry administers a substantial number of scholarships for high-achieving Kuwaiti students who are accepted to universities abroad.

Another major player in the higher education segment is the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), a non-profit organisation launched by the government in 1976. The foundation is funded by Kuwaiti shareholding companies, which are required to contribute 1% of their net annual profits to the entity.

IN SESSION: According to the most recent data available from Kuwait’s Central Statistical Bureau (CSB), as of the 2011/12 academic year there were 1307 schools in the country. These included public and private kindergarten, primary, intermediate and secondary institutions.

Of this total, 794 ( just under 61%) were state schools, 475 (36%) were private schools and 38 (3%) were vocational schools, including religious and special training institutes. While the overall number of institutions has expanded over the past decade – from 1097 in 2002/03 to 1192 in 2007/07 – the proportion of government schools to private schools and vocational schools has remained broadly the same over that period. Some 357,273 students were enrolled in government schools in 2011/12, compared to 224,268 students in private schools and 4402 students in vocational facilities.

THE PUBLIC SYSTEM: Kuwait’s National Development Plan, which was launched in 2010, included KD108.9m ($388.9m) for MoE-directed projects, including building more than 100 new public schools. Since its inception, however, the plan has stalled, with the majority of the announced projects still in the planning stages. At the same time, calls to upgrade and expand the public school system have increased in recent years.

Indeed, the MoE faces a number of challenges. Insufficient levels of investment in teacher training, infrastructure expansion and programme development over the years have resulted in many schools operating above capacity, which in turn has had a negative impact on student performance. These challenges extend through the university level, where administrators report that many students struggle to keep up. “Higher education institutions are not miracle workers,” Amal Al Binali, the vice-president for admissions and public affairs at American University of Kuwait (AUK), told OBG. “The deep-seated problems in the education system need to be fixed at the elementary level.”

Ali S Arifa, the president of Box Hill College Kuwait, had a similar view. “Graduates of Kuwaiti high schools have some deficiencies in English and math, so higher education institutions must do more with less,” he told OBG. “In some cases we have to start from square one.”

The government is working to overcome these issues. In April 2013 Nayef Falah Al Hajraf, the minister of education and higher education, announced a new executive development strategy for the public sector. The plan, which covers the 2013-14 period, is made up of a wide variety of individual proposals, including initiatives aimed at updating curricula, assessing and training teachers, boosting students’ performance in science programmes, revamping administrative networks throughout the public system and developing new criteria for teachers. Additionally, the minister announced plans to build 11 new schools and a variety of other new educational facilities before the end of 2014.

The MoE is also moving forward with a new plan to develop a number of schools on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis. Schools are to be developed on a build-operate-transfer model, with private investors funding the construction and management of the new facilities and the MoE responsible for appointing administrators and teaching staff, in addition to setting curricula and performance criteria. Under this system, a private investor would be contracted to provide facility management services for a set amount of time before handing over the project to the MoE. The Partnerships Technical Bureau (PTB), the government body in charge of implementing Kuwait’s PPP projects, will manage the agreements with private investors. As of early 2013 the MoE and the PTB were working to launch the first phase of the project, which will include the construction of seven schools – four kindergartens, two elementary schools and one intermediate school – and three residential buildings for teaching staff.

TECH SAVVY: In recent years the government has also worked to introduce new technology to the public school system. The Education Net project, which was officially launched in 2012, aims to connect all government schools, administrative facilities and other public institutions over a nationwide data network, with the goal of boosting communication and collaboration throughout the system. While most state schools can already access the internet via wired connections, the initiative aims to introduce wireless internet to most classrooms, which will allow for increased interactivity between teachers and students (see analysis).

THE PRIVATE SYSTEM: Students in the public system accounted for 61% of total students in 2011/12, down slightly from 62% the previous year, 63% in 2009/10 and 64% in 2008/09, according to the CSB. These figures are in line with the steadily increasing popularity of the private school system in Kuwait over the past decade. Indeed, while the majority of Kuwaiti students attend state schools, private schools have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among expatriates and wealthy Kuwaiti families.

A handful of prestigious local private secondary schools are considered to be among the best in the region. These include the New English School, the American School of Kuwait, the French School, the Kuwait English School and Al Bayan Bilingual School. Some authorities have shown themselves to be sceptical of private schools, many of which are run as for-profit companies. In 2010, for example, the government cancelled plans to privatise 30 public schools after Parliament voted against the initiative. Similarly, education (along with health care and the oil industry) has been excluded from the state’s privatisation bill, which is expected to come into effect before the end of 2013.

MAINTAINING GROWTH: Even in the face of these challenges, the private education sector is expected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. In an effort to meet the rising demand for education, a number of companies have set up private school networks in recent years. The largest firm involved in the education sector is the Educational Holding Group (EHG), which was launched by a handful of local academics in 1982. Today, the company oversees one of the largest private education networks in the Gulf. In addition to its five K-12 institutions, EHG controls or has major holdings in higher education, vocational training, education-related real estate, educational products and a handful of special needs education facilities.

Other major private investors in education include the Kuwait Education Fund (KEF), launched in 2007 by the Kipco Asset Management Company (KAMCO), a major local financial services firm; and the United Education Company (UEC), one of the country’s largest private players in higher education. The KD5.8m ($20.7m) KEF was developed on a PPP basis by KAMCO and the National Offset Company to invest in more education projects in Kuwait. The UEC, meanwhile, was established in 2003 and operates a number of higher education institutions, including AUK. In mid-2012 UEC acquired an 82% stake in the Al Rayan Holding Company, which owns and operates a network of six schools.

HIGHER EDUCATION: There are two major public higher education institutions in Kuwait, namely Kuwait University (KU), the country’s oldest university, which was founded in 1966; and the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET), which was established in 1982. The government also funds two other small higher education institutions, dedicated to music and theatre training, respectively.

Kuwait is also home to nine active private higher education institutions, according to official government data, including AUK, the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST), the American University of the Middle East, the Arab Open University, the Australian College of Kuwait (ACK), the American College of the Middle East and Box Hill College Kuwait.

Due to the rapid increase in the country’s youth population over the past decade, Kuwait’s sole publicly Students in K-12 government schools, 2010-12 funded higher education institutions, KU and PAAET, have been under a substantial amount of pressure to accommodate more students. According to data from the Private Universities Council (PUC), the government entity charged with regulating and developing the private segment, in 2012 around 50,000 Kuwaiti students were studying at foreign institutions as a result of not being able to secure a place at home. Many of these students were supported by government scholarships.

IN THE RANKINGS: In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2012-13”, Kuwait was ranked 88th in the world in terms of tertiary education enrolment rate, and 104th in terms of overall quality of the educational system, out of 144 countries in total. KU recorded total enrolment of 31,219 students at the end of the second semester of 2011/12, according to data from the CSB, up from 27,340 students at the same time the previous year. In 2011/12 Kuwaitis made up 89% of the university’s student population. As at most other higher education institutions in Kuwait, female students are in the majority at KU, accounting for 68.3% of the student body in 2011/12.

QUALITY CONTROL: The government has launched a number of initiatives to improve the quality of education on offer at KU while simultaneously expanding the student body. Chief among these is the establishment of Sabah Al Salem University City, a new 6m-sq-metre KU campus currently under construction on the edge of Kuwait City. The $5.8bn campus, which has been under construction since 2005, will have a capacity of 40,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff members on two campuses – one for men and one for women. KU, which is currently spread out across a number of separate locations in Kuwait City, plans to consolidate most of its programmes at the new campus when it is completed in 2014-15.

Additionally, in April 2012 parliament approved plans to build Jaber Al Ahmed University, a new public institution. It is set to be established before the end of 2015 and will include colleges of basic education, engineering, administrative sciences and law, among others.

A number of other upcoming developments are set to positively impact the sector. For example, Kuwait’s parliament, the National Assembly, recently recommended that the government establish a university focusing on the petrochemicals industry, based on the model of the prestigious King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia. Additional parliamentary recommendations include the formation of a centralised system for processing university applications, and the establishment of a new public authority to supervise university performance.

Other plans under way include the finalisation of a draft law that will lay out guidelines for the establishment of additional public universities, and a concerted effort to support and expand the creation of new private universities. The government also intends to increase the number of scholarships for students studying abroad in an effort to ensure that as many locals as possible are able to benefit from higher education.

“Education in Kuwait is still switching away from the old model, and needs to focus more on application rather than theory,” Bader Al Khalifah, chairman of Kuwait International Law School, told OBG. “Increasing quality should be the number one priority.”

MOVING CENTRE STAGE: As of the end of the second semester of the 2011/12 school year, Kuwait’s private universities boasted total enrolment of 16,507 students, according to data from the CSB. AUK, which opened its doors to new students in 2004, offers degrees in economics, English literature, computer science and finance, among other subjects, and boasts a partnership with US-based Dartmouth College. According to Al Binali, one of the institution’s major goals is to provide its students with critical thinking and communications skills. “Kuwaitis are comfortable enough to not have to take risks,” she told OBG. “There is no fix-all for this, but recognising and encouraging students to be creative is the first step.”

GUST was established in 2002, making it the oldest private university in Kuwait. The institution offers degrees in a number of fields, with an emphasis on science and technology. According to Robert Cook, GUST’s vice-president for academic affairs, the university’s various programmes have been designed specifically to ensure that graduates are competitive across a wide variety of industries. “In general there is not a good match between the credentials offered at many local universities and available jobs,” he told OBG. “Higher education institutions in Kuwait are not as linked as they should be with industry, for example.”

While nine private universities are currently active, according to the PUC, as of early 2013 the MoHE had issued operating licences for 17 private universities in total. With this in mind, a number of new institutions are expected to open their doors in the coming years. The American University for Medical Sciences, a medical school launched by local investors in conjunction with Tufts University, a US institution, is expected to accept students beginning in late 2013. Kuwait Technical College, a private two-year institution, is also expected to begin accepting students in 2013. Other new private universities that are licensed to operate in Kuwait but have yet to launch services include the British College of Kuwait and the Management University College of Kuwait.

VOCATIONAL TRAINING: Another major focus in education circles in Kuwait is the development of vocational training, which is considered to be a key component if the sector is to move forward. Indeed, encouraging students to attend vocational training programmes, as opposed to KU or other four-year universities, is in line with the state’s long-term goal of aligning the workforce more closely with the job market.

The PAAET is Kuwait’s largest vocational training establishment by a substantial degree. As of the second semester of the 2011/12 school year, some 25,162 students in total were enrolled at the institution’s various campuses. The PAAET has worked to attract Kuwaitis, in particular, which has been a challenge as many locals consider vocational training to be inferior to a university education. That said, as of 2011/12 some 19,385 of the authority’s students were nationals – accounting for around 77% of the study body, according to the CSB. The PAAET offers degrees in a variety Top subjects by enrolment at KU, 2011/12* of fields, including basic education, business studies, technological studies, health sciences and nursing. The institution’s overarching goal is to ensure all its graduates secure jobs after completing their degrees.

Private institutions have played a major role in changing the perception – still prevalent among large swathes of the population – that a vocational education is somehow worth less than a four-year college degree. Indeed, by focusing on entrepreneurship and practical skills, some colleges have attracted considerable interest, in spite of the fact that their offerings are very similar to the programmes as the PAAET.

ACK, which offers training in business studies, mechanical engineering and oil and gas engineering, among other subjects, aims to place graduates in entry-level technical positions in a variety of sectors. According to Abdullah Abdulmohsen Al Sharhan, the ACK’s chairman, there is substantial demand for graduates with technical skills. “Developments in downstream and petrochemicals are creating some interesting jobs for young people now,” he told OBG. “Kuwait is an oil-producing country, but training in refining and petrochemicals is still needed for the workforce.”

OUTLOOK: The educational system in Kuwait is under pressure from the country’s rapidly expanding youth population. Indeed, as of 2012, according to data from the UNDP, some 60% of the total population of 3.07m was 25 or younger. Ensuring that these students receive the education and training they need to successfully transition into the workforce will be a key government concern moving forward.

While potentially transformative developments are currently in the process of being implemented, the sector still faces a number of challenges. Debates about the value of vocational training and the extent to which the education system should be privatised are ongoing, both within the ministries and more widely among the general population. In an effort to move forward with planned developments as soon as possible, the government is working to resolve these issues quickly.

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The Report: Kuwait 2013

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