A central pillar: Important changes to boost standards in a key sector

As a central pillar of the reforms outlined in Economic Vision 2030, the Bahraini government’s long-term development plan, education plays a key role in the economy. Indeed, having recognised the importance of human capital development, the government has taken significant steps in recent years to improve its public schools and higher education institutions. At the same time, it has established regulatory organisations to keep a close eye on the system and ensure the provision of quality education, both by public and private sector institutions. Investing time and money in the educational system could potentially pay substantial returns – not only in terms of strengthening the local workforce, but also by positioning the country as a provider of educational services to students from around the region.

STRUCTURE: The Ministry of Education (MoE) oversees and operates the public school system, which consists of three stages, primary (ages 6-11), intermediate (ages 12-14) and secondary (ages 15-17). As of the 2009/10 academic year (the latest data available), there were 201 government schools, serving 125,603 students, of whom 92% were Bahraini. For 2011 and 2012, the Kingdom allocated the MoE a total of BD471.5m ($1.25bn) for recurrent expenditures and BD32.7m ($86.3m) for project costs, accounting for about 8% of the government budget for the period. These figures exclude public spending on further and higher education.

The MoE is also the primary regulator of private schools, of which there were 65 as of 2009/10. These institutions served 56,078 students during that year, 56% of whom were non-Bahraini. Among the larger private schools are the British School of Bahrain, St Christopher’s School, Nadeen International School and the Bahrain School. In addition, the private sector is the only option for parents who would like to send their children to nurseries and kindergartens. There were 143 such enterprises in 2009/10, serving 16,593 students, mainly Bahrainis. While public education is currently not provided before age 6, when primary school begins, the MoE is considering a range of options for the future.

HIGHER EDUCATION: After finishing secondary school, those who wish to continue their studies have two options. They can enrol in one of the bachelor’s degree programmes offered by a number of universities and institutions in Bahrain, or they can choose to enter into a two-year national diploma programme. In some cases, the latter can be extended by an additional year to earn a higher national diploma. These diplomas can be pursued at a variety of institutions, both public and private, including universities and vocational schools.

The Kingdom is active in the provision of higher education, primarily through the University of Bahrain (UoB), the oldest and largest of the country’s universities. Formed in 1986 as the result of the merger of Gulf Polytechnic and Bahrain University College, it has an undergraduate enrolment of about 12,700 students, around two-thirds of whom are female. International students make up about 6% of the enrolled population. The UoB’s two-year budget for 2011-12 amounted to BD93.6m ($247m).

The UoB is also home to the Bahrain Teachers College (BTC), an autonomous organisation within the university that was established in 2008. In 2011 another institution, the College of Health Sciences (CHS), began a merger into the UoB. Initially set up by the Ministry of Health in 1976, CHS trains nurses and other ancillary medical professionals such as lab technicians (see Health chapter).

Rounding out the set of public higher education institutions are the Bahrain Polytechnic (BP), launched in 2008, and the Bahrain Training Institute (BTI). The latter, established in 1992, offers vocational programmes in the areas of business, arts, health and safety, IT, travel and tourism, and engineering. In 2011 BTI, like CHS, came under the umbrella of the MoE. As government-supported institutions, BTI, BTC, BP and the UoB are all essentially free. They charge nominal fees that reflect only a small portion of the cost of provision, with this subsidisation illustrating the country’s commitment to education.

Finally, although not a public institution per se, the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance (BIBF) was established by Amiri decree in 1981 with the aim of training and developing a talented labour force for Bahrain’s financial services sector. Funded in part by a 1% levy on the annual payrolls of local financial services companies, the non-profit institute provides training, education and professional development services to the employees of its member organisations as well as fee-paying courses to other Bahrainis (see box). In 2010 more than 18,000 people attended courses offered by BIBF.

The private sector is also active in the provision of higher education in Bahrain, with a variety of institutions offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as national diploma and higher national diploma programmes. For a full-time student enrolled in a degree programme at a private university, annual tuition is about BD3000-5000 ($8000-13,000).

PRIVATE PROVISION: At present, there are 14 private universities in Bahrain, serving a total of at least 13,000 students. These institutions include Ahlia University, the first private university set up in the country, licensed by the government in 2001. Some of these universities serve a large number of nonBahraini students, such as Gulf University, where 60% of students are from Kuwait and 20-25% from Saudi Arabia. Other universities are considered local units of regional higher education institutions. The Arab Open University, headquartered in Kuwait, has a Bahrain branch, which enrolled its first students in February 2003. There are also three private universities that provide, inter alia, training for physicians and nurses: the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Arabian Gulf University and AMA International University (see Health chapter).

All universities – both private and public – are regulated by the Higher Education Council (HEC), which was established in 2006 to regulate, promote and monitor the higher education sector. The council is chaired by the minister of education, Majid bin Ali Al Nuaimi, and has 10 other members. The HEC’s mandate is three-fold: improving the performance of universities, monitoring and evaluating provision, and regulating new programmes of study. According to Riyadh Hamzah, the secretary-general of the HEC, Bahrain welcomes entry by new higher education institutions. “There is always room for good, strong universities,” he told OBG.

FILLING GAPS: The council also works closely with the universities on a number of other matters, such as identifying gaps in terms of programme offerings and meeting the demands of the labour market. This latter area is of particular importance given the country’s large youth population. “There is a need for more practical training programmes to fill the gap between theoretical and applied studies,” Ebrahim bin Mohammed Janahi, the president of UoB, told OBG. Retaining will also be key. “Graduates who are unable to find jobs in their field of study after graduation need to be retained in a field that meets the needs of the country,” Janahi added.

R&D: Looking ahead, the HEC plans to centre its efforts on expanding research capacity at the country’s universities, working to bring together educational institutions and businesses to create research and design (R&D) facilities with a focus on practical applications. Indeed, the MoE appears committed to establishing links between higher education and the private sector when it comes to research. In January 2012 a delegation from University of Edinburgh met with various Bahraini officials to sign a cooperation agreement between the MoE and the Scottish university to create a “network of scientific research” in Bahrain. This network will link higher education institutions with commercial entities.

There is significant room for growth in this area, according to Mazin Jumah, president of the Royal University for Women. “Students should be more involved in R&D processes and the country has to improve and enlarge its research activities,” he told OBG.

REFORM HISTORY: The educational system has undergone a period of reform over the last several years designed to upgrade quality and ensure that students are well-trained and prepared for employment in the private sector. Central to the Kingdom’s efforts in this regard was the launch of the National Education Reform Initiatives (NERI) in 2005. NERI initially had four key components: BTC, BP, the Quality Assurance Authority for Education and Training (QAAET) and apprenticeships. The government’s commitment to reform is underscored by the funding directed towards these programmes – for the combined 2011/2012 budget, a total of BD49m ($129.4m) was allocated to BTC, BP and QAAET.

The School Improvement Programme (SIP), which has been carried out by the MoE, is centred on improving the quality of teaching at primary, intermediate and secondary schools (see analysis). The programme came about after the QAAET reviewed 50 schools as a pilot project and the results showed a need for improvement. The Economic Development Board (EDB) has also been involved in SIP, providing training to MoE staff as well as an additional source of outside expertise.

SIP, which has been rolled out on a gradual basis since 2008, is an umbrella programme that encompasses a series of projects that have been undertaken to upgrade government schools, with a focus on improving the quality of teaching. One such project, known as teaching for learning, offers workshops to improve teachers’ ability to motivate and engage students in the learning process. These new educational techniques will replace a system that was centred on textbooks and focused on memorisation of materials. As of September 2012, all schools in Bahrain will be part of this programme.

A LONGER DAY: Other reform initiatives led by the MoE have included a move to lengthen the school day by 45 minutes for all secondary schools as of February 2012 to bring Bahrain closer to the OECD average. The school day has not only been made longer, the schedule has also been rearranged such that each class will last for one hour instead of 45 minutes. This will allow teachers to apply new pedagogical methods. Indeed, during the first months of the 2011/12 school year, the MoE was actively working with teachers to design lesson plans that are suitable for longer class periods. Finally, in addition to making investments in teacher education and implementing a longer school day, the ministry has also started revising the school curriculum, a process that could take a number of years.

NEW INSTITUTIONS: While SIP was directed towards improving the school system, the government also took important steps at the higher education level, including the establishment of two entirely new institutions, BTC and BP, both of which are expected to fill gaps and boost the sector more generally.

BTC, which was launched in 2008, works to ensure that teachers are trained in the latest methods and helps to attract the best and brightest local graduates to the profession. Seeking assistance in establishing the teachers college and the development of its curriculum, the MoE turned to NIE International, the consultancy and training arm of the National Institute of Education of Singapore. BTC, which enrolled about 300 new students in 2009, offers bachelor’s degrees in teaching and a post-graduate diploma in education. It provides training for nearly 1800 undergraduates and in-service teachers and leaders. All teachers undergo extensive practical training in classroom settings, in addition to academic work.

MEETING DEMAND: Like BTC, BP was set up in 2008. The polytechnic was established to address a demand for skilled Bahraini labour, and its programmes were designed with input from local business leaders and international experts. The institution tries to meet the demands of the local labour market and fill specific gaps in the supply of skilled workers.

For example, early in the process of setting up BP, the school’s administrators identified an opportunity in the transport-freight-logistics (TFL) sector, for which there was no formal study offered in Bahrain at that time. The programme that was eventually established is now the second-most-popular area of study at BP, after business studies. The TFL programme – which offers a bachelor’s degree, a higher diploma and a certificate – involves a practical training component, and these internships often turn into job offers from employers, including international players in the sector, such as DHL.

Having an institution like BP is an important factor in attracting foreign investment. International companies visit the polytechnic to ensure that there will be an adequate supply of graduates prepared for employment at their firms. The institution’s leadership sees BP as laying the groundwork for future professional and market demand, even if Bahrain does not have an extensive industrial base today.

BP has grown quickly since 2008, and as of September 2010, its enrolment stood at nearly 1500 students, all of whom are Bahraini. It is continuing to expand, with plans to increase staff size from 335 today to 500 within the next two years. A new campus is also being considered, and a master plan for the eight-year, three-phase project has been completed. A budget from the government has already been allocated for the first phase, which will involve preparing working drawings to tender.

ASSESSMENT: The QAAET component of the NERI has the potential to affect the educational system at many different levels. Launched in 2008, the authority has to date been responsible for assessing all schools, universities and vocational institutions, in addition to carrying out regular national exams for students enrolled in Bahrain’s primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

QAAET currently oversees four departments: the schools review unit, the higher education review unit, the vocational review unit and the national examinations unit. The main function of the first three units is to carry out regular assessments of educational institutions in their respective segments, reporting the results on QAAET’s website and in local media. As of early 2012, the schools review unit had evaluated 202 public schools in the country. Of this total, 3% were rated as “outstanding”, while 30% were rated “good”, 47% were “satisfactory” and 20% were “inadequate”. Some other general patterns have emerged from the data collected by QAAET, including the fact that girls’ schools on average perform better than boys’ schools. In addition, primary schools generally scored higher than those in the intermediate and secondary categories.

For schools that are deemed to be inadequate, QAAET makes recommendations for improvement and then carries out regular monitoring to determine whether or not progress has been made. If a school does not improve, it is the responsibility of the MoE to meet with the school’s board of directors and principal to determine the best course of action. While QAAET began by reviewing public schools, it started assessing private schools in 2012 as well, Jawaher Shaheen Al Mudhahki, the organisation’s CEO, told OBG. To date, the school review unit has reviewed five private schools.

QAAET’s vocational and higher education units review institutions in their respective segments. The higher education unit reviews each institution as a whole and then undertakes a separate review of each individual programme offered. The individual programmes are assessed according to four criteria: curriculum, efficiency, academic standards of the graduates, and effectiveness of quality management and assurance. If a programme satisfies the requirements of all four indicators, it receives a score of “confidence”. If one or two indicators are not satisfied, there is “limited confidence”. If more than two indicators are not met, the score is “no confidence”.

As of early 2012, the higher education review unit had assessed 24 programmes at 14 universities. The score distribution included 10 no confidence, seven limited confidence and seven confidence classifications. For programmes that receive a score of no or limited confidence, the HEC can place a temporary ban on admissions, and it has already done so in certain cases. The HEC works with universities with performance issues to get them back on track, setting up an improvement plan and monitoring whether or not they meet performance indicators.

EXAMS: QAAET’s national examinations unit has a different task, namely to carry out independent, external standardised tests in core subjects for all students in public schools in grades 3, 6 and 9. Students in grade 3 are examined in Arabic and mathematics; science and English are added for students in grades 6 and 9. In the first year of testing (2009), only grades 3 and 6 sat for the exams; grade 9 was added in 2010. The results from the second year were generally promising, with an improvement in performance in all areas by grade 3 and 6 students – with the exception of Arabic in grade 6. These national exams provide a benchmark for monitoring performance and will be used to assess the effectiveness of the MoE’s reform initiatives, such as SIP and extended school hours.

In addition, in March 2012 the organisation also administered a national exam for grade-12 students in all government schools – around 9000 pupils in total – a test that is meant to serve as an admissions exam for university in the future.

QUALIFICATIONS FRAMEWORK: Looking ahead, the remit of QAAET is set to expand beyond its four divisions, with a fifth unit to be added in 2012 that will be responsible for implementing the Bahrain Qualifications Framework (BQF), a project that was launched by the government in May 2010. Tamkeen, a semi-autonomous government-backed organisation with a mandate to develop the local workforce (see box), was designated to fund and carry out the design of the framework. A steering committee was then formed, chaired by Tamkeen and including representatives from the MoE, the Ministry of Labour, Tamkeen, QAAET, the EDB, the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Civil Service Bureau and nine private sector companies. The Scottish Qualification Authority, an international organisation with experience in the educational framework field, was retained to assist in the design process.

While Tamkeen oversaw the project through its design phase, it was determined that QAAET would be responsible for its implementation. In October 2011 the board of directors of QAAET announced that they had endorsed a proposal to transfer the BQF from Tamkeen to the authority. A fifth unit will be formed to carry out the BQF’s implementation once the required procedures are completed. Tamkeen will support the project with a budget of BD1.8m ($4.8m) for this purpose in the years 2012-13.

CLEAR LABELS: The BQF represents a “single, coherent, easy-to-understand award system for all levels of education and training”, according to Tamkeen. It is meant to provide a universal language with which all stakeholders in academic and vocational education markets – including students, educators and employers – can assess training standards. For example, in a market that includes a large number of diverse educational products, it might be difficult for a potential student to understand exactly what knowledge or skills he or she will acquire by completing a particular course or programme. Similarly, without a qualifications framework, an employer may not be able to judge whether or not a graduate of a particular university or vocational institute has the skills or competencies that are required for a position.

While the completion of a certain level of formal schooling – such as earning a national diploma or a bachelor’s degree – should signal this information to some extent, without a well-defined qualifications framework, these labels can lack a clear meaning. The BQF seeks to address this issue by defining 10 levels based on specified standards in three categories: knowledge, skill and competence. Certain levels correspond to earning formal education degrees. For example, level 6 is equivalent to a national diploma, while level 7 corresponds to a higher diploma and level 8 is a bachelor’s degree.

As of early 2012, the framework had been defined, but much work remained to be done. First, QAAET will work with education providers to make sure that they understand how it works. Then, these institutions will review their programmes and select the appropriate level in the framework for each of them. Finally, the authority will review the proposals and determine the final assignment for each programme. According to Al Mudhahki, this process could take up to two years, with the BQF expected to be operational by late 2013 or early 2014.

As Al Mudhahki told OBG, the potential benefits of the BQF are enormous, including the fact that it will be easier for students to make informed decisions regarding their education. It may also attract more foreign students to Bahrain, as they will be assured that their degrees will be better understood when they leave the country. The BQF will also be useful for Bahraini students who want to move across the system, according to Ebrahim Abdulla Matter, the director-general of BTI. For example, with the BQF in place, a student at BTI will find it easier to transfer these credits to the UoB. This has great potential benefits for BTI students, he told OBG.

OUTLOOK: The government has taken important steps to improve the educational system, helping to ensure that Bahrainis are well prepared for positions in the private sector. These include reform efforts at the school level, most notably through SIP and the move to develop a new curriculum. In addition, one aspect of the country’s approach to education that is distinctive and commendable is the fact that it is largely “home-grown”, centred around empowering locals and using local leadership.

The QAAET is working on improving the quality of education at all levels, from schools to universities and vocational institutes. These initiatives will be further bolstered by the development and eventual implementation of the BQF, which may well encourage more foreign students to study in Bahrain. As the reforms are embedded, future graduates can be expected to possess the skills needed for the economic development goals outlined in Vision 2030.

UP-SKILLING For Bahrainis looking to improve their skills and advance their careers, there are number of training opportunities available in the Kingdom. In certain cases, training is available for free, thanks to the efforts of Tamkeen, a government-backed organisation that endeavours to make Bahrainis the employees of choice in the private sector.

Through its human capital and development department, Tamkeen funds training initiatives to up-skill Bahrainis, making them more productive and increasing the likelihood of career advancement. One of the organisation’s initiatives, the career progression programme, will offer training to employed nationals and subsequently subsidise a salary increase by their employer. The programme initially focused on individuals earning between BD200 and BD400 ($500-1000) per month, but in 2010 it was expanded to target those whose monthly salary exceeds BD400 ($1000). For the second phase of this project, a budget of BD10.5m ($27.7m) has been allocated for a period of three years, during which time Tamkeen aims to reach 4000 employees across all business sectors. As of early 2012, more than 2000 Bahrainis had already benefitted from the programme, which is among the organisation’s most popular offerings, according to Amal Ishaq Kooheji, a senior manager at Tamkeen.

In 2011 Tamkeen introduced a new programme, a professional qualifications support scheme, which covers 50% of the cost for 400 students per year to attend courses in professional qualifications, such as those to become a certified public accountant. The organisation first consulted with the private sector to identify the certifications that they considered important, and the resulting list of 86 qualifications covers a broad range of sectors of the economy, including accounting, marketing, insurance and IT. The budget for this programme has been set at a total of BD2.4m ($6.3m).

To qualify for this Tamkeen scheme, a Bahraini national must already be accepted to a professional qualifications programme. There are a number of institutions that offer professional certifications in the Kingdom, including the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance (BIBF), a non-profit organisation established in 1981 with the aim of developing a sophisticated labour force for the country’s banking sector.

Today, however, BIBF’s courses and certifications cover financial services more broadly. For example, through its external affiliation with the Chartered Insurance Institute, a UK-based organisation that sets professional standards for the insurance industry, BIBF offers the Advanced Chartered Insurance Institute diploma, a well-regarded certification in the insurance sector. Two other qualifications in the industry – the professional insurance certificate and the professional insurance diploma – can be earned through BIBF’s distance learning programme, which serves students throughout the wider Gulf region.

The BIBF also provides training programmes for professionals in the Islamic financial services sector. Established in 1997, the institute’s Centre for Islamic Finance maintains a close partnership with the Central Bank of Bahrain and the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions, an international group that prepares standards for Islamic financial institutions and the broader industry. BIBF’s Islamic finance educational materials are used extensively outside of the country by a number of institutions, and its advanced diploma in Islamic finance is recognised globally.

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The Report: Bahrain 2012

Education chapter from The Report: Bahrain 2012

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