With enrolment on the rise, the new focus is reforming standards, improving assessment and involving the private sector

Since the 1970s, Oman has shown a strong commitment to developing the capacity of its citizens through a robust education system. The progress it has made in 44 years has been dramatic: enrolment in schools rose sharply from less than 1000 boys before 1970 to nearly 600,000 male and female students in 2012, and the country has invested heavily in opening new schools and hiring teachers.

The impact of these investments is captured in the UN’s human development index (HDI), which shows Oman’s HDI for 2013 at 0.783 (on a scale of zero to one). This puts it at 56 out of 187 countries, well above the 0.758 threshold considered “high”. The expected number of years of schooling has also risen sharply, from 3.4 in 1980 to 9.8 in 2000 and 13.6 in 2013. Adult literacy was 86.9% in 2010, while the gross primary school enrolment ratio was above 100% and more than half of the over-25 population had had at least some secondary education.

Beginnings

The impetus for this transformation was initially driven by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said starting in 1970, but the importance of education has since been enshrined in Oman’s development strategies. In the first decade after 1970, the focus was on building the physical assets required for education, while reforms in the early 1980s marked the first major efforts to improve quality standards. In 1995 the government ensured that education would remain central through the national development strategy, Oman Vision 2020, which emphasised upgrading education services to meet international standards and included specific, quantitative goals for developing human resources.

More recent reforms have focused on developing the higher education systems required to help transition the country towards becoming a knowledge-based economy. The country’s leadership has also taken a number of steps to produce better standardisation across the education system and to encourage greater private sector participation.

Though progress in expanding education has been rapid, Oman is still in a transitional period. It will take time to consolidate progress and deepen the quality of education services in the country. There are still discrepancies, for example, between the education system and the skills employers require, and communication skills in English generally do not meet the requirements of the job market. If the last four decades are any guide, however, it is clear that Oman will continue with the reforms and investments needed to drive the sector forward.

History Of Reform

Oman’s education agenda has been driven by a number of key factors. Chief among these is an acute awareness that dependence on oil and gas revenues cannot sustain the economy forever. The country’s leadership has long recognised that the trajectory of globalisation requires Oman to adapt to an increasingly competitive economic environment. Finally, the country has laid out core goals to develop the local labour force and reduce its dependence on expatriates in the job market.

From 1970 to 1995, the bulk of state efforts went towards building an education system and improving access. The number of schools rose rapidly as a result, from just three in 1970 (with 900 male students) to 588 in 1985. By 2010 there were 1040 public schools with an enrolment of 523,000 male and female students, and 423 private schools with an enrolment of 109,000, according to data from the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). Since then, the number of students enrolled in public schools has fallen slightly despite an increase in the number of schools – an oddity attributed to broader population dynamics. The NCSI reports that in 2012 there were 1043 public schools with just over 515,000 students, half of whom were female, and 483 private schools with more than 129,000 students.

Omanisation

Major reforms were introduced in 1995 and 1998 in response to a national focus on bringing more Omani nationals into the labour force and diversifying the economy. Oman Vision 2020, the country’s national development plan, outlined specific quantitative targets related to the education sector. These included expanding the proportion of the labour force that is Omani from 17% of the total population in 1995 to 50% in 2020; doubling the rate of female participation in the labour force from about 6% in 1995 to 12% by 2020; and lifting the Omanisation ratio from 68% in 1995 to 95% in 2020 for the public sector and from 15% in 1995 to 70% in 2020 for the private sector.

Quality Standards

The reforms also represented a shift away from developing education infrastructure towards improving quality standards and tailoring the education system to support the goals of economic diversification. Perhaps the most important reform in this regard was the introduction of a comprehensive basic education system. This was accompanied by a number of key changes in curriculums, quality standards and textbook usage.

Fundamental changes to the primary education programme under this plan were aimed at reducing the number of students who leave the school system at an early age. The schooling system was changed to require 10 years of basic education, whereas the older system was structured according to three levels: primary, preparatory and secondary. Under the new system, students were encouraged to complete at least 10 years of formal schooling, during which they would prepare for secondary education or vocational training.

Benchmarks

Another set of major reforms centred on updating the curriculum, along with the teaching methods required to adapt to the new requirements. These reforms sought to shift the emphasis from rote learning to developing critical thinking and analytical skills. The total number of school days was also extended from 160 to 208 to align with international benchmarks. This enabled schools to provide more class hours dedicated to English proficiency, mathematics and computer skills.

Importantly, education reforms also focused on changing how teachers assessed students’ progress. Basic changes included reducing the dependence on examinations as the sole tool of measurement, instead placing a greater emphasis on continuous assessment throughout the academic year. Teacher training programmes were thus launched to help instructors manage the changes in curriculum and assessment and to help train a cadre of new teachers. During the post-1970 focus on expanding education, the number of teachers in public schools rose dramatically, from 196 in 1970 to 15,000 in 1990, 32,000 in 2003 and 53,195 in 2012. This does not include the 8285 teachers employed in private schools in 2012, up from 7092 in 2010.

The reforms also made changes at the Ministry of Education aimed at streamlining its procedures to manage the sector more efficiently. The ministry also decentralised school administration, delegating management to local administrative units. The decentralisation occurred in parallel to other reforms to ensure that the locally managed education system kept in line with national targets, such as helping students prepare for secondary education and satisfying the needs of the labour market.

Finally, the reforms paved the way for more private sector participation. The private sector today still plays a mostly niche role in delivering basic education, but its involvement is likely to broaden as the need for more schools increases.

Private Schools

The policy changes launched to encourage the development of private schools has had a small but significant impact on basic education. After the reforms, the number of private schools rose from 132 in 2000 to 423 in 2010 and more than 483 in 2012, according to data from the NCSI. The number of students enrolled in these schools also increased dramatically, from under 100,000 in 2009 to 129,330 in 2012. There were 8285 teachers employed in private schools in 2012. Of these, 5244, or about 63%, were female; in another measure, 60% were expatriates and 40% were Omani nationals.

Private schools are expected either to follow the Ministry of Education’s curriculum or adopt an international curriculum to meet the needs of the expatriate workforce. The owners of private schools are required to be Omani nationals and must have been awarded a secondary school certificate. Annual fees for non-community private schools range from OR3900 ($10,100) to OR8300 ($21,600) for grade 12. In higher education, state incentives have led to a steady rise in new private universities and colleges.

The capital city of Muscat has an estimated 166 private schools with a total enrolment of 38,896, according to the Ministry of Education, compared to 146 publicly managed schools with enrolment of 87,995. In both systems, the vast majority of students in Muscat are Omani nationals – more than 84,000 in the public system and 33,255 in the private system in 2013. Muscat’s public schools employed 6959 Omani teachers and 1126 expatriate teachers in 2013, according to the Ministry of Education, compared to 2877 expatriate and 860 Omani teachers in its private schools.

Private Higher Education

In 1998 the government established the Council of Higher Education, made up of sector representatives including the Minister of Education and the Minister of Higher Education. The council’s mandate is to develop and execute the national strategy for higher education and, perhaps more importantly for diversification, scientific research. According to the royal decree that established it, the council would “formulate public policy on higher education and scientific research … in line with the requirements of the country and the state’s social, economic, cultural and scientific objectives”. It was also tasked with setting and monitoring standards and was the chief author of the country’s strategic plan for all education levels – the sector policy under Oman Vision 2020.

The council also provided some of the impetus to establish Oman’s first private university in Sohar. In 1996, the government launched a programme to promote the development of private higher education institutions in the country. Subsidies in the form of low-interest loans, land, and tax breaks catalysed private sector participation in the sector. By 2012 private interests had set up 19 colleges of higher education and seven universities in the country.

Public sector support also includes capital contributions of up to OR3m ($7.8m), with matching contributions from the private investor, according to the Ministry of Higher Education. The government has also set up a fund of OR17m ($44m) dedicated to bolstering private universities established by Omani nationals. As of 2012, the grant had supported five of the seven private universities, namely Sohar, Dhofar, Nizwa, Buraimi and Sharqiyah.

These universities have grown in the last few years. The four largest by enrolment in 2012/13 were the University of Nizwa, with 7158; Sohar University – the oldest of the private institutions – with 4635; Dhofar University, with 4111; and Arab Open University, with 2293. Of the 20 private colleges in the country, the top five by enrolment are the Middle East College for Information Technology, with 4817; the Caledonian College of Engineering, with 3026; Al Buraimi University College, with 2730; Gulf College, with 2506; and the Majan University College, with 2435. These colleges offer degrees in business administration, economics, commerce and computer sciences, with courses taught in English.

Foreign Presence

Unlike in most other GCC countries, Oman does not offer significant support for branch campuses of foreign universities, which for this reason have relatively little presence in the country. The two exceptions to this are Arab Open University, which is associated with the UK’s British Open University, and the German University of Technology, which was founded in 2008 and is affiliated with RWTH Aachen German University.

This is changing, however. France’s University of Toulouse was scheduled to open a branch campus in Oman in 2011, though the Ministry of Higher Education approved it only in 2012. The university will eventually house three colleges – the College of Law, the College of Management and the College of Economics – with tuition expected to be OR3000-3500 ($7768-9063) per year. The UK’s University of Portsmouth also won a state contract to support the government’s new military technology college, while the UK’s University of Wolverhampton opened a regional office in Muscat with the goal of providing workforce development courses in the region.

Public Institutions

Sultan Qaboos University, Oman’s top public university, was founded in 1986 with five colleges focused on medicine, engineering, agriculture, education and science. It has since expanded to include a College of Arts in 1987, a College of Commerce and Economics in 1993, a College of Law in 2006 and a College of Nursing in 2008. Total student enrolment is 13,022, according to the Ministry of Higher Education, split more or less evenly between male and female.

The country’s other 26 public institutions of higher education consist of the College of Banking and Financial Studies (administered by the Central Bank of Oman), one institute of sharia sciences, seven technical colleges, 11 health centres and six colleges of applied sciences, which were colleges of education until reformed in 2005 to meet the needs of the labour market. The government is also currently laying the groundwork for the new Oman University, which the Ministry of Higher Education expects to open its doors in 2016, initially focusing on science and technology. Long-term plans include enrolling 15,000 students by 2025.

Public Expenditures

Public spending on primary, secondary and higher education shows strong government commitment to improving the sector. The Ministry of Higher Education reports that public expenditures on higher education rose from OR367m ($950m) in 2000, or 4.8% of GDP, to over OR500m ($1.3bn), or 5.2% of GDP, in 2004. In the primary education system it invested another OR866m ($2.2bn) in 2012, nearly 7% of GDP and up from OR670m ($1.7bn) in 2010. This money has been used to both improve education services and support students financially. The state scholarship programme, for example, granted 9738 scholarships to undergraduate students at Oman’s private universities and colleges; 1395 to those studying abroad; and 1328 to postgraduates in the 2011/12 academic year, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

Research & Development (R&D)

The nation’s goals of diversifying output and transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy include an emphasis on developing local R&D capabilities. In line with this, the government established a national research council in 2005, which then devised a comprehensive strategic plan pursuing R&D in enhanced oil recovery. The council has also established chairs that lead studies in topics of national importance – for example, a programme at Sultan Qaboos University for nanotechnology in water desalination. According to the council’s secretary-general, Hilal Ali Zaher Al Hinai, the spending target for R&D is at least 1% of GDP in 2011-15 and up to 2% by 2020. “Funding used to be an obstacle for R&D; now it is not,” Al Hinai told OBG. “Funding and incubation programmes are now widely available, but we must ensure that the incubators are performance-monitored and cater to the needs of industry.”

Sultan Qaboos University is also building a Science and Technology Park to stimulate research and innovation within the country. The project – which is being developed collaboratively with Knowledge Oasis Muscat (another technology park) and various corporate partners, will be integrated with the new Oman University campus and the country’s proposed Science and Technology City.

Sector Management

The authority for primary and secondary schools is the Ministry of Education, while for higher education it is the Ministry of Higher Education. The latter’s mandate includes all colleges and universities (public and private) and any religiously affiliated institutions. Various ministries also have some education units under their purview – the Ministry of Manpower, for example, runs technical industrial colleges, while the Ministry of Health is responsible for health institutes.

To help ensure quality standards, the government established an accreditation board in 2001. This has since evolved into the Oman Accreditation Council (OAC), which works with the Ministry of Higher Education to establish academic standards and provide training and networking opportunities. In 2005 the government also set up the Higher Education Admission Centre to help ensure transparency and equity in the distribution of seats.

In 2010 the OAC was itself replaced by the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, which had a sweeping mandate to serve as an independent regulator for higher education institutes. The authority is responsible for developing and carrying out quality audits to ensure standards, and for accrediting higher education programmes. As of October 2014, the authority had completed at least 41 such audits, which are published on their website to ensure transparency in the accreditation process.

Outlook

Oman’s leadership has placed a very clear emphasis on developing the country’s education and training sector. Besides creating the required policies and institutional structures, the government is backing the national strategy with a significant amount of public financial support. Furthermore, it is creating an environment that is likely to enhance private sector participation going forward.

There are still a number of challenges to achieving the sector’s goals. Omanisation and diversification of the economy, for example, cannot occur by policy and regulation alone; to a certain extent, these rely on private sector initiative. Furthermore, the system for ensuring standards will take a long time to bear fruit. Regional competition for scarce human resources – especially teachers and administrators – and for capital from the private sector will also play a key role in how the sector develops going forward.

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The Report: Oman 2015

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Oman 2015

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