Private education stepping in to meet rising demand in Oman

 

Oman’s government continues to prioritise education as part of its broader plans to modernise the economy and provide jobs for its growing population. In recent years the focus at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels has been on innovation, as well as greater regulation and oversight of education quality. As it pushes for greater Omanisation in the local economy, the government is increasingly working to equip Omanis with the necessary skills to enter the job market. At the same time, it is encouraging the implementation of new academic and training programmes to keep abreast of the dynamic, knowledge-based global economy.

Structure & Oversight

Oman’s Education Council, the government’s supreme education body, is responsible for formulating policies and legislation for all levels of private and public education throughout the sultanate. The Education Council includes representatives from the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and the Ministry of Manpower (MoM).

The MoE is the supervisory and regulatory body responsible for overseeing all primary and secondary school education. The MoHE is responsible for regulating higher education across Oman’s private universities and colleges as well as the country’s sole public university, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU). In addition, the MoHE is responsible for issuing scholarships to Omani students undertaking studies both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, the MoM regulates all private and government technical and vocational education and training (TVET) through two directorate generals, with one for vocational training and the other for technical training.

The Education Council’s work is guided by the National Education Strategy 2040 (NES 2040), a policy blueprint that was launched in 2018 to overhaul the sector. The strategy’s overall objective is to equip young people with the skills required to compete and succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based world. It is composed of five sub-strategies, including educational management, funding and quality, and is expected to have a significant impact on the delivery of teaching throughout the sultanate.

Meanwhile, the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) is an independent authority responsible for reporting on the quality of higher education institutions (HEIs) and programmes in the country. Its role in NES 2040 is crucial, and in 2019 it was in the process of undertaking a comprehensive accreditation review of all HEIs to ensure adherence to internationally benchmarked standards.

Enrolment

The education system has seen major developments since 1970. At that time, there were only three schools and a total of 900 students in the country. By the 2018/19 academic year the number of public schools had reached 1124, offering education to 579,000 students and employing 56,400 teachers, while the number of private schools had reached 730, with 105,700 registered students. Furthermore, there were 63,800 students enrolled at international schools in the country, bringing the total number of students enrolled in primary and secondary education to over 700,000. Net enrolment rates in primary education stood at over 98%, with female students accounting for 60.8% of the total.

Oman’s higher education system has undergone similarly dramatic developments since SQU was established in 1986. Total tertiary enrolment rose from 95,100 in 2011 to 126,100 in 2017, the most recent year for which government data is available. The gross enrolment ratio at the tertiary level reached 44.6% in 2016, up from 27% in 2011.

Public Sector

In 2019 the government allocated OR1.6bn ($4.2bn), or 6.5%, of GDP to the education sector, representing an increase of 1.3% from 2018. At 34.7%, education received the largest allocation of current and capital expenditure for civil ministries, government units and public authorities in 2019, over twice the allotment for health (14.4%), and three times that for social security and welfare (10.1%).

Meanwhile, improving teaching quality in the public sector is a major area of focus for the MoE. Oman sits behind regional peers in terms of both quality of education and management of schools. To address quality concerns, the MoE has adopted an international curricula to keep on a par with internationally benchmarked curricula. It has also implemented a comprehensive quality assurance approach for the educational system through the education board. Such strategies include data-driven performance measures to assess teaching standards and increase the efficiency of administrative operations.

Another area the government is looking to target in 2020 is the expansion of early childhood facilities and participation rates in preschool. The enrolment rate in early childhood education was just 50.2% for the 2016/17 academic year. With some areas in the country remaining underserved, the MoE is opening preschool facilities in remote governorates where there are no private schools, which should also smooth the transition process for children between different stages of education. The pre-primary segment is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.7% between 2017 and 2022, higher than the growth anticipated in the primary (1.8%) and secondary (2%) school segments.

Private Sector

The size of the private primary and secondary education market exceeds $1bn and is growing steadily. Between 2011 and 2016 the number of private schools in Oman grew at a CAGR of 5.5%, while public schools recorded a CAGR of 0.9%, according to the “GCC Education Industry” report by investment bank Alpen Capital. Similarly, at a CAGR of 8.3%, enrolment at private schools has increased at a far greater rate than in public schools (1.2%). Looking ahead, Oman’s private school market value is expected to grow from $1bn in 2016 to $1.8bn in 2023, according to global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. This will be driven by a significant increase in enrolment growth. Only 23% of school students are enrolled in private sector institutions, notably lower than the GCC average of 30%, indicating that there is plenty of room for growth.

Omanis are placing more value on the quality of education than ever before. A 2016 survey conducted by the National Centre for Statistics and Information showed that around 83% of Omani parents prefer private education. As in the rest of the GCC, where private school annual fees average $11,000, parents in Oman are also willing to make significant investments in their children’s education. In some of the country’s oldest and most prestigious private international schools, such as the American British Academy (ABA), annual secondary school fees can exceed $18,500. Many of Oman’s private schools have accreditation through UK, US or international education systems, including the prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma. Pass rates at these schools are generally high, for example, ABA’s graduating class achieved a pass rate of 95% in 2018.

Nevertheless, a lack of regulation and oversight of teaching quality in the expanding private school system has been a concern. In 2017 the MoE issued a raft of regulations and re-established the Private Schools Rating Office (PSRO) to address this issue. The PSRO is tasked with the responsibility of classifying Oman’s private schools into groups based on the quality of education through a neutral assessment process. An initial experimental stage of classification was undertaken in the 2018/19 academic year. The primary goal of the assessment is to both rank schools and draw a roadmap for how private institutions can consistently improve their offering.

Staffing

The public education system employed 59,800 teachers in 2017, the last year for which government statistics are available. Student-to-teacher ratios have dropped significantly, falling from 19 students per teacher in 2002 to 11 students per teacher in 2018. This compares favourably to the GCC average of 18 students per teacher, as well as the world average of 24 students per teacher.

Arabic is the language of instruction in public schools and most teachers are locals or expatriates from the region. However, English is the language of instruction at most private international schools and HEIs in the sultanate. While the government has been pushing for greater levels of Omanisation in the education sector, expatriates still comprise around 75% of the teaching staff in private schools, compared to approximately 10% in government schools.

Higher Education

Per the TVET strategy to bridge the gap between the job market and the skills of recent graduates, the government aims to achieve a higher education enrolment rate of 50% by 2020, up from 44.6% in 2016. There has been significant growth in this segment in recent years. In the 2013/14 academic year, for example, the higher education segment in Oman was served by 39 HEIs, and by 2018/19 this had increased to more than 50. As of 2019 there were nine private universities and one state university in the country, the largest of which, SQU, had some 17,500 students enrolled.

The MoHE offers a number of scholarships for citizens to study both in the country and overseas, an approach which has proved key to boosting tertiary enrolment. There are around 9700 full or partial scholarships awarded annually, including 7000 undergraduate scholarships for students studying at local private or government HEIs. Students from lower-income backgrounds are prioritised, as are those studying medicine or dentistry – two important areas of focus for Omanisation. Every academic year the MoHE runs the National Postgraduate Scholarship Programme, which provides around 200 fully funded scholarships for Omani students to study master’s degrees, PhDs and medical specialities overseas.

Oman’s private universities and colleges have benefitted significantly from leveraging their institutional relationships with overseas partners while simultaneously developing new programme offerings. Middle East College is one of the country’s largest private HEIs, with around 5100 students, over 3000 of whom are enrolled in engineering, computing and technology programmes that are affiliated with the UK’s Coventry University. As a requirement for establishment and licensing, all private colleges in Oman must be affiliated with an international HEI, and for private universities it is recommended. However, the higher education ministry has recently started to give some institutions the authority to have their own national programmes, provided that they demonstrate proper measures to ensure appropriate quality standards. This has led to international recognition, validation and partnerships.

“It is up to the Omani university to decide what kind of affiliation it requires, whether it is an institutional affiliation or full franchise,” Yasmin Al Bulushi, former dean of Muscat College, told OBG. “Our partnership with the University of Stirling in Scotland, for example, is full franchise and gives our students access to the same programmes and teaching materials, with the opportunity to gain a Scottish qualification. We have a lot of quality assurance visits from University of Stirling officials, as well as updates on the programme, so it is a continuous process. It is a very good model to ensure the provision of quality education here in Oman,” she said.

The Modern College of Business and Science (MCBS), established in 1996 and located in Muscat, also benefits from affiliations with partners from the US and Jordan. It has a diverse body of faculty members, including those from Jordan, who teach MCBS’s Arabic-language Masters in Public Administration (MPA) programme. “These academics are specialised in the subject area and have strong relationships with their students. They are trained to teach students at varying levels, from those with very little public sector experience to managers of government bodies,” Mohaned Al Obaidy, director of MCBS’s MPA programme, told OBG.

Curriculum development is another area where MCBS leverages its overseas institutional affiliations. “Teaching an Arabic-language MPA is challenging because most of the teaching materials available are in English. Therefore, we must leverage our relationships with scholars and institutions in Jordan and Lebanon to bridge the gap,” he said.

Accreditation Overhaul

Established in 2010 to continue the work of its predecessor, the Oman Accreditation Council, the OAAA is charged with regulating the quality of HEIs in the country to ensure the maintenance of internationally benchmarked standards. The main responsibilities of the OAAA include institutional and programme accreditation, in addition to the development and maintenance of the national qualifications framework. Every HEI must be formally assessed by the OAAA according to national institutional standards that are internationally benchmarked and locally contextualised.

As of late 2019 almost all of the country’s HEIs had undergone formal quality audits as part of the first phase of institutional accreditation, while around half had either undergone or were undergoing the second phase, the institutional Standards Assessment (ISA). The assessment covers nine standards, as applicable to each HEI, including criteria on governance and management, student learning, student support services and staff research. Furthermore, in 2019 the OAAA expanded the scope of its work to cover accreditation of specific academic programmes offered through Oman’s HEIs, with a pilot project due to be launched in 2020.

“We have completely revised our standards for Programme Standards Assessment (PSA), informed by the lessons learned from the implementation of both ISA and the quality audit of general foundation programmes. We have recently widened consultation, aiming to accept pilot submissions on this project from selected accredited HEIs in 2020, with a full rollout expected in 2021,” Jenny Walker, deputy CEO of the technical affairs division at OAAA, told OBG. “We have made significant progress in terms of implementing external quality assurance activities and can see the benefit of these activities on quality assurance within HEIs, evidenced by the outcomes of institutional standards reassessment.”

Training

With Vision 2040 aiming to equip Oman’s youth with the skills required to meet the needs of the local economy and to compete globally, TVET is being increasingly prioritised. As such, student placement programmes with prestigious multinational companies have become more appealing to Omanis. According to the MoM, there were 30,900 students enrolled in technical colleges in 2017, the last year for which government data is available. These students were registered in programmes such as four-year degrees in engineering, IT, business and applied sciences. In addition, there are 359 private training institutes and eight state-run vocational centres offering courses in diverse fields such as automotive technology, welding, construction, mechatronics and health care.

The National Training Institute (NTI), part of a UK-based group that offers a wide array of technical and upskilling courses at training centres across Oman, is one of the largest private sector players in the country. Most of its programmes are partnered with both state-owned entities and private companies, such as Shell and Petroleum Development Oman. Technical colleges and vocational training suffer from a stigma in Oman, often regarded by parents and students as inferior to a degree-level academic education. Employers are also hesitant to take on local employees, despite Omanisation requirements. “When employers are accustomed to cheap and productive foreign labour, it can be a challenge to get them to adapt to Omanisation and buy into training locals,” Lawrence Alva, CEO of the NTI, told OBG. “There is often some resistance from local employers to partner with us to adapt to the work culture of Omani employees,” he said. Commenting on how the NTI seeks to overcome such challenges, Alva added, “In our training centres we have developed programmes and environments to help young Omanis adapt to the private sector workplace, but this takes time and requires a cultural and generational shift on both sides.”

Technology

One of the top priorities of NES 2040 is to support the use of IT and e-learning in schools and HEIs. Thus far, the uptake of education technology has been limited, but authorities are working to make Oman a regional centre in this regard.

In September 2019 Oman hosted the MENA Innovation Conference in Muscat, which welcomed ministers and senior officials for education, ICT, science and technology, and higher education from Oman and throughout the region, along with representatives from schools and universities, and ICT private sector actors. The MoE works with partners like Cambridge University to retrain teachers and redevelop curricula to promote student-focused learning that uses education technology to strengthen two-way communication. The MoE and the MoHE aim to roll this out across schools and HEIs in Oman.

Meanwhile, SQU has led the way among HEIs in adopting e-learning strategies. It has piloted a series of Massive Online Open Courses, most recently launching a short, well-received online Arabic-language course on digital citizenship.

Outlook

With a growing private sector and sustained demand for quality education that meets international standards, Oman is an attractive prospect for foreign investment. Quality concerns in the public primary and secondary segments have led the government to conduct a series of overhauls. They have also pushed many students into private and international schools, where demand is driving up fees. At the tertiary level, the OAAA’s work has set strong quality standards, upon which HEIs are expected to expand their offerings in partnership with foreign affiliates. Greater integration of technology in education is also being adopted at this level.

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The Report: Oman 2020

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Oman 2020

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