In 2019 Bahrain’s public education system marked its centenary, making it the longest-running institution of its kind in the GCC. Since its inception, a range of primary, secondary and higher education institutions have evolved in the country, delivering strong student outcomes. In addition, the country hosts a thriving private education sector, with private school enrolment on the rise. In line with regional and global trends, Bahrain faces challenges in tailoring its education system to the needs and opportunities brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which is set to radically reshape the labour market and increase demand for qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Acknowledging this, Bahrain’s authorities see the development of a leading education sector as vital to achieving their long-term diversification plans, which prioritise ICT development and the transition to a knowledge economy. “Digitalisation is the ultimate economic disruptor and it is becoming the new norm of our era – we need to prepare students to become innovators,” Ghassan Aouad, president of Applied Science University, told OBG.
Ensuring Bahrainis have the right skills for the future, while also increasing the profile of the education sector to encourage overseas students and expatiates to see the country as an education destination, therefore constitute major policy objectives. The kingdom is also making concerted efforts to ensure high standards are maintained and that internationally recognised qualifications are provided. In turn the supply of both academic education and vocational training has risen in recent years, contributing to an increasingly competitive market. The private sector has played an important role in the development of the education ecosystem and further international investment will likely be required for the authorities to meet their objectives.
Structure & Oversight
The Ministry of Education (MoE) is the sector’s primary oversight body, with a mandate to provide educational opportunities to every citizen in line with international standards. As of October 2019 the MoE was headed by Majid Al Nuaimi. The MoE is divided into a number of directorates for each level and type of education. Basic schooling is compulsory and free for children aged between six and 14 years old, with both Bahraini nationals and expats eligible for places in public schools, though the language of instruction is Arabic. While public schools are segregated by gender, higher education institutions are usually coeducational. Meanwhile, the Higher Education Council (HEC) – which operates under the purview of the MoE – is responsible for the regulation and promotion of the tertiary sector.
The private sector provides schooling across the same age range as the public education system. Instruction is given in a variety of languages and according to a number of different non-Bahraini curricula, in both segregated and coeducational schools. This makes the private sector particularly suitable for expat children – which constitute a significant market, given that non-Bahraini nationals made up 54.8% of the 1.5m population in 2017. While private schools have their own board of governors, and may be part of international school brands, they are subject to the regulations established by the MoE. All licensed public and private institutions are subject to inspection by the Education and Training Quality Authority (BQA) to ensure they meet the required government standards.
The management of the sector is guided by Bahrain Economic Vision 2030, the country’s long-term development agenda emphasising economic diversification and private sector growth. Vision 2030’s objectives include expanding and improving teaching capacity, providing quality training in the skills needed for the future, and increasing research and development (R&D) in higher education. Given the significance of the sector, public investment in education has been upheld, even as the country has faced economic challenges. Indeed, while the national budget – which was approved in February 2019 and runs for two years – outlined the goal of reducing the country’s fiscal deficit, it nevertheless stated that this would be done without reducing public spending services such as health care and education.
The national budget allocated a total of BD343.6m ($911.4m) to the sector for 2019 and BD328.8m ($872.1m) for 2020. The bulk of this spending was issued to the MoE, which was set to receive BD292.5m ($775.9m) for 2019 and BD277m ($734.7m) in 2020. The second largest recipient of the education sector’s budget was the University of Bahrain (UoB) – the country’s largest public university – which was allocated BD34.4m ($91.2m) for 2019 and BD34.9m ($92.6m) in 2020. While sector-specific figures were unavailable, the social and personal services sector – which consists mainly of public education and health care – grew 3% in real terms in 2018, according to the Ministry of Finance.
The local K-12 education system comprises nine years of basic instruction, split into primary and intermediate education, followed by three years of secondary education on either a general or vocational track. Following graduation from the public education system, students either enter the labour market or pursue further vocational or technical training. According to the most recent available figure from the MoE, the public education sector consisted of 112 primary schools, 23 primary and intermediate schools, 37 intermediate schools, 37 secondary schools and three religious institutes during the academic year 2017/18. The latter are for boys only and prepare them for work in Islamic religious affairs. The state sector also includes a gifted student centre, where pupils who display particular aptitude receive additional support.
Bahrain has a high level of literacy, at 95.7% overall, with the kingdom also boasting the highest female literacy rate in the Arabian peninsula, at 93.5%. During the 2017/18 academic year there were a total of 113,031 students enrolled in primary education in Bahrain, with 70,977 in state schools and 42,034 enrolled in private schools. Meanwhile, there were 51,903 enrolled in intermediate schooling, with 36,906 in public education and 14,997 in private education. At the secondary school level, 37,010 were in general education, while 6543 were enrolled in technical and vocational training. In the former category, 26,701 were being educated in state schools and 10,309 in private institutions, while technical and vocational colleges are entirely state run.
The enrolment figures highlight certain dynamics, namely the important contribution made by the private sector and the challenge of maintaining attendance after the primary school level. This latter issue is largely explained by a high level of gender disparity in enrolment. Among the students in public general secondary education in 2017/18, some 10,748 were boys while 15,953 were girls, a marked contrast from the primary and intermediate level, where the numbers were roughly even. Cultural factors play a role in explaining this phenomenon, with sons in some families expected to contribute financially from a younger age. Similarly, upon finishing public education many male students join the workforce rather than pursue tertiary education, which affects gender balance at the university level, with female students making up the majority of entrants into local universities.
In the 2017/18 academic year the private sector consisted of 63 nurseries, 131 kindergartens and 71 private schools of all types, according to the MoE. Total student enrolment in these schools have been growing strongly in recent years. According to figures from the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the number of students in private schools grew by an average of 7.2% per year between 2013 and 2018.
These schools fall into three categories, namely those for Bahraini nationals, those for expats in general and those catering to a specific foreign community. Schools for expats are furthermore subdivided in terms of language and the curriculum offered. In Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, there were 29 private international schools offering instruction in English, seven in Arabic and one in French, as of October 2019.
A number of curricula are on offer in English-language schools in the country, ranging from the UK, US and Australian national curricula, to the Indian curriculum and the International Baccalaureate (IB). Among the most established schools offering the UK syllabus are St Christopher’s School, which was founded in 1961, and the British School of Bahrain, which was acquired by the London-headquartered Inspired Education Group in January 2018. The IB is offered by establishments such as the Ibn Khuldoon National School and Modern Knowledge Schools. An Australian curriculum is offered by the Multinational School Bahrain, while the US curriculum is on offer at the AMA International School and the Bahrain Bayan School. Meanwhile, the Bahrain Indian School and the The Asian School follow the Indian national curriculum, with instruction provided in English.
With the development of teaching skills and competencies forming a central plank of Bahrain Economic Vision 2030, the country has invested significantly in teaching staff in recent years. To support this effort the Bahrain Teachers College was established in 2008, as part of UoB. All teachers in primary and intermediate education are required to hold a bachelor’s degree in education, while those in secondary education must have a diploma and a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach. Continual monitoring of teaching performance in both the public and private sector is undertaken by the BQA, which also assesses education institutions in terms of the teacher training programmes they provide to staff.
Furthermore, the government is facilitating the development of an e-learning environment in the education system through the King Hamad Schools of the Future project. The project is intended to support the country’s broader efforts to transition to a knowledge economy. In addition, Bahrain is collaborating with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), in order to improve the provision of ICT training to teaching staff. The country hosts the official ISTE standards training centre for the GCC region.
As of 2017/18 there were 5631 teachers in primary schools in Bahrain, 1483 in primary and intermediate schools, 2707 in intermediate schools and 4136 in secondary schools. This indicates a student-to-teacher ratio of around 1:20 at primary level and 1:10 at secondary level. In line with the government’s Bahrainisation policy, it has been seeking to improve the ratio of teaching staff who are Bahraini nationals. In July 2019 the MoE announced that 83.9% of all teaching jobs and 98.9% of all administrative and technical jobs in the public education sector were filled by domestic citizens. The government aims to increase this share to closer to 100% in the future; however, this target does not include private sector schools.
There are three state-run higher education institutions in Bahrain, namely UoB, Bahrain Polytechnic (BP) and the Bahrain Training Institute (BTI). UoB is the largest of these, consisting of 10 colleges offering 80 academic programmes, from law to physical education. The university – whose main campus is located in Sakhir in the Southern Governorate – also has 22 scientific and academic centres associated with it, and had around 26,000 students enrolled as of 2016, the most recent year for which data was available. “Generally speaking the UoB is the first choice of most high school graduates,” Khaled Tabbara, vice-president of the Arabian Gulf University, told OBG. There are a number of factors that contribute to the popularity of the institution, including comparatively low fees and a broad array of courses.
Meanwhile, BP had 2488 students enrolled in 2018, up from 2073 in the previous year. The polytechnic also boasts a high retention rate for students – at 99.04% in 2018 – with five programmes accredited by the BQA. These include applied bachelors degrees in mechanical and electronic engineering, technology and electronic media. Vocational training is carried out at the BTI, as well as at specialist schools such as the Nasser Vocational Training Institute, a government initiative supported by the Royal Charity Organisation. The MoE has also established a range of adult education centres, under its Directorate of Continuing Education programme, which provide professional training courses and education in languages and literacy.
As of January 2020 there were 14 private universities in Bahrain. These included the British University of Bahrain (BUB), the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical University of Bahrain, Gulf University, Ahlia University, the AMA International University and the Royal University for Women. A new addition to this list is the American University of Bahrain (AUBH), which opened in the 2019/20 academic year. There is also a regional higher education institute, the Arabian Gulf University, which is open to GCC nationals only. The university is specialised towards the teaching of medicine and the medical sciences.
The HEC is currently implementing its National Research Strategy Plan 2014-24, which aims to boost the number of patents and industrial designs filed in Bahrain, as well as increase the funding available for R&D in both academia and business. As part of this effort, higher education institutions are now obliged to allocate at least 3% of gross annual revenues to scientific research. The strategy also emphasises the commercial application of R&D, with a number of initiatives under way that seek to connect higher education with industry. These include a collaboration between UoB, the Sustainable Energy Centre and the Prince’s Foundation in the UK to develop sustainable approaches to construction and architecture. In addition, the Tech Valley programme, which is backed by the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance and the Bahrain Labour Fund, or Tamkeen, provides Bahraini students with opportunities to harness emerging technology and improve their digital literacy and innovation skills. Institutions such as BP seek to integrate business links into their course structures, with 75% of their graduates going on to work in the private sector.
Nevertheless, the country faces the ongoing challenge of a mismatch between the subjects pursued by students and those in demand. “Bahrain’s education system is a like an inverted pyramid,” Jeff Zabudsky, CEO at BP, told OBG. “There are a large number of students pursuing traditional university subjects but comparatively few in technical and vocational programmes.” Students from the public education system also face linguistic challenges, with many higher education programmes in science and technology requiring students to pursue a foundational year to acquire the necessary level of English literacy to fully engage with international R&D. Nevertheless, higher education establishments are making efforts to combat these issues. For example, the UoB is making progress in implementing its Transformation Plan 2016-21, revamping its internal organisation, launching digital literacy standards for faculty, developing international R&D partnerships and broadening its postgraduate programme offering.
As with the primary and secondary school segments, private sector investment is increasing competition in higher education. The AUBH opened coeducational campus in Riffa in the 2019/20 academic year, providing faculties of engineering, architecture and business. The university offers bachelor’s programmes in subjects ranging from multimedia design, industrial engineering and business administration, and has the capacity to support up to 4000 students. Another recent entrant to the market is the BUB, which opened its doors in 2018 and operates in partnership with the UK’s University of Salford. Located in Saar, BUB also has a STEM programme portfolio, offering degrees in subjects such as software engineering, marketing and construction project management.
Universities with international backing are not only subject to BQA standards, but must also meet the requirements of overseas regulatory authorities. Meanwhile, the HEC also implements its own quality standards and has the power to approve programmes and degrees, giving it substantial authority to enforce best practice within the sector. Attracting and retaining staff with the necessary qualifications and experience remains an issue in the segment, with the government’s Bahrainisation policy contributing to this challenge. While many institutions primarily employ Bahraini nationals to fill administrative positions, this has proven to be more challenging when it comes to teaching, particularly in the private sector which relies on former Bahraini employees from public universities. For example, 65% of teaching staff at BP were expats in 2019. “My hope is that our alumni will be the answer to this and we are concentrating on our graduates for future hiring,” Zabudsky told OBG.
With a robust, well-funded public education system and growing private school segment, the sector holds enormous potential to become a significant driver of economic growth. Nevertheless, the education system faces ongoing issues, most notably the gender disparity in public secondary enrolment. With a number of new higher education institutions set to open, the range of programmes on offer in Bahrain is wider than ever. However, with a relatively small domestic population, Bahraini higher education institutions will have to increasingly look abroad to attract students. While the kingdom has already proven to be relatively successful in attracting students from neighbouring states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it nonetheless faces stiff regional competition, and will likely face challenges in increasing its reach more globally. Nevertheless, the country has much to offer, with a robust system of regulations and standards in place and a concerted effort to increase digital literacy.
In addition, the government is working closely with universities and the private sector to increase R&D and improve connections between academia and the business community. The major challenge ahead will be ensuring the sector is able to incorporate emerging technologies and methodologies, ensuring that students at all levels of the education system have the skills and knowledge needed to support the country’s economic diversification strategy and competitiveness.
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