Kuwaiti education reforms to improve the quality of teaching and encourage private sector participation

 

Amid concerns over the quality of education and training, and in recognition of the country’s growing youth population, the Kuwaiti government has demonstrated its intention to revitalise the education sector through a series of policy reforms and investments in recent years. Some 37% of the population is under the age of 14, while 35% is between the ages of 15 and 34, making the provision of high-quality education and training facilities an essential part of national strategies for economic development and diversification.

Many of the recent reforms were announced as part of the Kuwait National Development Plan, known as New Kuwait 2035, a government strategy that prioritises education as one of its seven policy pillars (see Economy chapter). Several of the education initiatives launched under New Kuwait 2035 are expected to be completed in 2020, including the National Learning Standards project, which aims to implement countrywide standards of teaching, management and student assessment.

The government has also sought to encourage private sector participation through public–private partnerships (PPPs) overseen by the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects, in order to meet the rising demand for education facilities. Investor-friendly policies – including the allowance of 100% foreign ownership within the sector – have also been implemented to encourage further growth.

Structure & Oversight

All schools at the pre-primary, primary and secondary level are regulated and overseen by the Ministry of Education (MoE). The minister of education also chairs the Supreme Education Council (SEC), an independent government institution established in 2016 to assist in the strategic direction of education policy.

The MoE provides free primary and secondary education for Kuwaitis at public schools, while foreign residents are served by the private sector. In the 2017/18 academic year the MoE oversaw a total of 1175 schools, with 624 public schools and 551 private schools. Of the latter, 337 were classified as foreign schools and 174 as Arabic schools. The MoE also works in close conjunction with the National Centre for Educational Development (NCED), which is responsible for conducting school inspections and administering international tests.

Tertiary education, which is split between public and private universities, is managed by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). The country’s only public university is the Kuwait University (KU), while the remainder of higher education institutions are private. Private universities are required to obtain an operating licence from the Private Universities Council (PUC), a regulatory body overseen by the MoHE. The PUC also provides scholarship programmes for Kuwaiti students and conducts facility reviews of higher education institutions.

Sector Breakdown

The Kuwaiti government allocated KD2.13bn ($7bn) to the MoE in 2019/20, representing 9.5% of the total budget of KD22.5bn ($74.1bn). In comparison, the government earmarked 9.6% of the budget, or KD2.07bn ($6.8bn), for education spending in 2018/19. According to the “GCC Education Industry” report published by investment bank Alpen Capital in November 2018, on average, the region allocated 14.1% of national budgets to education. However, this figure was influenced by large-scale spenders such as Saudi Arabia. Although its share of the budget decreased slightly in 2019/20, education spending has generally experienced favourable growth in recent years, as continued emphasis has been placed on the importance of preparing the population for the future.

Rising demand within the sector has been driven by several factors, including the steadily increasing population and long-term government initiatives such as New Kuwait 2035. The country’s high per capita GDP and the populace’s willingness to spend more to receive quality education has also supported the sector’s expansion in recent years.

Within the private education segment, local demand for institutes offering international curricula – including those from the US, Canada, UK, France and India – has typically been high as a result of the policy restricting public school access to Kuwaiti citizens. Combined, these factors have created the need for additional education infrastructure. According to Alpen Capital, demand for public and private schools in Kuwait is expected to increase by 15.7% between 2017 and 2022.

With education compulsory until secondary level, schools in Kuwait generally have high enrolment rates. Figures from Alpen Capital and UNESCO indicate that enrolment recorded a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2% between 2011 and 2016.

The primary segment had the highest gross enrolment rate (GER) in 2016, at 100.6%, as a result of early enrolment and pupils resitting classes. Secondary schools also had a high GER, at 93.6%. Enrolment at the tertiary level was comparatively lower, with a GER of 27%. Although this was considerably higher than the 2011 figure of 18.9%, Kuwait continues to lag behind the GCC average of 54.7% and the global average of 37.5%. As a consequence, investing in higher education and vocational training is a key focus of government policy.

Public Education

The MoE is responsible for implementing the national curriculum across the public system, and employing teaching staff for all state-operated schools. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18 the number of teachers in public schools increased by 7.2% from 64,342 to 68,974. This is a promising sign as public schools in Kuwait have typically struggled with a shortage of qualified staff. According to the Central Statistics Bureau (CSB), in 2017/18 there were 390,673 pupils in the public school system across kindergarten, primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

In 2017/18 there were on average 5.6 pupils per teacher, and 27 pupils per classroom, with a total of 14,312 classrooms across the public school system. Approximately 86% of these students are Kuwaiti nationals. Public education is generally only available to citizens; however, there are some exceptions, which are generally granted to non-Kuwaiti children whose parents work in certain professions, such as public school teachers or medical staff in public hospitals. The government also operates 11 gender-segregated religious institutes, which had 2542 students and 589 teachers in 2017/18, and an average of 4.3 pupils per teacher.

In 2017/18 the public school segment comprised 196 kindergartens, 268 primary schools, 215 intermediate-level schools and 141 secondary schools. In terms of the number of institutions, when combined with religious institutes public schools constituted a sector share of 53.5%, a slight decrease compared to the 53.9% share the segment recorded in 2016/17.

In recent years the MoE has made several agreements with private investors to rebuild old schools and open new establishments. Private investors are responsible for the construction, financing and maintenance of the institutions, while the MoE manages administration, the curriculum and the appointment of staff. In 2014 the ministry introduced the Kuwait Schools Development Programme to build schools using the build-operate-transfer model. There were plans for this programme to issue the tenders of nine public schools – including five kindergartens, two primary schools and one intermediate school – as PPPs through the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects, but the development programme was cancelled in April 2018.

Private Education

The private education segment is well established in Kuwait due to the long-standing presence of a large expatriate community in the country, which comprises around 69% of the total population. Due to the high standard of living many Kuwaitis enjoy, families who have the means to send their children to private schools often prefer to do so, particularly if they offer an international curriculum. According to the CSB, Kuwaiti students represented 27% of the student population in private schools in 2017/18.

Many private international schools, particularly those that follow a Western curriculum, are characterised by increasingly high fees. In June 2016 the MoE approved a 3% annual fee hike for private schools in 2016/17 and 2017/18, with prior approval needed for any future increases. In February 2019 local press reported that the Parliament had extended a resolution that formally suspended any further rise in private school fees for the 2019/20 academic year. This resolution applies to all private educational institutes, including international schools following the education systems of Western, Arab and Asian nations. The latest suspension of fee rises occurred after a number of private foreign schools unilaterally raised their prices without first obtaining approval from the MoE.

Between 2015/16 and 2017/18 the total number of private schools (excluding special education institutes) in Kuwait increased from 520 to 551. In 2017/18 foreign schools made up 68% of the total, and the remaining 32% were Arabic schools. Enrolment in local private schools increased at a CAGR of 4.1% between 2011 and 2016, while public school enrolment grew by 1.6% in the same period.

The growth of the private segment is expected to continue to outpace the public segment as demand for quality education rises. Notable players within the private system include Al Jeri Holding Group, an education services group that operates 20 independently branded schools across Kuwait; Al Rayan Holding, which owns five schools offering UK, Arab and Asian curricula; and the well-established Educational Holding Group, which has become one of the largest private education networks in Kuwait and manages the Afaq chain of schools.

Staff

With many private schools following an international curriculum, staff are typically sourced from the country of their respective pedagogy. In 2017/18 CSB figures show that there were only 229 Kuwaiti teachers working in private schools, compared to 16,607 non-Kuwaitis. In contrast, Kuwaitis made up the majority of staff in the public segment, with 43,583 local teachers and 25,391 international. Although the majority of teachers in Kuwait were traditionally expatriates, in recent years the government has taken steps to close the gap. In 2017/18 there were 43,812 Kuwaiti teachers and 42,998 non-Kuwaitis across the sector.

The introduction of Kuwaitisation policies to limit the proportion of international staff has likely played an important role in this shift. In March 2019 the MoE announced that it would introduce further restrictions on the recruitment of teaching staff from overseas. Furthermore, rising living costs and competition with neighbouring countries in the GCC continue to deter expatriate teachers in Kuwait, resulting in high staff turnover rates. It is therefore likely that in the coming years the proportion of local teachers will increase further.

Higher Education

As the country seeks to diversify and transition to a knowledge-based economy, the tertiary education segment in Kuwait has been focused on the need to expand key disciplines such as science, technology and engineering. Higher education is provided for free to Kuwaiti nationals at the country’s only public university, KU. Founded in 1966, KU offers a range of courses across 16 colleges, which are available to both Kuwaitis and international students. In 2017/18, 6717 students graduated from KU, slightly less than the 7091 graduates the previous academic year.

The most common degree specialisations are law, education and engineering, but frequently the courses offered by the university are oversubscribed. As a result, a new $5.8bn campus was built in order to ease the university’s long-standing capacity issues. Sabah Al Salem University City opened in September 2019 with around 22,000 students enrolling at the new site. Although local media reported positive reviews of the campus’ design and modern facilities, both students and staff complained of traffic on the roads leading up to the university on the first day of term. This underscores the importance of developing supporting infrastructure alongside new education establishments.

The remaining 12 higher education institutions in Kuwait are privately operated, and include the American University of Kuwait (AUK), the American University of the Middle East, and Gulf University for Science and Technology, which are each affiliated with foreign institutions. There are also private institutions offering diplomas, such as Algonquin College Kuwait, where students can receive qualifications based on the Canadian post-secondary system in subjects such as business, media design and advanced technology. Although many private universities in Kuwait have been awarded accreditation from major international organisations, the country is faced with the ongoing challenge of ensuring that local universities are able to match the qualifications offered by their foreign partners. “Institutions need to view accreditation as a process of continuous development,” Rawda H Awwad, president of AUK, told OBG. “Accreditation is a starting point rather than an end point; quality assurance is an evolutionary process.”

The MoHE has invested heavily in higher education scholarship programmes, with grants available to Kuwaiti students for both domestic and international study. According to the CSB, 3112 students received scholarships to study abroad in 2016/17. The top-three destinations were the US, UK and Ireland. It is hoped that sending Kuwaiti students abroad will enable them to gain expertise in sectors in which their home country is experiencing a labour shortage. As a result, the government sets stringent requirements for degrees that offer scholarship programmes. Although international study is still a popular choice, many Kuwaitis prefer to pursue university education in their home country.

Vocational Training

The main provider of vocational education in Kuwait is the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET), which is overseen by the MoE. PAAET operates both full-time colleges and industrial training centres. According to the most recent CSB figures, 10,953 students enrolled in PAAET campuses and training centres in the first semester of 2016/17. Given that the unemployment rate rose from 1.9% in 2017 to 2.1% in 2018, it is necessary to ensure that Kuwaitis obtain the skills required by the labour market to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign workers.

The majority of students enrolled in vocational courses are Kuwaitis, accounting for 89% of the 2016/17 intake. The most popular courses offered by PAAET that year were secretarial and office work, air navigation and telecommunications. The growth of the vocational training segment has been hindered by the fact that Kuwaitis generally value university degrees above all other forms of higher education. Nevertheless, as the country seeks to reduce its reliance on expatriate labour and ensure that Kuwaitis possess the skills required by the private sector, demand for vocational training courses is expected to rise in the future.

In April 2019 local media reported that 41.2% of Kuwaiti graduates were unemployed, suggesting that it will be increasingly necessary for degree holders to retrain in a different subject or obtain qualifications in a vocational skill in order to find employment in the private sector. “As the public sector is moving slowly, there is more pressure on young people to start their own business,” Winfred Thompson, former president of AUK, told OBG. “It is essential for them to have soft skills as well as skills they learn in the classroom.”

EdTech

As in much of the world, educational institutions in Kuwait are increasingly looking to encourage the use of technology in the curriculum as much as possible. The MoE has actively sought to raise the level of ICT literacy among Kuwaiti youth and has received regional recognition for its efforts to integrate digital technology into the public education system. In 2017 the MoE won the Technology Initiative Award at the Bett Middle East Awards for its ICT infrastructure modernisation programme, which included an initiative to provide tablets for all teachers and students in the country. The project, known as the One to One Initiative, was launched in 2015 in partnership with US tech giant Hewlett-Packard. The initiative targeted 82,000 students and teachers across six school districts, and aimed to increase student engagement while equipping them with the digital skills required by the modern workplace. Although the project was withdrawn in September 2018, local media reported that it resulted in the sale of 80,000 new tablets worth a total of KD28m ($92.2m). Similarly, in 2016 the New English School, an international private school, purchased Google Chromebooks for all students.

Outlook

Education is likely to remain a priority for the government in the years ahead as the development of human capital is a vital part of economic diversification. The sector is still in a transitional period and the authorities are primarily focused on the improvement of countrywide standards, but the country’s growing youth population and high level of disposable income will continue to fuel demand for education, particularly in the private segment. Although the potential for investment opportunities mostly lies within the private school market, vocational training providers also have scope to expand amid concerns about growing unemployment and the need to compete with the expatriate workforce.

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The Report: Kuwait 2019

Education chapter from The Report: Kuwait 2019

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