Oman's education sector focuses on quality and the right skills to meet the needs of the economy

Evolving rapidly over a short period, education and training play a key role in Oman’s long-term development plans. From three schools in the country prior to 1970, the sultanate’s general education sector has expanded to include 1647 public, special education, private and international schools, with a total of 724,395 pupils, including kindergarteners and preschoolers. Enrolment is compulsory for 10 years of basic education and free for all Omani citizens. Progress has been reflected in significant improvements in the adult literacy rate, which reached 94.8% in 2015, up from 81% a decade earlier.

In 2013/14 the higher education segment in Oman was served by 18 public colleges, 20 private colleges, a single state university and seven private universities, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). These academic institutions are regulated by different ministries and organisations than private vocational training centres and colleges of applied science, banking and health. The government acts as regulator and service provider in higher education, by funding scholarships, managing accreditation and providing guidance on strategic objectives for sector improvement.

Budget

The budget allocation for education in 2016 reached OR1.65bn ($4.3bn), constituting 14% of total expenditure, while education spending saw a slight decrease in the 2017 budget, falling to OR1.6bn ($4.1bn). Declining oil revenues suggest that the government will not always be able to fund higher education as generously. Some projects are reported to have stalled in the current economic downturn, and demand for training has declined as companies focus on cost-cutting over recruitment. “With the low oil price, many companies and government institutions are cutting back on education and training,” Warith Al Kharusi, executive director of Al Safwa Group and Partners, which provides supply chain management and logistics solutions for the oil and gas sector, told OBG. “However, this is precisely the time that they should be boosting spending in these areas in order to continue the gradual economic transformation and diversification of the country.” Nevertheless, education authorities are moving forward with reforms focused on improving quality assurance and strategic learning objectives to meet the demands of the labour market, underscoring the government’s commitment to upskilling and improving the sultanate’s youth.

History

The Educational renaissance in Oman began in 1970 and can be broadly divided into two separate stages: a 1970-98 focus on broadening access and a 1999-2007 focus on improving quality. Prior to 1970 education in the sultanate was generally confined to Islamic studies conducted in Quranic schools and mosque education groups, where the principles of Islam, the Arabic language and mathematics were the primary areas of study. The government played a dominant role in driving expansion in Oman’s education system over the past four decades, and does the same today as both regulator and service provider in general and higher education.

Oman’s Education Council acts as the supreme education body of the government, formulating policies and legislative proposals for long-term development strategies in both general and higher education. The council includes, among others, the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), the Ministry of Manpower (MoM), the Ministry of Civil Service and the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA). Broad representation is intended to avoid silos in education policy and develop informed, comprehensive regulations to help guide education curricula on the correct path.

The government’s sector objectives include improving quality in line with international standards and developing productive participants in a more diversified, post-oil Omani economy. In upper levels and higher education, the focus is increasingly on producing qualified graduates who are able to meet the demands of the labour market.

Directives issued by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in 2011 and 2012 emphasised the importance of linking education outcomes to the needs of the labour market using revised educational policies, plans and programmes. In response to these directives, the Education Council is currently helping develop Oman’s National Education Strategy 2040, aimed at equipping young Omani’s with the skills required to compete and succeed in a knowledge-based economy. Although the content of the strategy is not yet public, it is expected to have a significant impact on the delivery of education and learning throughout Oman.

General Education

The MoE is responsible for formulating policy, and administering and managing basic and post-basic (secondary) education. It controls standards in state schools and has considerable influence over the operation of the private sector. The country’s general education programme is built around the basic curriculum introduced in 1998 for grades one through 10, and the post-basic curriculum introduced for grades 11 and 12 in 2007.

Public schools and institutions are established by the MoE in each of the governorates, with government-funded state schools typically oriented towards Omani citizens as well as GCC nationals, emphasising local culture and employing a largely Islamic curriculum. Private schools are subject to foreign investment rules, and cannot be established without first receiving a trade licence from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and approval from the MoE. An Omani partner is typically required in order to establish a private school, though GCC nationals are exempted from fulfilling this requirement.

The Education Council is currently developing the National Education Strategy 2040, aimed at equipping young Omanis with the skills required to succeed in a knowledge-based economy BY T HE NUMBERS: Private school education (ages 6-18) was established at the same time as government schools in the 1970s and has experienced a major expansion over the past decade. From two private schools with a total of 115 students in pre-school and elementary education in the 1972/73 academic year, the total number of private schools in the sultanate has grown to reach 530 in 2015/16, 46 more than in 2014/15. In terms of bricks-and-mortar institutions, Muscat comes in significantly ahead the private education sector with 182 schools, followed by Al Batinah North with 68 and Al Dakhliyah with 56.

Total enrolment in general education, including students in the sultanate’s government, private and international schools, reached 724,395 in the 2015/16 academic year according to the NCSI. Of these students, 74.6% were enrolled at various government schools, including around 21,500 at Islamic institutes and schools managed directly by government ministries or agencies. Some 14.1% of students were enrolled at private schools and 8.3% were registered at international institutions.

Despite enrolment being one-fifth the size of the public sector, the private sector in basic and post-basic education is expanding more quickly. In the 2015/16 academic year enrolment grew by 9% from the previous year, compared to 1.3% in government schools. While 20 public schools were opened in the sultanate in 2015/16, the number of new private schools was 44, with an additional three international schools. This raised the education footprint in the country to 1068 public schools and 574 private schools.

Higher Learning

The MoHE is responsible for regulating and licensing public and private colleges and universities, and ensuring that all institutions meet international standards and support government objectives. Technical colleges and vocational training institutes are overseen by the MoM, and the Ministry of Health supervises 14 institutions preparing Omanis for jobs in the health care sector.

Higher education is significantly affected by the quality of students coming out of primary and secondary education facilities. Many enter higher education programmes delivered in English from a system that is primarily taught in Arabic. Foundation programmes are offered as a bridge between prior education and credit courses. “Over 90% of students leaving school have to attend a foundation programme,” Tess Goodliffe, deputy CEO of technical affairs at the OAAA, told OBG. “In some higher education institutions (HEIs), general foundation programme students will make up 50% of the student body, and that is a challenge. But we hope that improvements that were made to basic education programmes will feed through.”

The privatisation of higher education was introduced in the mid-1990s as a means of promoting the development of post-secondary education and diversifying spending away from a reliance on the government. Population growth and rising disposable income have since supported the growth of the post-secondary private education sector in Oman.

The government has played the leading role in the sector, implementing subsidy schemes that include provisions for loans with subsidised interest rates and allocations of government-developed land for use by private investments. The most recent HEI to be launched in the sultanate, Muscat University, received substantial grants for land and financing for construction from the government.

Private HEIs have sprung up across the country in response to these incentives, and enrolment topped 68,350 for the academic year 2014/15, compared to 63,410 students in government HEIs, according to the Higher Education Admission Centre.

Scholarships

Along with government measures to encourage private sector investment, the government of Oman offers a generous scholarship programme to the country’s citizens. In the academic year 2012/13, the MoHE awarded 9738 internal scholarships for students pursuing higher education in one of the sultanate’s 20 private colleges and seven universities. An additional 1395 external scholarships were offered for students studying abroad to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Having grown capacity to accommodate students with government scholarships, a number of private colleges in the sultanate today are almost 100% reliant on fees from scholarship recipients.

“If the government does not offer those scholarships, or cuts the number of scholarships due to oil prices, many of those students may not be able to selffund their education,” Anthony Cahalan, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, told OBG. “So, in fact, the higher education market may contract rather than offer opportunities for more overseas investment.” Given the priority accorded to development in education, the sector is nevertheless expected to be insulated from major budget cuts.

“As a general trend, the budgets that are announced for scholarships for students sponsored by ministries will remain intact for 2016/17, whereas government spending in much of the rest of the sector is being slimmed down. This tells you something about the perceived value of education in the country,” Aleksandar Djordjevic, director of the Centre for Continuing Education and Professional Studies at the Modern College of Business and Science (MCBS), told OBG.

The number of unsponsored, self-funding students has, however, grown in recent years, particularly among expatriate and international students, who may not have access to sponsorship. Djordjevic noted that in post-graduate studies at schools like the MCBS, most of today’s master’s students in programmes like business administration are self-funded. Seeking access to these markets, and because payments made by the government to an institution are relatively low, new HEIs including Muscat University are aiming to diversify the student population and actively avoid dependence on scholarships.

Muscat University

In November 2016 Muscat University received official approval from the MoHE to begin operations. A complete launch of three bachelor’s programmes, six master’s programmes and a foundation programme is planned for September 2017, co-delivered with two UK-based institutions, Cranfield University and Aston University. The university is 100% privately funded by 37 founders and benefactors from the business world. Its vision is to deliver a high-quality local education option for Omani and expatriate students in the country.

Course offerings support research and instruction aligned to the social and economic priorities of the sultanate and further afield, particularly business and management, engineering and technology, and transport and logistics. Graduating students will receive two certificates – one from the UK partner and one from Muscat University. By offering UK master’s programmes with fly-in faculty in Muscat, the university is hoping to attract a mixture of Omani students, children of expatriates who are working in Oman, and international students from the region and the broader world. “We’re anticipating that we could have up to 50% international students, and that’s critical. Oman is not an island. It exists within the GCC, but also the broader world,” said Cahalan. Other enrolment targets include employers and employees seeking to upgrade qualifications at a reduced cost and without spending time abroad.

Various models had been proposed for Muscat University over the previous decade, including a federation of colleges under the Muscat University banner. But with quality as a founding principle, a decision was taken to make a fresh start.

“The 37 founders have established the university and pledged their funds to it, but they are not expecting a return on their investment in the form of dividends like a normal company. This is their social corporate responsibility contribution to the lifting of higher education standards in the sultanate. So it is quite a different proposal from a number of other institutions, which are commercial ventures for their owners,” Cahalan said.

Academic Affiliations

As a means of improving quality in higher education and benchmarking standards against overseas institutions, the MoHE encourages private HEIs to choose reputable universities as partners in academic affiliation agreements.

While Muscat University has announced formal affiliation agreements with international academic partners; the MCBS, for example, adheres to the regulating bodies and accreditor commission of affiliated schools, including Amsel University in Missouri and Franklin University in Ohio. Vocational institutions, too, are increasingly linking qualifications to accredited awarding bodies. For example, the National Automotive Higher Institute (NAHI) has developed affiliations with the UK-based Institute for Motor Industries, delivering their qualifications according to their criteria and quality assurance requirements. “Not only people, but also employers feel more comfortable with international accreditation,” Haji Al Balushi, general manager of NAHI, told OBG.

Regulation

Regulatory powers in the sector are divided between the MoE, the MoHE, the MoM, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) and other parties responsible for supervising educational institutes. Each receives separate funding to support and guide affiliated educational institutions. The government is responsible for all programme and institution approvals in the sultanate, as well as quality assurance through the OAAA, established by Royal Decree No. 54/2010 to replace the former Oman Accreditation Council. Reporting directly to the Education Council, the OAAA engages in extensive consultation with all relevant stakeholders in the higher education sector in the process of accreditation design and implementation.

Beginning in 2016, all higher education providers in Oman are being made subject to OAAA accreditations to raise standards and provide quality assurance. Regulatory scope for the authority covers all HEIs in the sultanate, both public and private, including military and health institutes, colleges of technology and applied sciences, and SQU.

Accreditation Process

The OAAA employs a generic standards model for accreditation to accommodate the current diversity of the higher education sector. “By developing a set of generic programme standards, the authority aims to transfer responsibility to each institution to show how it benchmarks its standards with professional bodies or overseas institutions,” Goodliffe told OBG. Since 2008 the OAAA has employed a two-stage process for awarding institutional accreditation, beginning with a quality audit based on the institution’s self-assessment and progressing to a second-stage standards assessment.

As part of the first-stage institutional quality audit, the OAAA selects a panel from its registered external reviewers to assess submitted institutional materials and carry out a site visit. More than 90% of the sultanate’s institutions had been through a quality audit by the third quarter of 2016. The second stage – of institutional accreditation standards assessment – utilises a set of standards approved in 2015 and a manual launched in 2016 to deliver a pass or probation assessment that allows institutions one year to address opportunities for improvement. Three institutions were moving through the institutional standards assessment process in August 2016.

“If they meet the 79 criteria and nine standards that are applicable to their context, at the end of the process they will be deemed accredited institutions. Bearing in mind that we oversee over 60 institutions, it will be at least five years before all institutions under our umbrella are accredited, according to our published schedule,” said Goodliffe.

The OAAA is also in the process of developing a programme accreditation manual for use in determining whether course offerings compare against a set of standards. Institutional accreditation will be a prerequisite to petitioning for programme accreditation.

Qualifications Frameworks

The OAAA is currently working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority to develop the Oman Qualifications Framework as a means of enabling employers, the government, school-leavers and graduates to identify where certificates and qualifications sit in a national framework, and which pathways are available for different qualifications. The effort is aimed primarily at establishing equivalency across the education sector, including technical, vocation and professional schools, and higher education institutions.

“Being able to communicate that equivalency will give people the confidence to take different educational pathways. The problem is that in many cases bodies only recognise academic qualifications that have come through a higher education route. We currently have a qualifications framework, but it’s only for academic qualifications,” Goodliffe said.

A GCC Qualifications Framework is also under development, with the MoM representing Oman. The objective is to create a dialogue between the qualifications framework used in each participating country and a regional meta-framework, thereby supporting the comparison and communication of qualifications, and enhancing the mobility of citizens from one GCC country to another.

GCC countries have also reportedly decided to implement a uniform admissions process in universities and centres of higher education, aimed at providing equal opportunities to GCC students who wish to be accepted to universities and seats of higher education institutions in the region.

Labour Preparedness

Linking the educational system to the requirements of the labour force is a dominant theme of the sector. The MoE and the MoHE, in conjunction with the MoM, are tasked with developing a competent local labour force to provide jobs for Omani citizens and address the country’s economic diversification objectives.

In this context, the mismatch between the number of Omani students in higher education and the job requirements set by the labour market is a major challenge facing the country’s economy. The problem is largely attributed to a lack of communication and partnership between government organisations, training providers and employers in the private sector as to the skills required of graduates.

According to Lawrence Alva, CEO of employment solutions and vocational training company National Training Institute, for the most part, internship and apprenticeship culture does not exist in Oman. “Many times students do not graduate with the practical experience necessary for the business world. We need to adapt our labour regulations to encourage more collaboration between the business and education sectors in this regard,” he told OBG.

Liaison and engagement with stakeholders in the labour market has become essential for universities to remain relevant. Whether this takes the form of an industrial liaison committee at A’Sharqiyah University, a deputy vice-chancellor for enterprise and engagement at Muscat University, or the inclusion of various industry leaders on advisory boards, HEIs are increasingly seeking active collaboration from industry on strategic requirements.

Many universities and colleges are also taking proactive steps to deliver qualified and prepared graduates that can compete in the labour market. Muscat University, for example, is providing courses oriented towards logistics.

“In our initial stages we’re focusing on transport and logistics, because there is the proposal for the GCC rail line, Duqm Port, Sohar Port, six new airports in Oman, and roads that are being improved dramatically. So Oman wants to be a hub for this region … but there’s not currently a pool of people able to respond to these projects, so we see our role as very critical there,” Cahalan told OBG. Academic programmes offered by HEIs like Muscat University increasingly include a work placement as a recommended option for students, spending the third year of a four-year undergraduate programme in an industry co-op placement, for example.

Schools are also developing bilateral training agreements with a range of industry partners. To support innovation and research in telecommunications, for example, SQU and Oman Telecommunications Company (Omantel) signed a one-year letter of agreement in February 2016 to train university graduates in the field of communications.

As per the agreement, Omantel offered two modules for three-month training courses to SQU communication and engineering students. The trainees then get preference for employment at Omantel or one of the companies that deal with Omantel.

Vocational & Technical Training

With the government focused on requirements for practical knowledge and diversification in the labour force, vocational schools and technical colleges are pivoting to develop courses that align with diversification strategies in a variety of sectors, including transport and logistics, mining and tourism.

National Training Institute is conducting a broad range of studies aimed at revitalising its training courses to include a focus on sectors identified as priorities in the latest five-year plan, particularly mining. “For over three decades we have been working very closely with the oil and gas industry, and therefore are very familiar with the kind of jobs available, skills required and the training needs of this industry,” Alva told OBG. “However, mining is a new sector for us, and at this point in time we are not geared up with the necessary information to cater to this industry. We are in the process of studying it,” he added.

Transition

The MoM, which is responsible for licensing, approvals and oversight of vocational training programmes, is reportedly finding it difficult to get young Omanis to pursue vocational training and fill the skills gap for craftsmen in the domestic market.

Technical colleges and vocational training suffer from a stigma in Oman, regarded by parents and students as generally inferior to a degree-level academic education – an issue across the Gulf region. Although the situation has improved considerably over the past decade, there are many opportunities in the sultanate where resource demand is high but supply of qualified graduates is limited, because younger Omanis are not attracted to vocational training.

In response to market perception, a number of technical colleges and vocational institutes are engaged in transitioning to academic institutes to meet societal demand for more prestigious higher education recognition. “Vocational training in Oman is not contained in the national education framework. Maybe they are working on that proposal, and I hope it will come out by the end of 2016. Public vocational training centres have already moved to higher education for the same reasons,” Al Balushi told OBG.

Another challenge in attracting students to vocational, technical and applied training is wages. The salary scale in the private sector is generally seen as less attractive than that of the public sector, and those students who do not enrol in accredited higher education schools are typically able to secure positions with the government, where pay is high, particularly in the Royal Omani Police and the military.

As a result of the stigmatisation of vocational training and cost-cutting in the private sector, business opportunities in vocational training were down in 2016. Alva further noted that with the decline in oil prices, there has been a reduction in employment opportunities due to the decrease in activity in the oil and gas sector. “Companies are not recruiting, therefore there is no training … if we do not train and keep people ready, when things get better we will find ourselves short of competent people.”

One promising model for adapting vocational training to meet the demands of the society is represented by the International College for Engineering and Management, Oman Tourism College and the International Maritime College of Oman, which serve industry directly and are partly owned by the government in partnership with private sector interests. “These are institutes that deliver academic programmes, but also provide vocational and professional training opportunities. And that hybrid model I think will grow, especially when we have a qualifications framework that will support recognition of a wide range of qualifications,” Goodliffe said.

Other successful training programmes in the country include private sector job-creation initiatives, such as the National Objectives programme run by Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the national oil company. PDO has developed certified training programmes in consultation with the MoM and the MoE, leading to 22,000 employment, training opportunities in the oil and gas sector, and redeployment across PDO’s contractor community since 2011.

Foreign Investment

The government actively encourages private sector participation in the country’s education system, designing the regulatory legal framework to safeguard the interests of foreign and local investors. Although the number of students is relatively low to support more than 60 HEIs, investor interest in private higher education has been constant, primarily owing to the availability of infrastructure and the financial support granted by the government for student sponsorships and the construction of campuses. Rules governing ownership of private universities require that the majority of funds in share capital is owned by Omanis. Founders are obligated to commit to the venture for a period of no less than five years as assurance that the primary objective is not realisation of financial profits.

The greatest opportunity in academic higher education is investment at the graduate level and delivery of internationally recognised graduate programmes. At the undergraduate level, programme offerings in engineering, IT and business are fairly mature, with a sizeable contingent of providers. In vocational training, alignment with government strategies and relationships to industry are critical.

“I think it’s about targeting people who already have a degree, but who would want top-up opportunities,” Goodliffe said. Cross-border education, specifically the establishment of branch campuses of international universities, is limited in the sultanate, where the government has traditionally focused on developing a local system of higher education aimed at preserving traditional culture and values.

Commenting on the importance of developing significant local capacity and opportunities across the sultanate, Barry Winn, vice-chancellor of Sohar University, told the Times Higher Education magazine in February 2016, “I think some of the international providers are short- or medium-term projects where they can be here for now, but in the long term, countries have to build their own capability.”

Outlook

Oman has scored remarkable achievements in access to education over the past 40 years. With the government playing a dominant role in driving growth in the sector as regulator and service provider, enrolment in basic education and adult literacy have risen to more than 90%.

In upper levels and higher education, government objectives in education are focused largely on improving quality in accordance with international standards and developing productive members of a diversifying post-oil economy in Oman.

Government subsidy schemes and land grants are expected to attract considerable investor interest in the sector, and the private higher education market will likely continue to grow. Ongoing regulatory and legislative initiatives – such as the National Education Strategy 2040, the expansion of the OAAA remit in standards accreditation and a new qualifications framework applicable across the education sector, including the technical, vocational and professional segments – are expected to have a significant impact on quality in the delivery of education.

This is an important step in connecting the education system with the requirements of the labour force. Liaison and engagement with stakeholders in the labour market has become essential for universities in the sultanate, with HEIs seeking active collaboration from industry on strategic requirements.

With the country’s economy pivoting to embrace the diversification objectives in the latest five-year plan, significant reforms in education focused on improving quality through international and domestic certification will be critically important to ensuring that the Omani youth of today are equipped to face the challenges of tomorrow’s economic climate.

 

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The Report: Oman 2017

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Oman 2017

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