Kuwait's new plan to move the education sector to the next level

The country’s long-term development plan, laid out in Kuwait Vision 2035, places a strong emphasis on education as a catalyst to economic diversification, sustainable growth and social progress. Substantial investment from the government is now being coupled with reform tailored to Kuwait’s needs and values. The private sector has a strong presence, educating more than 40% of pupils in the country, and it is expanding even more rapidly than the public education system, as demographics and economic growth drive demand.

Growing Investment

Kuwait’s government allocated 9.5% of its 2016 budget to education, well below the GCC average of 15.6%, according to the May 2016 “GCC Education Industry” report published by investment bank Alpen Capital. The regional average is influenced by the huge sums being committed by Saudi Arabia, at 22.8% of its 2016 budget. Qatar allocated 10.1% and Bahrain spent 8.8%. Developed country norms vary, with Germany spending 5.2% of its 2016 budget on education, the UK 11.85% and the US 14.9%.

Government education spending has grown rapidly in recent years, as the leadership has continued to emphasise the importance of education in creating sustainable employment for Kuwaitis and equipping them with the skills to compete in the global marketplace. Government expenditure on education grew at an annual average rate of 14.8% in the four years to the 2013/14 fiscal year. Falling oil prices have brought the need for economic diversification back into focus, reinvigorating Kuwait’s efforts to develop knowledge-intensive sectors such as high-tech manufacturing and ICT.

Basic Educational Outcomes 

Kuwait’s literacy rate is 96.2%, according to UNICEF, which is comparable with most developed countries, and most Kuwaiti students leave school with solid skills. The education system is outstanding, for example, at some international schools and the best universities. However, on indicators from maths and sciences to internet access in schools the country has room for improvement if it is to reach the same level as its high-income peers.

Demand Drivers 

A range of factors should continue to drive robust growth in education spending in Kuwait in the coming years. First, in terms of demographics the state’s population of just under 4m is fairly small, but is growing rapidly. The population is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.8% between 2015 and 2020, and market researcher Euromonitor expects it to reach 5.1m by 2030. The population is expanding thanks to a relatively high birth rate and a continued inflow of expatriate workers. The latter may slow, or possibly even reverse, if oil prices remain low for a sustained period, but Kuwait’s fertility rate of 2.1 children per female and around 22% of the population being under the age of 15, according to the World Bank, indicate that there will be a need to increase education capacity.

Second, the government’s commitment to education both as a social good and a prerequisite for its economic diversification strategy has seen spending on the sector rise in recent years. Even with government coffers less flush with oil income, developing Kuwaitis’ knowledge and skills remains a top priority, throughout K-12 education. Ongoing reform should also see greater use of technology in education, creating opportunities for IT players.

Third, Kuwait is one of the world’s most affluent societies, with GDP per capita income of over $70,000 a year at purchasing power parity, according to World Bank figures. Aware of the importance of education in an increasingly competitive international marketplace, Kuwaitis and expatriates alike appear more and more willing, and able, to invest in their children’s education at all levels.

Sector Breakdown

The sector is overseen by the Ministry of Education (MoE), which works in conjunction with the National Centre for Educational Development (NCED). The centre has a range of responsibilities, including inspecting schools, administering international tests to provide quantifiable data on the Kuwaiti education system which can be compared with global standards, and working with international institutions such as the World Bank on technical issues of reform. Education is enshrined as a basic right in Kuwait’s constitution. The school system is broadly based on that of Egypt, which provided most of Kuwait’s teaching staff in the early years after independence.

There are four stages of schooling: nursery (ages 4-6), primary (6-10), middle (10-14) and secondary (14-18). There were a total of 1331 schools in Kuwait with over 625,000 pupils in the 2014/15 academic year, according to the 2016 Statistical Review published by the Central Statistical Bureau (CSB). Private schools now account for more than 40% of enrolled pupils in the country.

Facilities 

In 2014/15 in the public school system overall there were 367,661 pupils at 840 schools, of which 196 were kindergartens, 259 primary schools, 211 intermediate schools and 143 secondary schools, according to the CSB. There were 65,201 teachers in total, leading to a pupilto-teacher ratio of 5.6:1, and 15,012 classrooms, meaning 24.5 pupils per room. Out of the total number of pupils in public schools, 42,644 were in kindergarten, 146,817 in primary school, 107,580 at the intermediate level and 68,881 in secondary.

The country’s nine government religious schools accounted for 2687 pupils, which is split between 1260 students at five intermediate religious schools and 1427 pupils at four secondary-level religious schools. With 694 teachers and 126 classrooms, the segment had a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 3.9:1 and 21.3 pupils per classroom. Kuwait also has 31 special needs schools, which accounted for 1739 pupils in the public system in 2014/15. Special needs schools also had 1356 teachers, making for the lowest pupil-to-teacher ratio at 1.3:1.

In the faster-growing private sector, there were total of 257,405 pupils enrolled at 491 schools in 2014/15. Out of these schools, there were 108 kindergartens (with 39,771 pupils), 135 primary schools (112,301 pupils), 134 intermediate schools (65,453 pupils) and 114 secondary schools (39,880 pupils). With 15,125 teachers and 8428 classrooms, the private sector had a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 17:1 and 30.5 pupils per classroom.

Enrolment Levels 

Gross enrolment ratios (GERs) in Kuwait are comparable to regional levels. The GER is the total number of pupils enrolled in a school stage, regardless of age, as a percentage of the population of the ages officially eligible to be enrolled. For example, primary GER in Kuwait is calculated by the number of pupils enrolled in primary schools divided by the number of children who are 6-11 years old. As a result, GER can exceed 100 due to early enrolment and pupils re-sitting years.

Kuwait’s primary GER is 102%, compared to the GCC average of 107.7% and a global average of 108%. Its secondary GER is a little lower at 93.6%, compared to 107.7% in the GCC and 75.2% worldwide, and at the tertiary level the country’s GER is 45.9%, against a GCC average of 48% and 32.9% worldwide. For purposes of comparison with developed countries outside of the region, Germany’s tertiary GER is 61.1% while that of the US is 88.8%. This indicates considerable room for Kuwait’s tertiary education sector to grow, particularly as the state looks to enhance the skills of its growing young population with an eye on diversification.

Early Start 

Kuwait is a regional leader in preschool enrolment – a stage of education that is increasingly seen as key to preparing children for more formal school education, as well as developing their soft skills and academic capabilities. GER at the preschool level is an impressive 66.4%, more than twice the GCC average of 28.6%, above the global average of 53.8% and not far behind the US’s GER of 71.3%, according to Alpen Capital. Kuwait’s leading position is partly thanks to the fact that the government provides Kuwaiti children with free kindergarten spots between the ages of four and six. Elsewhere in the region, preschool education tends to be more often used by expatriates than nationals, according to Alpen Capital.

Enrolment across the education system, from kindergarten to the tertiary level, rose at a CAGR of 3.7% between 2009 and 2014, but tertiary education – where intake is less influenced by birth rate and more by rising capacity and policy – grew very strongly at 9.5%, according to Alpen Capital. The bank’s report also expected the number of students enrolled in schools and tertiary education institutions in Kuwait to grow at a steady annual average of 3% between 2015 and 2020, when total enrolment will reach 873,000.

The Alpen Capital report also added that the strongest expansion is expected in the primary segment, thanks to recent population growth leading to a “youth bulge” in the 6-12 age group over the next half decade. By 2020 preschool enrolment is expected to reach over 85,000, primary and secondary enrolment will top 646,700, and the tertiary level will matriculate over 141,500 students.

Private Sector

Kuwait’s private education sector is thriving, and enrolment is growing considerably more quickly than that in the public sector at 5.4% for the private system as a whole, excluding the tertiary sector, against 1.1% for government schools, according to Alpen Capital. In the private sector registrations grew at a CAGR of 4.2% between 2009 and 2014 in the pre-primary sector, 5.8% for primary schools and 5.6% at the secondary level. Comparable figures for the public sector were 0.6% for pre-primary, 2.1% for primary and 0.4% for secondary. The private sector’s expansion is expected to continue at the same pace, with enrolment growing by an annual average of 5.4% through to 2020 and students in private institutions expected to account for 45% of K-12 enrolments by 2020, according to Alpen Capital.

Most private schools in Kuwait operate on a for-profit basis. The segment contains several chains, including the Kuwait Educational Fund, a public-private joint venture between KIPCO Asset Management Company, one of Kuwait’s biggest financial groups, and the state-owned National Offset Company. Another is the long-established Educational Holding Group, which has become one of the largest private education networks in Kuwait and also runs the Gulf University of Science and Technology and the Afaq chain of schools. United Education Company, founded in 2003, operates institutions, including the American University in Kuwait (AUK) and the Al Rayan chain of K-12 schools, which have more than 10,500 pupils.

Regulating Education 

The MoE retains close regulatory oversight of the private sector, including inspections and, more contentiously, regulating fees. In May 2016 the Kuwaiti government issued a ministerial decree temporarily halting fee increases in the private system, following a recommendation by the National Assembly that fee rises be suspended pending review by a parliamentary committee and the minister of education. The recommendation came after parliamentarians criticised some private schools for increasing fees without permission. In June 2016 the government was planning to reintroduce the system of allowing private schools to increase fees by 3% annually for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.

While fee increases are regulated, fees themselves vary widely from school to school. For example, during the 2016/17 school year for the pre-primary level the Indian Community School Kuwait charged $1062 per year, the Arabic/ English-medium Al Ru’ya Bilingual School charged $6564 and fees at the Universal American School were between $7812 and $9726, according to Alpen Capital. At the primary and secondary level, the fees are $1181-1526 for the Indian Community School Kuwait, $8289-11,050 for Al Ru’ya Bilingual School and $13,015-14,840 for the Universal American School. International schools are also a vital part of the national education system, used by expatriates and Kuwaitis alike. Paul Shropshire, principal of the British School of Kuwait, told OBG that the British system is particularly popular in Kuwait, and that schools using the UK syllabus are seeing demand grow even more quickly than those offering the International Baccalaureate.

Tertiary Education 

Kuwait’s tertiary education sector is expanding strongly due to population growth, government investments in capacity, incentives for private universities to establish facilities and expand, and the policy of encouraging more Kuwaitis to take higher education and training to develop their skills. The 2014 GER of 45.9% represented an increase of more than a third from 33.4% just five years before in 2009.

While the private sector in the higher education segment has independence, the courses that such tertiary institutions provide are still shaped by the government’s labour market priorities, Amal Al Binali, vice-president for admissions and public affairs at AUK, told OBG. Yet others have suggested that the segment is somewhat constrained by multi-layered bureaucracy, with the MoE and Private Universities Council, a government committee chaired by the minister of higher education, being among the bodies overseeing private tertiary education. Nizar Hamzeh, president of AUK, echoed those sentiments and told OBG, “We believe that a robust academic sector calls for more autonomy for each respective institution within the framework of the Ministry of Higher Education.”

Foreign Students 

Similar to some other countries in the Gulf, Kuwait attracts students from around the region and further afield to study, with Kuwait University alone having several thousand foreign students. However, student visas can be difficult to obtain. Hamzeh told OBG, “To attract more international students to Kuwait we must simplify the student visa process.” Other factors that can deter overseas students are the shortage of student accommodation and courses largely tailored to the local market, Al Binali told OBG. Meanwhile, the state has encouraged its young citizens to study abroad through scholarship programmes for tertiary education in particular (see analysis).

Ready For Work 

With economic diversification and the creation of meaningful jobs for young Kuwaitis now being prioritised by the government, sector leaders are keen to ensure tertiary programmes prepare students for the demands of the workforce. Abdullah Al Sharhan, chairman of Australian College, told OBG, “We are seeing a comprehensive collaboration between the private sector and higher education to close the skills gap that students may have when entering the workforce.”

Vocational education is an important part of this agenda, preparing students for the workforce and reducing dependence on foreign specialists. “Vocational training is needed in order to allow people to specialise,” Ali Arifa, president of Box Hill College Kuwait, the country’s only private higher education institution for women, told OBG. “Currently, expatriates enter the country to do specialised jobs, and this must change.”

Performance 

Kuwait’s cultural tradition of valuing education is strong, and Kuwaitis have attended some of the world’s best universities for decades. The government has invested heavily in the sector, which has helped bring the pupil-to-teacher ratio down to some of the lowest levels in the region and provided infrastructure for schools.

However, Kuwait’s educational performance continues to rank behind that of high-income countries, as seen in the World Economic Forum’s “The Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016”. On the quality of its primary education, the state ranked 103rd out of 140 economies, 88th on the overall quality of higher education and training, 99th on mathematics and science education, and 86th on school management. On the extent of staff training Kuwait ranked 84th, 81st on the availability of internet access in schools and 112th on the availability of specialised training services.

Reform 

Well aware of the system’s shortcomings, at the beginning of this decade the government initiated the Integrated Education Reform Programme (IERP) 2011-19. The programme’s goals include improving educational outcomes, developing curricula, enhancing the effectiveness of teaching and school leadership, and making the system as a whole more effective and accountable. “Given the increasing number of graduates in Kuwait yearly, and the fact that they are the future pillars of any nation, training and development are crucial. We must aim to meet and excel in providing the needs of national manpower via high quality services to ensure improvements in the country’s efficiency and economy,” Riyadh Al Saleh, president and CEO of Blue Horizon Centre, told OBG.

In March 2015 the MoE and the NCED, in partnership with the World Bank, launched a five-year technical cooperation agreement to drive forward educational reform in conjunction with the IERP. Priorities include capacity building, improving the quality of teaching and monitoring the impact of reforms on both students and schools. The programme builds on a first-phase, World Bank-supported project to identify and assess the variables associated with educational outcomes and to develop a framework for reform.

The World Bank’s work on educational reform in Kuwait dates back to a 2003 public expenditure review, which recommended better data collection and monitoring, new approaches to budgeting and finance, and enhanced learning assessment. These recommendations were implemented by the MoE in conjunction with the bank under the Kuwait Education Indicators and Assessment Project. Since then, the shift has been towards teaching quality, leadership and management.

Concrete Improvements

The phase launched in 2015 focuses on implementation of teaching-oriented reform, and building capacity both in the MoE and the NCED in terms of policy making, decision-making and the execution of the reform programme. The programme was developed by Kuwaiti authorities, with the World Bank’s help, to ensure that it was tailored to the country’s needs and values, with 130 specialists working on the project. The programme has developed a new integrated curriculum for K-12 in all subjects, and is standards- and competence-based, as well as being child-centred. MoE officials have drawn up complimentary plans on implementing and communicating the new curriculum, including teaching plans and operational guidelines.

Pilot projects in 48 schools have focused on streamlined governance, better-defined roles for principals and teachers, student support, and school improvement units for collecting and analysing performance data. The pilots encouraged greater use of data in lesson planning and more effective organisation at the school level, with the result, the World Bank said, of better community involvement, teaching practices and pupil performance. The MoE and NCED have trained teams to help lead and drive these changes, improving knowledge transfer across the sector. Groups of school principals have also been formed and now work as ambassadors for reform at the school level.

The bank also emphasises Kuwait’s ownership of the reform programme, and its role as a facilitator, rather than an implementer. The next half-decade looks set to be an important phase for Kuwait’s education reform programme. The framework and personnel are in place to implement wide-reaching reforms that can match the government’s investment and make real improvements to educational outcomes at a time when the need to equip young Kuwaitis with skills is more pressing than ever.

New Programme 

With Kuwait’s population expected to grow by 2.8% a year until 2020, pressure on existing schools is growing, and the government is determined to keep pace with demand, while ensuring that quality improves. Under the state’s public-private partnership (PPP) programme, recently overhauled to strengthen its appeal to investors, the government is initiating an ambitious school-building programme. The MoE and PPP agency Partnerships Technical Bureau are overseeing the Kuwait Schools Development Programme (KSDP), which will see the construction of nine schools with a capacity for 4350 pupils around Kuwait City. The programme will include five kindergartens, three elementary schools and a middle school, as well as a residential building for staff and an Olympic-sized swimming pool for pupils.

The project was initiated in early 2014 and requests for proposal were due to be submitted by the end of June 2016 – as of late July 2016 the project had not released further details. The contractor will be responsible for financing, designing and building the schools, followed by a 25-year concession for property management and maintenance. However, the schools will remain government-run, with the MoE appointing staff and determining the curriculum. The KSDP is not yet an educational PPP along the lines developed elsewhere in the region, such as Abu Dhabi, where some public schools have been taken over by private contractors with management control and direction over the teaching staff in a bid to raise teaching quality.

Outlook 

Kuwait’s drive for economic diversification and the development of knowledge-intensive sectors to provide jobs for its young population makes education a priority. The public education system provides the basics solidly, but the goal is now to make schooling not just good, but excellent. International institutions supporting reform and the private sector have central roles to play. Private schools have blossomed in recent years and their role looks set to increase further, while private universities and vocational education institutions should also have the scope to expand in order to meet rising demand. While regulatory and budget challenges exist, they have not prevented private institutions from flourishing, and the private sector has an increasingly vital role to play.

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The Report: Kuwait 2016

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