New initiatives in Bahrain's education sector target higher standards, appropriate skills


As Bahrain continues to move from an oil-dependent economy to a more knowledge-based one, education is taking a driving seat in training the next generation of young Bahraini citizens in how to prosper in this new landscape. While education has long been a priority, the focus right now is on raising overall standards, from primary education on up. Perhaps the biggest changes taking place are in the field of higher education, with a new accreditation system being put in place by the Bahrain Higher Education Council (HEC), and the arrival of foreign universities offering courses both in partnership with domestic universities as well as at their own local campuses (see analysis).

BACKGROUND: Bahrain has the oldest public education system in the Gulf, with the first modern school in the region established in Bahrain in 1919, and with the first girls’ school in the area also opening in the kingdom less than a decade later in 1928.

Education forms a key part of Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030, the long-term development strategy that aims to push the country forward over the next decade and a half. A highly educated workforce is seen as key to expanding sectors of the economy such as IT and financial services. The kingdom is working hard to raise standards and performance across its schools, vocational institutions and universities, as well as to tailor the skills being taught with labour market needs, in order to expand the number of locals in the private sector workforce and reduce the need for expatriate staff.

FUNDING: Between 2006 and 2016 the government’s allocated budget for the sector grew at an annual rate of 8%, according to a 2016 GCC education industry report by Alpen Capital, to reach BD325.7m ($863.9m) in 2016, accounting for 8.8% of the total budget. Despite this, education spending as a percentage of GDP remains low compared to the rest of the region, with the GCC average estimated at 15.6% for 2016. Saudi Arabia led the field with 22.8% of its budgeted government expenditure going towards education.

STRUCTURE: Education is compulsory between the ages of six and 14, with students required to attend either a state school or a private institution licensed and certified by the Ministry of Education (MoE). Education is provided free of charge for both Bahraini and expatriate students within the public school system, and as of 2015 the kingdom had a literacy rate of over 99%, according to UNESCO, among the highest in the Arab world, on the back of its compulsory education.

For the 2014/15 academic year Bahrain had a total of 207 government schools, 74 private schools and 14 universities, according to MoE figures. A 2016 report by Alpen Capital suggested that 7000 schools will be required throughout the GCC region by 2020 to meet growing population demands, with the number in Bahrain needing to rise to 503.

One major new school project currently under construction is Hamad Intermediate School for Boys, which as of August 2016 was 90% complete. The BD3.8m ($10.1m) school will be able to accommodate up to 1000 students and is part of five schools being financed by the Saudi Development Fund in Bahrain. These also include Malkiya Intermediate School for Girls, Busaiteen Intermediate School for Girls, Hunainiya Secondary School for Boys and Isa Town Primary School for Boys. Hamad Intermediate School for Boys has been designed taking into account green building practices, and will feature multi-purpose laboratories for science and computers, sports halls, cafeterias and offices for teaching and administrative faculties.

OVERSIGHT: In addition to the MoE, the education system in Bahrain is monitored and overseen by the Education & Training Quality Authority (generally known as the BQA), which was created in 2008 with a mandate to review the quality of the education and training in the kingdom based on criteria and standards set and published by the authority. The BQA carries out quality reviews for public and private schools, vocational and training institutions, higher education institutions and their academic programmes. The authority also conducts national examinations for years three, six, nine and 12. The body assesses, among other things, classroom and school management, with the results published openly and made accessible online. In 2012 the BQA mandate was expanded to include managing the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). This involves listing the education and training institutions and assigning them qualifications in accordance with NQF standards, levels and level descriptors, and linking the outcomes of qualifications with the requirements of domestic, regional and international labour markets.

In its National Higher Education Strategy 2014-24, the long-term plan for the segment, the HEC prioritised increasing the different pathways to post-secondary education, the number of students enrolled in fields of study related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the number of foreign students, and the number of graduate programmes on offer, improving the number of professionally qualified teaching staff working at higher education institutes, as well as promoting the effective use of technology.

IN FIGURES: Basic education is split into three stages, with primary education lasting from ages six to 11, middle school from 11 to 14, and secondary school from 15 to 17. Compulsory education finishes at 14, but the vast majority of students stay on to complete their secondary education. According to the latest available MoE statistics, in the 2014/15 academic year there were 107,420 primary pupils, of which 68,985 attended government schools, while 38,435 attended private schools. Of the total, 52,740 were female and 54,680 male. With regards to middle schools, a total of 46,633 students were enrolled in the 2014/15 academic year, of which 33,385 went to a public school and 13,248 attended private institutions. In the last stage of basic education, 41,374 pupils attended secondary school, of which 24,853 were enrolled at government schools and 9855 at private schools. An additional 6666 students attended a government vocation and technical school instead of a standard secondary school.

A total of 35,423 children were enrolled in nursery schools or kindergartens in the 2014/15 academic year. The kingdom had 112 kindergartens at that time, as well as 23 nurseries and 16 combined nurseries and kindergartens. In June 2016 Majid bin Ali Al Nuaimi, the minister of education, met with representatives from the UN Development Programme to discuss ways to improve cooperation regarding the development of the kindergarten sector in the kingdom, with the MoE pushing a new strategy of early education focused on building national values and life skills among children.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS: Due to more than half of the kingdom’s population being expatriates, as well as rising incomes among Bahrainis, there is a strong demand for private education. For the 2014/15 academic year Bahrain had 74 non-nursery private schools, up one from the year before. In August 2016 the MoE agreed to grant licences to a further 17 private educational institutions, comprising nine schools and eight kindergartens. One school and three kindergartens were due to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, while the others would come into operation at a later date.

Almost half of the 74 private schools in operation are international schools, many offering classes in English and following the curricula of other countries: namely, the UK, the US, India, France and other Arab states.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Gulf Technical College, established in 1968, was the first tertiary education institution to open its doors in Bahrain. Since then the number of public and private universities has grown significantly to accommodate the needs of Bahraini and international students. There are three public universities operating in the kingdom, the University of Bahrain (UoB), Arabian Gulf University and Bahrain Polytechnic. In 1984 Gulf Technical College was combined with several other institutions to form UoB, which now has around 20,000 students enrolled and is the largest higher education institution in the country.

UoB, which includes Bahrain Teachers College and College of Health Sciences, has three campuses: a main one at Sakhir, which is home to seven of the university’s colleges, a secondary one at Isa Town for the Colleges of Engineering and Applied Science, and one at Salmaniya, where the College of Health Sciences is located. In addition, in April 2015 Bahrain’s parliament approved a new UoB campus in Muharraq. Bahrain Polytechnic, founded in 2008, currently shares the Isa Town campus with UoB, offering business, engineering, visual design, ICT and humanities bachelor degrees and courses.

Bahrain’s other public university, Arabian Gulf University, opened in 1979 as an institute of higher education, co-owned by all of the Gulf states and accessible to any Gulf national. The university consists of the College of Medicine and Medical Sciences; the College of Graduate Studies, which focuses on special-education training and technical studies; and the French Arabian Business School, established in 2007 in partnership with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The school offers a Masters of Business Administration in English.

PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES: Private universities started appearing in Bahrain in 2001, with the opening of Ahlia University, University College of Bahrain (UCB), Gulf University and The Kingdom University. Over the following decade 12 private universities have opened in Bahrain. This wave of higher education institution (HEI) development, starting at the turn of the 21st century can be linked to the kingdom’s attempts to transition to a more knowledge-based economy.

The thriving HEI segment has led to challenges related to quality control, however, which is currently being addressed by the establishment of a national higher education accreditation system (see analysis).

The first private university licensed by the government, Ahlia University, currently offers 17 degrees in subjects ranging from business and engineering to IT, interior design and mass communications, with around 2500 students currently enrolled, 54% of whom are female. In 2016 the university added a marketing, media and public relations department, formed by bringing together the digital and branding office, marketing and public relations and the Media Production Centre. In February 2016 Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the prime minister, laid the foundation stone for the university’s new campus, being built in the Northern City, which will help the university grow further in terms of student population and reputation. Expected to be completed in 2018, the new campus will likely raise the university’s student population from 2500 to 10,000.

UCB, which conducts courses entirely in English, specialises in business administration, communications and IT. Meanwhile, in 2004 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland opened a medical school in Bahrain, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical University Bahrain. The new facility offers both graduate and post-graduate courses to hospital managers, doctors and nursing staff. The school has drawn in students from across the region, while the faculty is predominantly from the UK and Ireland.

UCB also informed OBG that it is had engaged strategic partners from across the GCC to cooperate on a new campus in Sakheer with a capacity of 10,000 students. The campus is expected to be operational by 2019.

There is also the Royal University for Women, founded in 2005. Its degrees range from art and design, to law, IT and business, designed with academic input from the UK’s Middlesex University and McGill University in Canada. Meanwhile, Applied Science University (ASU), set up in 2004, has 24 bachelor’s and master’s programmes.

ROLE OF HEI: The rise in the number of private universities has come at a time when many more Bahrainis are pursuing higher education, with the HEC estimating that the number of students enrolled in post-secondary education in Bahrain will rise by 20,000 before 2025.

“The role of higher education is crucial to the economic development of Bahrain,” Assem Al Hajj, vice-president for academic affairs and development at ASU, told OBG. “Higher education helps drive economic development by improving productivity and increasing innovation in the workplace. Higher education contributes to diversification in the economy by bringing people and money into the country in an increasingly globalised and competitive world,” he added.

However, work remains towards getting students into the right fields of study to grow the economy. Few students in the Bahraini higher education system are enrolled in STEM-based courses. In 2014 the HEC reported that only 10% of students were enrolled in STEM fields, while 60% were in business-related programmes. In addition, only 1% of students were engaged in PhD studies. With the HEC further noting that those graduating from STEM courses around the world are on the whole more entrepreneurial – 30-40% of start-ups in Bangalore and Beijing are founded by STEM graduates, for example – Bahrain will certainly benefit from these kinds of graduates.

The sector is also targeting an increase in international students. In 2012, 21% of the student population in post-secondary education was made up of foreign students, joint highest in the world alongside Australia, according to the HEC’s 2012 annual report. However, in recent years the lack of accreditation at HEIs has kept some students away. This will hopefully be rectified by the new higher education accreditation system (see analysis), which can boost its regional status.

RESEARCH: Most graduate degrees are lecture-based rather than research-based. Even though higher education regulations state that universities must put 3% of their income into research, research and development remains in a nascent stage. “To ensure strong research you have to provide adequate funds,” said Al Hajj from ASU, which in both 2014 and 2015 was the top private university in Bahrain when it came to research spending.

One option currently being considered is stronger partnerships between academia and industries. “There is not enough funding allocated for research right now,” said Al Hajj. “Applied research in collaboration with industry results in the design, development and production of new or improved processes, products and services. Research partnerships with industry will result in more efficient businesses and more jobs. It is a way forward we are trying to develop,” he added. 

VOCATIONAL TRAINING: Vocational training is playing an important role as the government pushes for greater Bahrainisation of the workforce. While the government levies a monthly charge on employers for every expatriate worker, which goes to fund training for Bahrainis, greater skills training is required to get Bahrainis ready for jobs currently occupied by expats. It is also important as Bahrain develops its ICT sector.

“Where Bahrain is right now is focusing on specialised skills. It is moving to niche markets, whether that be financial, industrial or logistics. People are looking for training solutions that can deliver skill sets that are immediately useful in those industries,” Manaf Al Anni, director at Berlitz Bahrain, which trains around 3000 Bahrainis a year, told OBG.

“Workplace education is a big opportunity. Anything related to ICT is a very hot market,” Feras Alsaadi, business development manager at ThinkSmart, a local vocational IT training institute, told OBG. “IT courses, the cloud, software, these are the big markets. Also management courses like project management, risk management, accountancy courses, MBAs,” he added, while also saying that competition in the vocational training market has grown. “In 2000 we had around 25 private institutes for training, now we have 72 private companies. There is a lot of competition.”

Many of these private educational companies rely on funding from Tamkeen, a government training fund established in 2006 that works with employers to place Bahrainis into in-house or on-the-job training schemes. Tamkeen covers a significant portion of the costs of courses and training programmes for Bahrainis. To date Tamkeen’s initiatives have served more than 130,000 Bahrainis and businesses.

EQUALITY: In 2010 Bahrain became the first Arab country to realise its commitment to equality in education, according to the UNESCO Education for All Development Index, which is little surprise as the kingdom has a long tradition of promoting female education. At UoB, the largest university in the kingdom, 65% of students currently enrolled are female, while women account for around 35% of the overall workforce in Bahrain, and dominate professions like teaching.

UTILISING TECHNOLOGY: Technology is increasingly playing a larger role in education in Bahrain, and the government is pushing for the greater use of technologies like tablets and smartphones in the classroom. “A top priority is to get the best technology available for our classrooms, making sure that we can address the needs of every student individually,” Majid bin Ali Al-Nuaimi, Minister of Education, told OBG.

Students in public schools have been provided with computers through initiatives such as the 2004 King Hamad Schools of the Future project, while the MoE has pushed to train teachers, administrators and specialists in using IT. In February 2015 Bahrain signed an Education Transitional Agreement with Microsoft to make better use of technology in schools.

At a university level, UCB, founded in 2001 as a private education institution, announced in August 2016 that it had teamed up with D2L, a global learning technology provider, to deploy D2L’s cloud-based learning management system, Brightspace. “Our vision for the UCB is to enable each student to learn on their mobile device, tablet or laptop and be able to connect to campus technologies, access learning resources, review grades and receive feedback,” Sheikh Abdulla K Al Khalifa, executive director of technology and innovation at UCB, told local media at the time. “The advanced analytics capabilities in Brightspace enable us to identify students who are at risk, track critical gaps in knowledge and personalise learning objectives,” he added.

OUTLOOK: Due to the government’s efforts to focus on improving the quality of education as well as the rise of private educational facilities as part of the overall landscape, the sector is likely to continue to develop and expand. The greater emphasis being placed on STEM-related fields of study, research-based learning at universities and the utilisation of modern technology in the classroom will move the kingdom further towards its aim of becoming a knowledge-based economy.


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The Report: Bahrain 2017

Education chapter from The Report: Bahrain 2017

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