School spirit: Broad reforms designed to prepare students for the labour market

Major investments in schools and universities have highlighted Oman’s commitment to revamping its education system according to the needs of a diversified, knowledge-based economy. The government has spearheaded initiatives targeting higher education, vocational programmes and research facilities. As part of Oman’s eighth five-year plan (2011-15), public expenditure on education is expected to increase by 48% compared to the previous plan (2006-11), from OR4bn ($10.36bn) to OR5.9bn ($15.28bn). In 2013 the education portfolio was allocated OR1.34bn ($3.47bn), representing 10% of the total annual budget, 16% higher than in 2012. A range of education projects will benefit from this rise in public spending, including 28 new schools as well as more provision for schoolteachers, scholarships, and vocational and IT training programmes.

Government Schools

In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said came to power, the entirety of the sultanate was home to three formal schools, educating fewer than 1000 students and employing fewer than 30 teachers. According to the latest Ministry of Education (MoE) statistics, there are now well over 1000 schools across Oman, around 90% of which are government-run, providing education in a three-tiered general education system, at primary, preparatory and secondary levels. In the late 1990s, the state launched a two-tiered Basic Education Programme, refocusing the curriculum on English, mathematics, information and communications technology (ICT) and applied sciences. Funding for the reformed system has enabled students to benefit from improved facilities, reduced class sizes and teachers with upgraded qualifications.

According to a 2011 MoE review, 79% of schools have adopted the new framework, under which pupils study for 10 years at the basic level and then proceed to a four-semester, two-year programme at the post-basic level. The post-basic level enables students to specialise in a specific field to acquire practical skills before entering higher education or the workforce. The government school system as a whole, according to official data in 2011, accommodates 522,540 students and 45,142 teachers. The latest development figures from UNESCO indicate the youth literacy rate (ages 15-24) to be around 98% and the total adult literacy rate approaching 90%. The gross enrolment ratio at primary level is over 100%, and approximately 50% of enrolled government school students are female.

Private Schools

The MoE encourages the development of private schools, and since 2000, the number of private facilities has increased from 132 to 387, with total student enrolment today approaching nearly 65,000. There are now roughly 4500 private school teachers, of whom close to 2000 are Omani. Owners of private schools are required to be Omani nationals and must have been awarded a secondary school certificate. Except for expatriate community schools which follow the curriculum of their home country, private school curricula and examinations mirror those of the government system. Muscat is home to a majority of private schools, with 153 located in the Muscat governorate alone. Annual fees for non-community private schools range from OR3900 ($10,100) to OR8300 ($21,500) for grade 12. In the higher education segment, state incentives have led to a steady rise in new private universities and colleges entering the market.

Tertiary Education Providers

As of 2011, according to the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), there were 27 private universities and colleges with an enrolment of approximately 35,000 students. The government supports investment by new private players by offering land grants, Customs exemptions and a matching grant of 50% of capital contribution to a maximum amount of OR3m ($7.77m). Any privately owned higher education institution must operate under a MoHE licence and is required to be affiliated with a reputable international university. Most affiliations are with institutions in the UK, the US, Australia and India.

Among the major private higher education institutions are the University of Nizwa (5244 students), the Middle East College of Information Technology (2623 students) and the Caledonian College of Engineering (CCE, 2687 students). Engineering is the most sought-after private degree programme in Oman, reflecting the economic centrality of the oil and gas sector, followed by ICT, business administration and the health sciences. The oldest private engineering college, the CCE, was audited in early 2013 by a team from Curtin University in Australia, who deemed the quality of education at the CCE “on par with leading international engineering programmes”, according to Ahmed Hassan Al Bulushi, the college’s acting dean. “The next step in bolstering the technical capacity of Omani students is for local industry to invest in training programmes to refine the practical skills of our students,” Al Bulushi told OBG.

Government Higher Education

Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) is presently the sole state university in Oman. It is located in Muscat and boasts nine colleges and approximately 17,000 students. SQU is complemented by about 30 other government-run higher education institutions, including seven colleges of technology (under the auspices of the Ministry of Manpower, MoM); six colleges of applied sciences (overseen by the MoHE); 13 health education institutes (under the Ministry of Health); the College of Banking and Financial Studies (run by the Central Bank of Oman); the Ministry of Defence’s Military Technology College and a religious institute, which is administered by the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs.

While the highest concentration of schools and colleges is in Muscat, public institutions are also found in five other governorates: Al Dakhiliyah, Al Sharqiyah, Al Dhahirah, Al Batinah and Dhofar. There are also new developments in the school system. With a newly invigorated MoE budget, a boost is expected in the coming years with new schools participating in the Basic Education Programme. Schools in Al Buraimi, Al Dakhiliyah, Mahdha and Ibri will all follow the new programme.

Quality Assurance

According to the CIA World Factbook, over 50% of Oman’s population is under 24 years old in 2013. This high figure emphasises the need to improve the quality of education across Oman, as a diversified economy demands a greater degree of professional specialisation. To address these concerns, the government has tailored its recent quality assurance initiatives to accommodate rising need for education while aligning the requirements of the labour market and post-graduate training programmes.

For instance, institutions that intend to submit new programmes for licensing are required to provide market needs analyses showing demand for these skills in the workplace as part of this process. Further, the interface between higher education and the labour market is being strengthened, with many institutions setting up industry liaison boards and inviting industry representatives to their governing bodies.

“The gap between the skills of Omani graduates and those required by the workforce must be bridged. By building a foundation on strong English, IT and maths skills we are preparing graduates for the working world,” Mona Fahad Al Said, assistant vice-chancellor for external cooperation at SQU, told OBG.

Setting Standards

In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos first came to power, there were no higher education institutions (HEIs) in the country. Students interested in pursuing a graduate degree were therefore required to do so internationally, typically opting to study in Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, the UK or the US. SQU was established in 1986, and in the mid-to-late 1990s a number of private colleges opened, followed by new private universities and more private colleges in the first decade of the 21st century. Having largely met the need for access, it was time to concentrate on quality. By 2001, the Oman Accreditation Council (OAC) was established under the aegis of the MoHE with a mandate to ensure that all current and future HEIs would meet internationally recognised accreditation standards.

In 2004 the first iteration of HEI standards was developed as part of the OAC’s Requirements for Oman’s System of Quality Assurance (ROSQA). However, by 2006, reviews carried out in multiple institutions demonstrated that the sector still needed further assistance to meet the standards set out in ROSQA. A Draft Quality Plan was developed in 2006 to revise the ROSQA, and the current two-tiered approach, which consists of a quality audit alongside a standards assessment for institutional accreditation, was adopted.

In 2010 the OAC was replaced by the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) and granted full autonomy as the regulator for external quality assurance of HEIs. Reporting to the Council of Higher Education, the OAAA is responsible for institutional quality audits and standards assessments as well as the accreditation of individual programmes. Quality audits are conducted at the individual institution and standards assessments measure quality according to international benchmarks, resulting in institutions being awarded an accreditation certificate. As of June 2013, more than 50 HEIs had undergone the initial part of the institutional accreditation process and 33 reports had been published on the OAAA’s website. According to the OAAA, by the end of 2013, 80% of HEIs will have completed the quality audit process. HEIs that pass the standards assessment receive full accreditation by the OAAA. Programme accreditation standards will also be developed in parallel with the institutional accreditation process, with private colleges required to have an overseas affiliation partner to support the quality assurance of their programmes.

Standards are also being reviewed across the sector. In January 2013, Maven International, in partnership with the University of Auckland (UniServices) won a nine-month contract to conduct a total review of Oman’s education system from grades 1-12. The audit team comprises 11 consultants from New Zealand and 11 from Oman, with four of the New Zealanders based in Oman throughout the duration of the project. According to Maven, Madeeha bint Ahmed bin Nassir al Shibaniyah, Oman’s minister of education, has taken on personal responsibility for the project and designated it as the highest priority for the ministry in 2013.

Future Challenges

While significant progress has taken place with respect to the development of Oman’s educational framework, the country now faces a number of hurdles, such as English-language skills, workplace preparedness and disproportionate gender achievement (girls are on average achieving higher grades). In a joint World Bank and MoE report, “Education in Oman: The Drive for Quality”, published in October 2012, a number of international and local education experts highlighted these items of concern.

“Oman has moved from a very small education system, which was run by expatriates, to one which is now run by Omanis,” said World Bank consultant Aidan Mullein. “We work with a lot of countries and no other country has expanded from such a low base to a higher one in a short span of time. The not-so-good news is about the quality of education.” According to the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” report for 2007-11, Omani students tend to fall behind their international counterparts in mathematics and science. Although Oman outscores its regional peers in educational standards, the report has suggested that greater international collaboration will be an important resource for the country in the near term.

English Language

Almost half of the students at SQU cannot complete their degree programmes in the designated time span and have to take additional English-language courses to boost their skills, in spite of taking a year or two of foundation studies to improve their English. A two-year SQU study discovered that only 14% of new entrants in 2011 passed the English language test. Yet as English proficiency becomes an increasingly core professional skill in a globalised economy, especially in the oil and gas sector, the country has responded to the gap through improved English studies in basic, post-basic and foundation programmes.

The MoHE is raising academic standards to make students more competitive on the labour market, and the government is also expected to increase teaching resources for pre-university level education to develop a better foundation for Omani students. “General English-language courses aren’t enough these days,” Jabir P O, manager of operations at the Polyglot Institute, told OBG. “To be competitive in the labour market, work-specific English-language skills are necessary, which is why enrolment in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses have continued to rise in 2013.”

Supporting Research

To enhance the country’s research capabilities, The Research Council (TRC), established by royal decree in 2005, was tasked with supporting research and innovation in the sultanate. TRC acts as the government’s research policymaking arm and as a funding agency for certain projects. According to Hilal Ali Al Hinai, secretary-general of TRC, the government-approved Research Strategy targets a national expenditure of 1% of GDP in the current five-year plan (2011-15), increasing to 2% by 2020.

“This is a significant amount of investment compared to what we currently spend, which is estimated at around 0.2% of GDP. Research capacity will therefore be the greatest constraint in terms of spending these financial resources,” said Al Hinai.

Between 2010 and 2012, TRC has funded about 60 research projects pertaining to six issues of national importance: health and social development; education and human resources; environmental and biological resources; ICT; energy and industry; and culture, social and basic sciences. TRC is increasing its efforts to secure international collaboration for local research projects, partnering with Charles River Associates International to devise a strategy. For example, Oman’s Information Technology Authority (ITA) recently partnered with Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority for a joint e-Education seminar in early 2013. Officials from six different Singaporean ICT companies, as well as the Nanyang Technological University travelled to Oman to share their expertise at the seminar, which discussed how technology could complement higher education and ways to strengthen the learning environment for all stakeholders. A number of universities, including SQU, are also developing links with TRC to raise their research profiles, and an analysis of the first 25 quality audit reports has suggested that a number of such institutions are beginning to include research as part of their strategic plans.

E-Learning Boost

The integration of ICT into all professions is rapidly increasing, and ICT education has been earmarked for improvement. To adequately prepare students to enter the workforce with a competitive ICT skills set, the sultanate has taken on a number of e-learning initiatives to bolster student achievement. Findings from quality audit reports have pointed to a growing use of technology in the classroom, including online testing, interactive whiteboards and the use of software to detect plagiarism.

The Basic Education Programme curriculum, adopted in 79% of school systems across Oman as of 2011, puts great emphasis on computer interaction from the first grade, and by now, a majority of secondary schools have been equipped with computer labs. At higher levels, many HEIs have adopted e-learning programmes for professional training purposes, while non-degree training programmes are becoming more readily available, such as through the Polyglot Institute’s IT training lab, which currently enrols nearly 1000 students focusing on ICT skills. SQU has also developed a Centre for Educational Technology, which has most recently committed resources towards rolling out e-learning services through each of its nine colleges.

In the government sector, the ITA oversees the National IT Training and Awareness programme, which was launched in 2008 to prepare the civil service and the general population with relevant ICT skills. The programme is conducted through two major schemes, the Government IT Training and Certification project and the Community IT Training Project (CITTP). As of 2011, approximately 45,000 civil servants had participated in the training, and by 2014, the project aims to have trained around 100,000–120,000 citizens in basic ICT literacy skills. Through the CITTP, the ITA also aims to enhance ICT skills among the public through its Community Knowledge Centres.

Vocational Skills

To address the needs of the burgeoning youth population and the growing demand for skilled labour throughout the sultanate, enhanced vocational training has become a core component of the MoM’s development strategy. Accordingly, under the eighth five-year plan (2011-15), OR27.2m ($70.4m) has been allocated to strengthening existing training programmes, and an additional OR26.9m ($69.7m) has gone towards establishing new technical colleges and training centres across the sultanate.

Today, the MoM manages the Higher College of Technology in Muscat and six regional technology colleges across Oman – in Salalah, Nizwa, Musanna, Ibra, Shinas and Ibri. Six of these colleges have been through the OAAA’s quality audit process. Enrolment in the technical college network has increased significantly, measured at approximately 24,000 students in 2010, and the government continues to allocate resources to each college based on the demands of the labour market. In April 2013, the MoM signed three training agreements with local non-governmental organisation Jusoor and Brazilian iron company Vale to train 153 citizens at a cost of OR1.2m ($3.05m). According to Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasir Al Bakri, the minister of manpower, the agreements are intended to train Omani nationals, particularly from Al Batinah North governorate, in vocations such as welding, metal fabrication, industrial sewing and other skills. Such agreements are intended to further incentivise private companies to invest in preparing Omanis for the labour market.

Outlook

While challenges remain with respect to improving educational standards, research opportunities, and English-language training, Oman’s education sector has demonstrated tenacity in accommodating the country’s growing youth population and enhancing the quality of its education system at all levels.

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