Enhancing Kuwait’s education system constitutes a key plank of the country’s long-term development strategy, known as Kuwait Vision 2035. This plan envisages a range of capital and human investments with a view to diversifying the economy and transforming Kuwait into a regional commercial centre by 2035. To this end, reforming education has become a priority.
One year after the discovery of oil in Kuwait in 1938, the government moved to set up a public education system. From there, schools began to develop rapidly, and by 1960, the year before independence, the state was educating some 45,000 pupils, of whom 40% were female. The constitution of 1962 later defined education as a fundamental right of citizens. Kuwait’s present education system, like that of many others in the Arab world, is based on the Egyptian model, partly because Egypt was a major source of teaching staff for countries looking to develop their own education systems in the wake of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 2012/13 academic year, Kuwait counted 598,765 pupils in 1325 schools and specialised institutes. Of these, roughly 358,000 were in the state system, 236,000 were in private schools and 4500 were in vocational or religious institutes, split between 797 state schools, 488 private schools, 11 religious institutes and 29 vocational institutes.
In demographic terms, Kuwait has a young and growing population. The portion of Kuwaiti nationals under the age of 15 was 37% in 2013, according to the Public Authority for Civil Information. The total population has been growing by about 4-5% a year for the past decade, mostly due to immigration and a relatively high birth rate (the fertility rate was 2.6 in 2012, according to the World Bank, well above the average for such developed regions). In a broader measure, the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures education along with many other development indicators, Kuwait was ranked 63rd globally in 2011, and fourth out of six GCC countries.
The state school system is operated by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and structured in four stages: nursery (ages 4-6), primary (6-10), middle (10-14) and secondary (14-18). Education is compulsory between the ages of six and 14 and is free for all Kuwaiti nationals. In December 2013, the government was reportedly considering converting the MoE from a full-fledged ministry to a public authority – a statutory body free of political control. Over the past few years, parliamentary politics in Kuwait have been somewhat turbulent, with frequent changes of government and reshuffles of Cabinet posts. The result has been a succession of education ministers who have not remained in post long enough to implement reform plans, resulting in a kind of administrative stasis. Moving to the public authority model would insulate the education system from this turmoil and allow reforms to be implemented without disturbance from political developments. As of mid-2014, however, no firm decision on this proposal had been taken.
To meet the projected rise in pupil numbers, the National Development Plan envisages major investments of KD109m ($383.25m) in the education sector. The bulk of this is set to go to refurbishing old schools and constructing 100 new ones, some of which will be public-private partnerships (PPPs) on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) model. However, these plans have stalled and many of the new schools remain in the planning stage, with tenders not yet awarded.
Kuwait has a large expatriate population – some 2.72m out of about 3.97m, according to the Public Authority for Civil Information – whose children do not qualify for education in the state system and must therefore attend private schools. The MoE regulates all private schools, of which there are a variety of systems on offer. These can be grouped into Western schools (mostly following the US or British systems, though there is also a French lycée), Arab or bilingual schools (usually offering instruction in Arabic and English) and Asian schools (typically following the systems of India, Pakistan or the Philippines). Broadly speaking, the Western schools tend to be the most prestigious and command the highest fees, followed by the Arab and bilingual schools, then the Asian ones.
While many private schools in Europe and North America have their origins in religious or charitable foundations, and work on a non-profit basis, in Kuwait this sort of legal structure does not exist. Private schools operate on an explicitly for-profit model, and many are held by holding companies, some of which are traded on the local stock exchange. Among the biggest companies are the Educational Holding Company (EHG), the Kuwait Education Fund (KEF) and the United Education Company (UEC).
EHG, founded in 1982, is one of the largest private providers in the region, with interests in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Kuwait and beyond. These include Gulf University of Science and Technology and the Afaq or “Horizons” chain of schools. KEF was developed on a PPP basis by KIPCO Asset Management Company, one of Kuwait’s largest financial services groups, and the state-owed National Offset Company, at an initial investment of KD5.8m ($20.4m). UEC, founded in 2003, operates a number of tertiary institutions, including the American University of Kuwait (AUK). In 2012, it diversified by purchasing an 82% share in Al Rayan Holding, which runs a network of six schools with a total of more than 10,000 pupils.
There is a slow but discernible trend of more Kuwaiti children attending private schools rather than state ones, with Kuwaiti’s now accounting for 30% of students at private schools. This is not just a question of the cachet attached to certain private schools; it is also because private schools tend to be stronger in the teaching of English (if weaker in Arabic), while standards in maths and science are regarded as broadly the same in the public and private sectors.
Private schools are generally able to achieve decent revenues, although the development of new schools remains a challenge. School fees are regulated by the MoE, and companies can usually generate returns of about 10-15% a year. The price and availability of land, however, constitute an issue for private education providers. Private schools are often built on a BOT basis, and lead times tend to be long. Obtaining land for new schools can be challenging, as is the case for many other businesses. In Kuwait, all undeveloped land belongs to the state, and much is reserved for energy or military purposes. The process by which land is released to would-be developers is slow and bureaucratic, and land tends to be distributed in small plots, which in turn drives up the price per sq metre. This means that builders of private schools can face delays on their expansion plans due to the difficulty of obtaining sites upon which to build facilities.
Public Higher Education
Tertiary education in Kuwait is regulated by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). Kuwait University (KU), founded in 1966, is the only public university in the country and offers a full range of academic degrees at its 16 colleges, including a graduate studies college. In the second semester of the 2012/13 academic year, according to the Central Statistical Bureau (CSB), KU had 34,040 students: 9185 Kuwaiti males, 20,826 Kuwaiti females, 1580 non-Kuwaiti males and 2439 non-Kuwaiti females. KU is considered the most prestigious institute of higher learning in the country, with a local reputation for high standards of teaching and relatively stringent entry requirements. There are plans for a new $5.8bn campus, the 6m-sq-metre Sabah Al Salem University City, which is set to be finished by 2015.
There are also plans for a second public institution, the Jaber Al Ahmed University. Approved by parliament in April 2012, the new campus is set to open by 2015 and will offer basic education, engineering, administration and law, as well as colleges linked to vocational training bodies. In 2013, the National Assembly also recommended the adoption of a centralised admissions body, the founding of a public authority to monitor quality in universities, and the establishment of a university dedicated to the hydrocarbons industry, on the lines of the well-regarded King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals located in Saudi Arabia.
Private Higher Education
As the only public university, KU has long been unable to meet all of the demand for higher education in Kuwait from students who have passed their secondary school examinations. For this reason, and because of the difficulty in obtaining visas to study internationally, the private sector has stepped in to fill the gap.
Private universities tend to offer degrees in subjects such as business administration, engineering and economics, which are popular in Kuwait and often oversubscribed in the public system. Additionally, many offer studies in the humanities in an effort to provide a more well-rounded education. As with schools, private Kuwaiti universities are legally obliged to be held by a for-profit company, though their chief mission must remain the dissemination of knowledge. To ensure that standards are maintained, the Private Universities Council of Kuwait, a regulatory body, requires that all private universities have a partnership agreement with a university abroad as a condition of accreditation.
Kuwait has nine private universities, including the AUK, Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST), the American University of the Middle East, the Arab Open University, the Australian College of Kuwait, the American College of the Middle East and Box Hill College Kuwait. AUK, now in its 10th year, counts about 2400 students between its two colleges – arts and sciences, and business and economics – and has a partnership agreement with Dartmouth College in the US. GUST, founded in 2002, is the oldest private university in Kuwait, with colleges of both arts and sciences and of business and economics. It has a strategic partnership with the University of Missouri in St Louis, and a campus that can accommodate up to 3400 students. Box Hill College Kuwait, which opened in 2007, is a private university for women only. It offers six diploma programmes – management, marketing, banking services management, graphic design, interior design and decoration, and website development – and is affiliated with Box Hill Institute in Australia, a training and further education provider there.
The chief provider of vocational education and training is the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET), established in 1982 and run by the MoHE. As of the second semester in 2012/13, it counted 38,856 students at its various campuses and training centres across Kuwait.
As in many other countries, vocational education suffers from something of an image problem, and many parents and pupils regard it as inferior to the more academic higher education. Furthermore, the bulk of Kuwaiti graduates and school-leavers expect to take up positions in the public sector, often in the civil service. Few plan to follow vocational career paths, a further reason why such training is held in less regard. However, increasing uptake of vocational training is a key component of Kuwait’s plans to address the mismatch between the skills pupils acquire and those required by the labour market. The courses on offer include basic education, computers, health studies and nursing, and these appear to be proving popular with young Kuwaiti nationals, who made up some 84% of PAAET students in 2012/13, according to the CSB.
Kuwait is also looking to reform the standard curriculum so as to equip pupils for the needs of the 21st century. At the same time, the country aims to smooth out disparities in the labour market and promote the development of skills that will allow both young Kuwaitis to compete for jobs and Kuwaiti companies to compete on the international stage. In particular, the authorities are looking to inculcate critical thinking and problem solving skills rather than relying on rote learning, and to urge more applied knowledge rather than just theory.
In recent years, international bodies such as the IMF have called on Kuwait to reform its education system, stressing the importance of high-quality education in helping to diversify the economy. They have called for greater links between the education establishment and the private sector, while praising the government’s plans to invest in education. Progress has been gradual. The government created the National Council for Educational Development in 2010, and the MoE announced it was setting up a new national curriculum framework in November 2013.
However, education reform is always an arduous business and is worth taking the time to get right. “Educational reform is taken seriously, but we need to take a different look at the people involved and to assess what skill-sets are there in the people who are trying to move forward with education reform,” Nizar Hamzeh, president of AUK, told OBG. “We especially need to focus on maths and English proficiency.”
The notion of the university as an economic engine has been largely absent in Kuwait. Whereas in Western economies, universities often act as major centres of research and development (R&D), spawning networks of start-up companies, this shift has yet to occur in Kuwait, where universities remain geared primarily toward teaching rather than research.
One institution that aims to change this is the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of the Sciences (KFAS), established in 1976. Funded by a 1% levy on the profits of local public companies, the foundation aims to expand knowledge in Kuwait by supporting research and educational extension centres – such as the Kuwait Scientific Centre, the Dasman Diabetes Institute and the Sabah Al Ahmad Centre for Giftedness and Creativity – as well as a number of cultural and literary prizes and publications. KFAS also helps promote the transfer of technologies into Kuwait through partnerships with a number of subsidiary organisations and international medical research centres that run programmes in clinical research. In its latest strategic plan, enhancing Kuwait’s R&D capacity is named as one of the foundation’s four key objectives.
In line with trends in many developed nations over the past decade, Kuwaiti women outnumber men at universities. This may be partly due to differing social expectations: Kuwaiti women tend to feel financially secure, and are thus better able to concentrate on studies and dedicate more time to them, whereas men are often expected to enter the labour market and start earning earlier. Only 43% of working-age females were economically active in 2012, compared to 83% of men, according to the World Bank, and in 2011, the latest year for which data are available, some 4.9% of women were unemployed, compared to 2.9% of men.
Educational institutions in Kuwait are increasingly looking to use technology to reach students and simplify administration processes. In 2010, the MoE signed a memorandum of understanding with Microsoft to develop the New Technology Infrastructure project, whereby the software giant agreed to supply cloud computing and databases to more than 350 middle and secondary schools.
Another initiative, Education Net, was officially launched in 2012 as a 10-year government programme to provide wireless internet to all public schools to facilitate learning. KFAS, for its part, is considering setting up a “virtual” university that would offer courses online, like mass web-based university-level courses, but with the necessary accreditation.
Demographics dictate that the numbers entering education will continue to rise and, as economics dictate, so will costs. While government plans to upgrade schools and build 100 new ones have been somewhat stalled, these pressures will likely need to be addressed soon, thus implementation of the school-building programme will be crucial. The private sector is likely to continue taking on greater importance, both because of strain on the state system and because of its perceived higher quality.
“Changing and improving the education system in Kuwait will take many years, but I believe it is possible with the right regulations, steady competition among privately-run universities and the development of public higher education institutions,” Abdullah Al Sharhan, the chairman of Australian College of Kuwait, told OBG. Although education development will be patchy, the opening of the Jaber Al Ahmed public university in 2015 is likely to raise standards across the board.
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