Speedy progression: All levels of the sector have grown at an extraordinary rate

The creation of a public education system capable of equipping Omanis for a modern economy has been at the centre of government policy for decades. Meanwhile, the private sector that has thrived in Oman since the 1970s has, in recent years, seen a similar expansion of investment at tertiary level that, combined with an increasing amount of research activity, makes Oman’s education arena one of the most dynamic in the region.

Rapid Development

The development of Oman’s education system mirrors the rapid emergence of the country as a modern state since the accession of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said to power in July 1970. Redressing an educational deficit was established as a priority in the first years of Oman’s modern era, and since that time the nation has expended a significant part of the proceeds from its hydrocarbons wealth on the sector. From just 16 schools in the 1970/71 academic year, that number grew to 207 schools by 1975/76 – a 1194% rise that saw the student body expand from just 6941 to 55,752. In the late 1970s the education system was diversified to include two vocational schools, an agricultural college and a commercial college, while an infrastructural development programme saw poorly equipped wooden buildings give way to purpose-built concrete facilities with libraries, laboratories and workshops. By 1985/86, 588 schools were catering to 9793 pupils, and scholarships were funding the studies of 2681 Omani students in foreign universities. The need to travel abroad for university was substantially reduced in 1986 with the inauguration of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), which started operations with five colleges and 500 students and has since been joined by over 30 higher education institutions – 27 of which are private. Now, Oman has the capacity to support students from its neighbours, Majan College’s head of faculty, Nabila Al Macki, told OBG: “With demand of students outpacing supply of academic facilities in other countries in the GCC, Oman has a great opportunity to attract these minds to its private colleges.”

Basic Education Programme

The last two decades have seen the government implement a plan aimed at developing an education system able to accommodate Oman’s wider economic objectives of diversification and self-sufficiency. Central to this goal was the introduction in the late 1990s of a new “Basic Education Programme” for Omani schools, which placed an emphasis on core subjects considered to be of central importance to the creation of a knowledge economy. These subjects include English, maths, information and communications technology (ICT), and applied sciences, all of which are taught within a framework that encourages critical thinking rather than the rote learning that characterised the previous system. Uptake of the new framework has been quick; as of 2011, 79% of schools implemented the basic curriculum, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE).

Primary And Secondary Schools

By the 2010/11 year, the state school system was composed of some 1040 institutions, in which there were 522,540 students and 45,142 teachers. According to MoE data, just over 47% of state schools are coeducational, while 33.4% of them accept only boys and 19.3% cater solely to girls. However, despite the smaller number of dedicated girls schools, Oman’s state education system has achieved gender equality, with girls representing 50.7% of total student numbers. Education in state schools is free, and structured in a way comparable to a systems found in western education sectors: under the Basic Education Programme, schooling is organised into two cycles covering grades one to four and five to 10, respectively, which are similar in function to western primary and secondary education systems.

A further two years (grades 11 and 12) of post-basic education offer students the opportunity of specialising in either the sciences or the arts and is completed with the award of a secondary school leaving certificate. Those 21% of schools that have not yet switched to the Basic programme operate according to the older General Education System, which is composed of three levels. In the 2010/11 academic year, some 347,445 students were enrolled with in the Basic Education Programme, while 175,075 were studying within the General Education system.

Despite the large number of expats in the country (816,143 in 2010, according to that year’s census, or 29.4% of the total population), the nation’s government-run schools cater overwhelmingly to nationals. A total of 141,596 Omanis were enrolled in the first cycle of the Basic system in 2010/11, compared to just 3305 expats, while in the General Education system, 22,895 Omani children between grades one and six shared facilities with just 125 expat students.

Private Schools

This phenomenon is explained by a thriving private school segment, which has expanded on the back of demand from the expatriate community. As of 2010/11 some 387 private schools were operating in Oman, with a total student enrolment of 65,326. Schools catering to the children of expats from all over, as well as international schools that offer their services to a cross-section of nationalities, have established themselves across the country. With 153 such institutions, Muscat is the centre of Oman’s private school segment, followed by the northern Al Batinah region, which has 53 private institutions.

Annual fees for the most prominent private schools range from OR3900 ($10,163) to OR8300 ($21,630) for grade 12, according to their published rates. Institutions at the higher price range, which offer British and American curricula (or, in the case of the Choueifat, the SABIS Educational System), have also succeeded in attracting Omanis in search of foreign qualifications, often with a view to pursuing tertiary education abroad, or a greater proficiency in the English language.

Public Higher Education

 Oman’s higher education sector is characterised by a similar mixture of public and private enterprise. The founding of SQU in 1986 marked the beginning of the state-owned university system, before which Omani students wishing to avail of university education were sent to regional Arab countries, such as the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, or further afield to the UK or US. The five colleges that initially formed the university’s Al Khoudh campus, a short drive from the nation’s capital, have since been added to by four more so that the modern facility now has undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in many fields, including medicine, commerce and social sciences. As of the 2010/11 academic year more than 17,000 students were enrolled in SQU, and the institution has retained its reputation in the sector as a centre of teaching, research and community engagement.

The government also provides Omanis with a route to degree courses with the six state-run Colleges of Applied Sciences (CAS). These institutions, located in the regional cities of Nixwa, Ibri, Sur, Sohar, Rustaq and Salalah, have evolved from teacher training facilities established in the 1970s, being converted first to Colleges of Education in the 1990s and finally to their present function in 2007. They currently have five degree programmes, in information technology (IT), international business, communication studies, design and engineering and currently have an aggregate student population of approximately 8000.

Vocational education at tertiary level is also provided by the Omani government. The Higher College of Technology was the first higher education institution to be established in Oman, and with more than 10,000 students is presently the second-largest after SQU. Established in 1984 as the Oman Technical Industrial College, the institution was renamed and upgraded in 2001 and now has programmes up to bachelor’s degree level. Six further technical colleges at Salalah, Ibra, Al-Musanaa, Niza, Shinas and Ibri have programmes in similar areas – IT, business, science and engineering – up to higher diploma level.

Adding Capacity

Despite the expansion of the nation’s state-run higher education sector, the rapid growth in the number of potential students produced by the school system has presented a challenge in terms of capacity at the tertiary level. By the mid-1990s the number of Omanis abroad in search of higher education persuaded the government of the need for increased domestic capacity, and since that time it has worked assiduously to encourage private sector growth in this area as a means to answer the growing demand.

Since the year 2000 a number of incentives have been introduced to foster the growth of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including land grants, Customs exemptions and a matching grant system for private universities of 50% capital contribution to a maximum value of OR3m ($7.82m). Adding to the list of incentives available to private operators is a royal grant of OR17m ($44.3m) for Omani-owned private universities.

The result of these efforts has been the development of a thriving private higher education market, which began in earnest with the establishment of Caledonian College of Engineering in 1996. Having begun operations with just 27 students that year it now has an enrolment of around 3000 distributed across eleven undergraduate and two master’s programmes.

Since then private colleges have been opening on a regular basis (for a total of 19 in 2012), mostly focusing on popular subjects such as business studies and IT, and generally teaching in English. Seven private universities have also been established in Muscat, Sohar, Dhofar, Nizwa, Buraimi and Sharqiyah. A private international partnership, the German University of Technology in Oman (GU tech), was established in 2007 in collaboration with Aachen University.

“Private colleges are targeting sectors of growth that need trained workers,” Nabila Al Macki, the head of faculty at Majan College, told OBG. “The future will be dependent on competing for the best students and creating linkages with industry.”

A Deepening Sector

Sustained investment in Oman’s education sector has also brought about a deeper market encompassing an increasing array of activities. At the primary school level, the growth of special education within the state system has resulted in employing 196 specialist teachers in 2010/11, mostly in the three main special education centres of Tarbiyah Fikriyah, Al Amal School for the Deaf and Dumb, and the Omar bin Khattab Institute for the Blind.

Meanwhile, the MoE’s learning difficulties programme provides services within the Basic Education Programme for those students with special needs who do not attend specialist schools. The Basic Education curriculum is also available to those who completed their schooling before its implementation through 189 adult education centres, 52 of which are dedicated to women only, which are distributed across all of Oman’s regions.

More recently, the MoE’s application of technology has opened up education courses and services to a growing number of people. The ministry’s education portal provides access and communication links to other government bodies, and offers government employees additional avenues for developing their skills within the workplace. The wider population meanwhile, benefits from an electronic learning programme by which students can study alone or with a teacher’s assistance using one of two approaches: through interactive virtual classes or a self-paced learning system.

Research

One of the most significant trends in the education sector is a rise in research activity. SQU, which began its research administrative structure in 1999, is the primary research institution in the country. After a decade of administrative changes, a deputy vice-chancellor for postgraduate studies and research now oversees all university research. Academic and technical staff, researchers, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students engage in nine research centres, the first of which was a remote sensing and geographic information systems facility established in 1998. Since then centres specialising in cultural heritage, environmental sciences, earthquake monitoring, communication and information, water, oil and gas, and humanities studies have worked on projects of economic import.

Funding

Internal funding for research is multiform: an annual OR500,000 ($1.3m) internal grant from the university’s central budget is used to support academic research expected to yield original results or develop new concepts; under the Joint Grant programme, SQU may allocate funds to match funds provided by other institutions; while His Majesty’s Trust Fund Grants, with a total allocation of OR500,000 ($1.3m) per year are used to support long-term multidisciplinary projects of strategic importance. SQU also has recourse to funding from regional and international agencies, industry and individuals. SQU consultancy services, which typically involve applied research for problem solving, has also attracted funding from the public and private sector. “To build the knowledge-based economy we have envisioned, the tertiary education system in Oman must expand its scientific research capacity,” Ali bin Saud Al Bemani, vice-chancellor at SQU, told OBG.

SQU also accounts for about 70% of the grants approved each year by The Research Council (TRC), a national body set up in 2005 to promote and act as a focal point for research and innovation in the country. Through its open research and strategic research programmes, it has been largely responsible for the expansion of research activity into private sector institutions.

One such beneficiary of the creation of TRC is the Caledonian College of Engineering. “We started to focus on research in 2005, and feel it is important for both faculty and students. Since then we have established a committee to improve our research profile and explore funding from external organisations,” said the college’s associate dean and professor, K P Ramachandran.

Other private sector institutions that have received TRC grants include GU tech, which undertook a study of local sustainable urbanisation, and Dhofar University, which is carrying out research on the optimal use of Oman’s resources. In 2011, TRC approved 25 research projects in areas including health and social services, energy and industry, biological and environmental resources, humanities, and IT and communication.

Supervision And Strategy

As a catalyst for research activity, TRC sits within a dispersed yet increasingly connected group of institutions which together regulate for, supervise and enact reform across the entire education sector. The MoE oversees the public and private school system, and produces annual data on both segments. Public schools are operated by the MoE, while more general education policies proceed from the Basic Statute of State issued by law. While this regulation delineates the MoE’s educational goals, such as the development of scientific thought and the promotion of a spirit of research, some departments within the ministry also issue specialised regulations concerning such aspects of school life and library and laboratory use. With regard to private schools, the MoE is empowered to authorise their establishment, approve staff hires and pupil enrolment, assess programmes and qualifications, and authorise tuition fees.

Higher Education Regulation

In 1994 a royal decree created a new regulatory body, the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), and gave it an independent mandate and organisational structure. The MoHE oversees operation and development of the public Colleges of Education, Teacher Training Colleges, SQU, and private universities and colleges that entered the market since its inception. A graduates survey system and an in-house statistics system managed by the Higher Education Admission Centre (HEAC), have extended the significance of the MoHE beyond its regulatory role and established it as the primary means by which the government can compare the needs of the labour market to the output of higher education institutions.

Meanwhile, institutions that are focused on technology are operated and supervised by the Ministry of Manpower; the Ministry of Health regulates medical training institutes for paramedics, pharmacists and nurses; the College of Banking and Financial Studies remains under the purview of the Central Bank; and the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs oversees the Institute of Shariah Sciences.

Planning & Budgeting

The various bodies charged with the regulation, oversight and development of the higher education segment have been bound together in strategic terms through a series of five-year plans addressing the wider economy. Education policy has featured prominently in them since 1976. The latest plan (2011-15) granted education the highest spending allocation over other sectors in the 2011 budget at OR927m ($2.42bn) – or 34% of total current expenditure. Over the plan’s duration, the government will direct OR5.9bn ($15.4bn) to the sector.

In return for its investment, the government hopes to bring about the growth of primary school education in the country and reach full enrolment rates. It also hopes to further develop a focus on specialities needed by the labour market. To date the government has made significant progress in improving fundamental indicators such as reducing illiteracy, maximising exposure to formal education and providing new infrastructure – all of which are addressed in the current plan.

Challenges

Nevertheless, challenges remain, the most significant of which for many observers is English-language proficiency. The issue is a regional one, and is part of a wider narrative centred on balancing the desire to retain local culture and the need to interact with the rest of the world through what has become business’ dominant language.

Omani students study English through primary and secondary schooling, but a lack of comprehension in third-level institutions may mean first-year classes are needed. For this reason, the MoE has invested considerable effort in revising English teaching practices in public schools. “We started [reform] with cycle one, or grades one to four, then cycle two, and finally post-basic education – grades 11 and 12,” an MoE official said. In carrying out this reform the MoE has sought the advice of outside experts, other ministries and NGOs in a consultative process that it repeats on a two-year basis.

Outlook

continued expansion of Oman’s education sector is underpinned by the commitment outlined in the newest five-year plan. The government spending earmarked for the sector represents a 48% increase over the previous plan and is expected to result in the construction of 15 new schools, 32 expansion projects and 65 extensions to meet the growth of student numbers by 2015. Private schools, meanwhile, will continue to benefit from the presence of an expatriate community, which grew 32% between 2003 and 2010, and is expected to continue increasing.

While publicly funded SQU retains its position as the foremost university, the rapidly expanding private sector will absorb a higher number of high school graduates in the coming years. Similarly, research activity, traditionally reserved for SQU, will likely expand due to investment from TRC and, later, the private sector.

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The Report: Oman 2013

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Oman 2013

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