Government reforms to change Kuwait's education sector


Driven by the need to accommodate rising enrolment and government efforts to address long-standing issues in public education, the education sector in Kuwait is undergoing significant reform in 2017. The main challenges include a shortage of skilled teachers, relatively low tertiary enrolment rates and the quality of education standards.

Various government-directed reforms and investments are now under way, including those initiated in the general education segment under Kuwait’s Integrated Education Reform Programme and School Education Quality Improvement Project. These are aimed at helping to improve and enhance the country’s basic education offering. Since 2014, the government has also been more actively seeking to engage the private sector on development, primarily by offering investor-friendly policies and public-private partnerships (PPPs).

The key emerging trends in the education sector include the growing preference for private schools, the increasing use of technology and the popularity of international curriculum schools, with growth opportunities concentrated in e-learning markets, the pipeline of new schools and colleges, and PPPs under the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model.

General Education

General K-12 education in Kuwait includes five years at the elementary stage, four years at the intermediate stage and three years at the secondary stage. Schooling is mandatory for all children aged six to 14, and free primary and secondary education is available for Kuwaiti citizens at public schools. Expatriates, who account for approximately 70% of Kuwait’s total population, are served by the private school sector.

Primary education enrolment rates are very high in Kuwait, dropping off slightly in secondary education to 93.6%, according to figures reported in the local media. As a result, the youth literacy rate in Kuwait for the 15-24 age bracket was around 99.5% in 2015. The tertiary enrolment rate is lower than that of general education, at 27%.

The Ministry of Education (MoE) supervises the general education system at the pre-primary, primary and secondary school levels, and operates special directorates that provided oversight of 1300 public and private schools in 2014/15. Of these public schools, 800 were government schools (enrolling 363,235 students) and nine were religious institutes (enrolling 2826 students), for a total sector share of 62.2%, according to Global Investment House, a regional asset management and investment banking firm headquartered in Kuwait. The remaining 257,405 students were enrolled in private schools, accounting for 37.8% of the total.


Given the small pool of local teachers, the majority of educators in both private and public schools are recruited from foreign countries, typically on a two- to three-year contract. According to the Central Statistics Bureau, 30,915 non-Kuwaitis, of which 17,110 were women and 13,805 were men, were employed by the MoE in 2015. The figure is the highest of any state ministry, followed by the Ministry of Health, with 29,814 foreign workers.

To meet its obligation to employ Kuwaiti youth, the government is increasingly looking to replace the expatriate labour force in teaching with national manpower, announcing plans in early 2017 to terminate the contracts of expatriate teachers in oversupplied disciplines, and to encourage officials employed by the ministry who have spent 34 years in supervisory posts to retire. The decision comes at a time when high teacher turnover rates have resulted in a shortage in the basic education segment. The broader GCC already faces the second-highest teacher shortage in the world, and with 7000 new schools coming on-line in the region in the next five years, Kuwait will have to compete to meet any requirements for international educators with other countries with sizeable expatriate communities, including Qatar and the UAE.

Growth Drivers

According to IMF estimates, Kuwait’s population is expected to grow at a 2.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) until 2020. The rapidly expanding number of school and college pupils, made up of both nationals and expatriates, is expected to drive education demand and lead to an increase in student enrolment.

Growth in the private school segment of general education is likely to continue to outpace growth in public schools for the foreseeable future. This is largely attributable to perceptions of better-quality education in the private sphere and state policy that restricts public school access to Kuwaiti citizens.

Kuwait is among the wealthiest countries in the world, characterised by high levels of disposable income, a tax-free environment and a strong inclination on the part of parents to spend on quality education. The diversified expatriate community also increases local demand for international curricula, attracting private international schools and universities to cater to the community.

Buoyed by these demand drivers, the number of private schools in Kuwait increased from 475 in 2011/12 to 491 in 2014/15. Student enrolment in Kuwaiti private schools increased at a CAGR of 5.4% in 2010-15, compared with a CAGR of 0.9% for public schools over the same period. Global Investment House has projected yearly demand growth for private sector schooling in general education will rise by roughly 4% in the period to 2018, which would equal an additional 10,000-11,000 students in six or seven new schools per year.

The international school segment is poised for growth, with both Kuwaiti nationals and expatriates statistically preferring to enrol their children in international programmes. Western curricula are the most popular, followed by schools offering Arabic or bilingual education, combining Islamic values and subjects with Western curricula. Of the total number of private schools in 2015, over 340 were reported to teach Western curricula schools, with the remaining 150 implementing an Arabic curriculum. According to education guide Edarabia, five of the country’s top-12 schools in 2015 were bilingual.

The revenue models employed by private schools in the country are subject to government oversight, particularly with regards to the amount that schools may charge for tuition. A ministerial decree issued in May 2016 suspended all fee hikes implemented by schools after a number of private foreign schools unilaterally raised tuition without obtaining the proper permit from the MoE.

Yearly private school fee increases had previously been capped at 3% for the 2015/16 academic year. According to Mohammed Al Fares, the minister of education and higher education, the ministry now intends to consult independent financial experts to determine the level of tuition fees that can be charged by private schools in order to ensure there is fair and stable pricing. Al Fares said that there was no intention of increasing those school fees.

Role Of Government

Government objectives in the education sector include providing equal access to all children and coordinating curricula so students are equipped to meet the requirements of the labour market. The leadership emphasises the significance of education for producing sustainable employment for Kuwaitis and providing them with the tools to compete in the global market.

Spurred on by a commitment to education as a pillar of economic development, state spending in the sector has accelerated in recent years, growing at an annualised rate of 14.4% in the four years leading up to 2014/15, and accounting for 15% of the country’s total expenditure in 2015, or KD2.7bn ($9bn). The percentage contribution remained the same in 2016, and while this is lower than the 17.5% average government spend in the GCC, Kuwait actually spends more per student, at roughly $14,300, compared to $11,000 in the rest of the GCC.

In spite of significant public funding directed at improving the quality of education in Kuwait, the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2016-17” ranked the country 98th of 135 worldwide in terms of educational quality.

Part of the issue is that the majority of the current budget for public education – whether for nurseries, schools, public universities or state technical colleges – goes towards the payment of salaries rather than enhancing the schools, improving quality and building new education facilities.

Government efforts to address the issue include ongoing reforms initiated in the basic education segment under Kuwait’s Integrated Education Reform Programme 2011-19. The focus of the programme is on developing curricula, improving learning outcomes, encouraging efficient teaching and school leadership, and refining the accountability and efficiency of the education system. The second phase of the closely aligned School Education Quality Improvement Project was launched in 2015 (see analysis). According to Nouria Al Awadhi, director-general of the National Bureau of Accreditation, when it comes to education, quality is the most essential consideration. Al Awadhi told OBG, “It is important that education is developed in a way that ensures the quality of research and teaching staff, rather than growth only to meet demand.”

In addition to the quality reforms under way in general education, the government also plays a central role in developing education facilities in the country, and supports private sector engagement in basic education with investor-friendly policies and PPPs. For example, the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects, in association with the MoE, collaborate on several initiatives with private sector partners under the BOT model (see analysis).

From a curriculum design perspective, ongoing modernisation efforts are expected to result in greater technology usage in education, thereby creating opportunities for providers of e-learning content, tools, technology and platforms. E-books are now required for the science and maths curriculum beyond the fifth grade, and high school classrooms are commonly equipped with interactive smartboard projectors and computer stations. In accordance with the seven-year-old national strategy for introduction of technology in the education sector, the MoE and the Ministry of Higher Education is also in the process of implementing a tablet device project at the secondary level.

Currently in the evaluation stage to determine objectives and confirm viability, the project is intended to provide devices containing educational and training applications, including interactive secondary-level curricula that has been approved by the assistant undersecretary for public education affairs, technical instruction for various subjects, Microsoft Office, NetSupport School, and a programme that allows teachers and students to communicate electronically. In May 2017 Al Fares, reported that the total current cost for the tablet device project at KD26.4m ($87.3m).

Tertiary Education

There are a total of 15 active higher education institutions (HEI) in Kuwait: three public and 12 private institutions. The public institutions are Kuwait University, an institute for the arts, and the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, which administers vocational-oriented technical institutes and training centres in the country. Private institutions include universities, colleges and applied educational centres that provide training in fields related to basic education, business studies, health sciences, engineering, technology studies and nursing. The country’s sole public university, Kuwait University, was established in 1966 and offers courses focused on scientific and educational specialisations, social sciences and humanities. The institution had over 37,000 students in 2016/17; the vast majority of them were Kuwaiti nationals, with 7000 on full-tuition government scholarships.

Since 2008 Kuwait University has been working hard to accommodate the increasing number of high school graduates in the country, with many courses now operating at a stretched capacity. To ease this pressure and accommodate the rising number of tertiary enrolments, Kuwaiti authorities decided in 2004 to build a new public university. Approximately 6m sq metres of land has been allocated to the Sabah Al Salem University City project, which is better known as Shadadiyah University, after the area in which it is located. In June 2016 the government signed a $580m contract with the Middle East unit of China State Construction Engineering Corporation to build the campus.

University City is expected to be one of the world’s largest campuses, accommodating around 40,000 students in 13 faculties, with three extra sites for future faculties. Construction of the main campus is expected to be completed by 2019.

Private Universities

The popularity of private universities is also set to rise, according to Habib Taher Abul, secretary-general of the Private Universities Council. Taher Abul told OBG, “As tertiary enrolments rise we are increasingly seeing that public universities at their current capacity are unable to meet the demand for places, therefore the private sector is growing to fill this gap.”

In 2002 Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) became the first private university to open in Kuwait, two years after the government approved a role for private universities in the country. This was followed by the American University in Kuwait (AUK) in 2004 and the American University of the Middle East (AUM) in 2006. These institutions primarily concentrate on non-scientific majors and most do not offer higher education classes for a master’s degree or PhD; the University of Kuwait has a limited number of seats for those wishing to pursue post-graduate degrees.

Since 2011 investment rules in Kuwait have restricted the opening of private universities to branches of one of the top-200 universities worldwide as ranked by the QS World University Rankings. This can be a challenge to investors given the high in-kind cost of franchising a top-tier international brand. Qatar and Abu Dhabi provide regional models, having successfully introduced branch campuses of Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M and NYU, but these models relied on significant government support from the state-owned Qatar Foundation in Doha and the Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi.

One new branch campus scheduled to open in collaboration with Kuwait University operator Malakyia is the Technical University of Munich in Kuwait (TUM Kuwait). Currently ranked number 60 in the world by QS World University Rankings, TUM ratified its final contracts with Malakyia in December 2016 to set up a full-scale technical university in Kuwait by 2019. TUM Kuwait will meet the same quality standards as the central TUM, and is set to offer a broad range of bachelor’s, master’s and PhD programmes.

The university has set up a joint working team and project steering committee with Malakyia in order to jointly manage all stages of preparing, planning, constructing and initiating the university. This will include development of an academic agenda, organising a university management body, operating a foreign recruitment office for academic staff and preparing a technology transfer concept, including business plans for a business incubator and a business park, which will also involve foreign investors.


When Kuwait University reached full capacity in 2008, the government and higher education authorities began implementing a strategy to shift students to the private sector using a generously funded government scholarship programme. The number of students studying at private Kuwaiti universities on a government scholarship reaches up to 4000 each year, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education.

In June 2017 the ministry announced an additional 200 scholarships for the highest-performing expatriate students: 50 at Kuwait University, 100 at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, and 50 as domestic scholarships in local private universities. The government also provides full tuition for up to 6000 Kuwaiti students annually to pursue their education abroad.

Specialised scholarships are available in certain sectors where it is viewed as a priority to generate cadres capable of contributing to the national development process. For example, the Central Bank of Kuwait, in cooperation with Kuwaiti banks, has been sponsoring master’s programmes where Kuwaiti students study abroad on scholarships since 2014, in an effort to meet the developmental needs of the banking and finance sector.

The private sector and NGO community also collaborate on social responsibility programmes aimed at providing quality education opportunities for children across the country. For example, the Give Them a Chance campaign was launched by Kuwait Red Crescent Society in 2015 and provides tuition assistance for non-Kuwaiti children in Kuwait whose families cannot afford school fees.

Higher Education Governance

The Ministry of Higher Education oversees tertiary education in Kuwait, in collaboration with government accreditation and regulatory bodies including the National Bureau for Academic Accreditation and Education Quality Assurance (NBAQ), and the Private Universities Council (PUC). The former is tasked with supervising higher education accreditation processes, while the PUC is responsible for facilitating and monitoring the opening of any private universities. Kuwait was the last country in the GCC to launch an accreditation programme for HEIs. Lacking access to the accreditation service currently being developed at NBAQ, standards at private universities – such as faculty member expertise, research production, quality of teaching content, and teaching methodologies – have historically been aligned with professional educational bodies. Since 2013 the chemistry faculty at Kuwait University, for example, has been awarding graduates certificates of accreditation based upon standards set by the Canadian Society for Chemistry. GUST, meanwhile, has a College of Business Administration accredited by the American Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a mass communications programme accredited by the American Communication Association, and an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology-approved computer science programme.

To formalise the process of domestic accreditation, a 2010 Emiri decree established the NBAQ as a means of testing the quality of education in the country, and ensuring proper accreditation of public and private Kuwaiti institutions.

The first director-general was appointed in 2013, and at the end of 2016 the bureau was moving forward on its core operating responsibilities – preparing and publishing a list of approved and accredited universities around the world – and rolling out an academic accreditation programme for institutions and programmes for all HEIs. To be included on the list of international universities that offer degrees approved by the authorities for Kuwaiti graduates, an institution has to have been approved by the academic accreditation agency in its home country, accredited internationally and ranked in the top-700 universities in the QS World University Rankings.


The second objective of the NBAQ is academic accreditation for all HEIs in Kuwait. The bureau has reportedly completed the standards and mechanisms required to begin the accreditation process, adapting different approaches from around the world to suit Kuwait’s institutions. International bodies consulted in development of the accreditation mechanisms include the global International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education and the Gulf Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. These are associations of quality assurance organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, that support an active international community of quality assurance agencies. NBAQ standards have also been reviewed in cooperation with quality assurance agencies in the UK and different agencies in the US.

Rollout of the NBAQ accreditation process is scheduled to begin with a public awareness campaign in early 2018, which will provide information on NBAQ standards and mechanisms. This will be followed by the provision of guidance and training to meet the new standards, and prepare the self-assessment report. Each of the HEIs in Kuwait will be required to set up and maintain a dedicated department or a central committee to be in charge of education accreditation.

Industry Alignment

The task of aligning the skills and content of curricula with labour market needs is among the greatest challenges facing the higher education segment in Kuwait. Abdullah Al Sharhan, chairman of the Australian College of Kuwait, told OBG, “Job market requirements are changing, management systems and corporate practices are evolving; therefore, education providers need to be ahead of such transformations.”

The disconnect between market needs and graduate output has been exacerbated by the lack of accurate demand studies being carried out for gauging the future requirements of the private and public sectors. This in turn has contributed to oversaturation in disciplines perceived as more prestigious, as well as a lack of graduates with experience in other disciplines vital to a healthy economy. For example, of the 6000 study abroad scholarships paid for by the Kuwaiti government in 2016, more than 80% were studying engineering. In Kuwait University, the highest number of students were registered in the College of Art and the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, and the lowest number of students were registered in pharmacy and dentistry. This skills gap and weighted interest is an important factor driving unemployment rates among Kuwait’s recent generations of graduates, as many struggle to find work.

In this context, GUST represents an outlier in the private school segment. Graduate employability and industry relations play a critical role in its programme design. To more effectively connect the GUST College of Business Administration to industry, the university established an industrial board of 10 members from high-profile companies in the private sector to oversee the college. The group meets every quarter to provide guidance aimed at enhancing the college curriculum and evaluating graduates.

Furthermore, GUST has also developed practicum programmes in business and computer science, using industry surveys to build labour market requirements into the courses and provide students with technical skills aligned to private sector needs. The programmes consist of five modules: e-commerce and IT skills; project management; leaders of the future, including leadership management and soft skills; technical writing; and general life skills, such as business environment issues, licensing, CVs and more. Getting students certified through various international accreditation boards is viewed as an essential component of the programme offering at GUST, and is a notable value added for graduates seeking work with private sector employers, particularly those in the finance and energy sectors.

Other private universities in the country have different specialisations but share the objective of providing the market with required skills. For example, AUM and AUK offer engineering programmes that GUST does not, aimed at providing the country with required engineering skills.

Industry, for its part, is looking for graduates with both strong technical expertise in addition to training and experience in soft skills, such as skills related to leadership management. Larger companies in the private sector often play a more active role incubating the skills they are looking for in new graduates. For example, Alghanim Industries – one of the largest privately owned companies in the Middle East – operates a future leaders programme in Kuwait, which puts up to 15 students each year through a full development course and subsequently transitions approximately 80% of those candidates into full-time roles within the company. Alghanim has been partnered with INJAZ-Kuwait since 2006; it is a non-profit organisation that promotes youth education and training in entrepreneurship, financial literacy and workplace readiness.

While conducting new research is not the focus of most HEIs in the country, private universities are looking for more flexibility in their relationship with the government in respect to facilitating partnerships with industry and international universities.

“Today’s universities are based on collaborative work and research, so we need to encourage the direction of research,” said Salah Al Sharhan, vice president for academic affairs at GUST. “Policies set by government should give us the flexibility to create research centres, and of course as small private universities we cannot provide the required financing, so we are looking to the government to support us with land grants and the development of joint, collaborative research centres.”


The education sector in Kuwait is currently in a transitional phase, with the government committed to addressing long-standing issues in public education, and taking steps to ease the pressure from overcrowding at Kuwait University.

Growth in the private school segment of general education will continue to outpace growth in public schools for the foreseeable future, buoyed by high levels of personal disposable income and a strong inclination on the part of parents to spend on quality education. The international school segment, in particular, is poised for growth, with expatriates and an increasing number of Kuwaiti nationals preferring to enrol their children in international schools.

In the tertiary segment, a programme for domestic academic accreditation for all HEIs will begin to be rolled out in early 2018, which should see the standard of education among HEIs rise. In addition, the TUM Kuwait branch campus being scheduled to come on-line in 2019 will add to the technical university offering in the country, while Sabah Al Salem University City will significantly ease stretched capacity at Kuwait University when it is completed.

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The Report: Kuwait 2017

Education chapter from The Report: Kuwait 2017

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