In June 2014 the Higher Education Council (HEC) approved Bahrain’s first National Strategy for Higher Education and Scientific Research. This important document was designed with input from private sector entities, the government and international consulting firms. The strategy will help determine the direction of the higher education in the kingdom over the next 10 years. The HEC’s plan is designed to position Bahrain’s universities to develop future employees with the relevant skills the kingdom will need to construct a knowledge-based economy, in line with the country’s goals under the 2030 National Vision.

“This strategy will help our universities mould the next generation of job creators and innovators by developing entrepreneurship education, a research culture and improved use of new technologies,” Professor Riyad Y Hamzah, the secretary-general of the HEC, told OBG. “It will enable Bahrain to become a hub for students from the Gulf region and beyond who are looking for superior quality higher education.”

The strategy also drew on the findings of the World Bank Knowledge Economy Index 2012, in which Bahrain ranked highest in the region for both ICT and education, but its score in innovation lagged behind. To boost the nation’s overall ranking in such indices and further its goal of creating a knowledge-driven economy, improving the quality of research will remain important.


This new national strategy focuses on six priority areas for reform and improvement. These include the development of quality teaching, increasing students’ engagement skills to reflect employers’ needs, and the quality enhancement of higher education institutions (HEIs) through the introduction of accreditation. Work placement schemes and internships are also central.

The national strategy is a significant milestone for the HEC, which was founded by Royal Decree No. 74 in 2006 to meet the administrative demands of regulating the expanding number of private HEIs. Today, there are 16 private universities and HEIs operating in Bahrain. While the pace of building new HEIs has slowed in recent years, secondary enrolment in public and private education centres continues to rise, increasing from 36,720 in 2007/08 to 39,896 in 2012/13. The total number of secondary graduates in 2011/12 was 8447, though roughly another 2000 students graduated from private institutions.

Building Capacity

According to analysis conducted by PwC as part of the education strategy’s development process, Bahrain will need to increase capacity over the next 10 years. During this period, PwC projections show an additional 20,000 students entering Bahrain’s higher education system. This figure is based on projected population growth and the increasing popularity of the country with international students. However, most of this growth will come from international students, as population growth will be modest over the next decade. According to projections from the UN, Bahrain’s total population is expected to reach 1.5m by 2025, up from 1.3m at present.

The national education plan projects the percentage of international students in Bahrain to grow to as much as 35% of the student population, with around 80% of those coming from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Globally, the number of overseas students doubled to 4m in 2012, up from 2m in 2000. Within the GCC, Bahrain has already been able to capture 10% of overseas students. According to 2012 figures, the kingdom attracts more students than it sends abroad. That year Bahrain sent 3831 students abroad for education, while hosting 8640 foreign students. Only the UAE (34,122) and Saudi Arabia (26,871) imported more of the 84,791 students hosted at GCC academic institutions in 2012.

Potential New Markets

The neighbouring Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is a natural potential market for new students, but not the only one. Kuwait – which has a population of 3.8m, almost equal to the Eastern Province’s 4.1m – sent 12,350 students abroad in 2012, compared to Bahrain’s mobile student population of 3831. Given that Kuwait’s gross enrolment ratio stood at 24%, this makes for an important market.

Attracting more students to Bahrain will also have a broader economic impact. Foreign students spent on average BD5000 ($13,250) in the kingdom in 2012, of which BD3000 ($7950) was spent on tuition. The HEC has been cautious about letting the cost of education rise, although in June 2014 it tentatively allowed certain institutions to raise their fees.

Matching Supply With Demand

Beyond merely expanding capacity, the strategy calls for career counselling and alternative paths to competency to ensure that more students study in areas where there is a critical need in the labour market.

According to analysis conducted for the strategy in 2012, 54% students in Bahrain were enrolled in business or IT, equal to 20,000 of the total higher education student population of 32,000.

“The strategy will encourage Bahraini students and institutions to pursue educational opportunities away from traditional majors such as business and IT into more specialised degrees in the sciences and emerging technology areas, in addition to Islamic finance and public sector management,” Hamzah told OBG. He said that the higher education sector has to innovate at a rapid pace to produce graduates equipped with the knowledge necessary for the next generation of jobs.

Another important aspect of the strategy is to encourage the use of modern IT in all facets of higher education. Some universities have already launched similar initiatives. In 2013 University College of Bahrain introduced a collaborative academic workflow system using various Google apps. This innovation, as well as e-textbooks using CourseSmart, has helped save time on campus, especially for those students who have to commute from Saudi Arabia.

International Partners

One of the key moves in higher education development elsewhere in the GCC has been to attract prestigious universities in the hope that they will, in turn, encourage other organisations to move to the GCC, creating education clusters. The UAE has succeeded in enticing universities such as the Sorbonne and New York University, while Qatar has attracted Georgetown University and Texas A&M. Bahrain was well ahead of this trend when, in 2004, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland-Medical University of Bahrain was established with a $65m campus. The government is keen to see other international universities open colleges in the kingdom.

Dual degree programmes between an institution in Bahrain and an international university have also proven successful. For example, Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance (BIBF) has external master degree programmes in partnership with DePaul University in the US, and undergraduate programmes in collaboration with Bangor University in the UK. In addition, BIBF recently launched a bachelor’s degree in economics and management in collaboration with the University of London International Programmes, which is academically led by the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Sciences, a first for Bahrain.

Bahrain continues to seek innovative education improvements with international partners. In August 2013 the HEC and the UK Higher Education Academy signed an important education agreement on the sidelines of the World Islamic Economic Forum in London. The two-phase accreditation deal includes a pilot project that involves improving the teaching skills of about 60 higher education staff from HEIs in Bahrain. The programme will help the kingdom’s education sector to keep pace with international trends in both learning methodologies and technologically enhanced education.

National Research Strategy

The HEC has also approved Bahrain’s first national strategy for research. The strategy was developed by relevant education stakeholders working closely with Stanford Research Institute. It ties national research priorities closely with education, calls for an increase in research capacity among universities and recommends forming more partnerships with international research institutions. There are also plans to raise public awareness and knowledge of research to help foster a culture that encourages more scientific innovation in the kingdom.