A complete overhaul is planned for Kuwait’s education sector to prepare for future economic challenges. The government has been under increasing pressure to meet the rising expectations of its citizens, who want a quality education and the tools they need to contend in a competitive regional and global environment. Educational reform is thus at the centre of its long-term development strategy, Vision 2030.

In spending terms, education has always received strong government support in Kuwait. According to the UN Development Programme’s “Human Development Report 2010”, during 2000-07 the country spent up to 3.8% of its GDP on education. This is borne out by improvements in indicators of educational standards, particularly for primary and secondary schooling. According to the report, adult literacy rates reached 94.5% during 2005-08, with at least 56.9% of Kuwaitis over the age of 25 having received a secondary education. During 2001-09 gross primary enrolment stood at 95.5%, with gross secondary enrolment at 90.8%.

INVESTMENT: The government has committed significant funding to the sector for the future. Under the recent KD30bn ($108.2bn) five-year National Development Plan, the Ministry of Education (MoE) was allocated up to KD108.9m ($392.6m). Other educational ministries and institutes have also benefitted from this renewed commitment. For instance, the state-run Kuwait University will receive KD74.9m ($270m), the Training and Applied Education Institute KD87.8m ($316.5m), the Ministry of Higher Education KD8.9m ($32.1m) and the Private University Council – the body that regulates private universities – KD26.3m ($94.8m).

PRIVATE SECTOR: Despite high government expenditure on public education, there is a growing trend (for those who can afford it) to choose private schools and universities. “In the past public education was considered excellent, and access is still universal, but over time the perception has grown that private education is better and this is not entirely fair,” Saad Akashah, an adviser at the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, told OBG. “Mixing education and profit remains controversial for some. Private firms, some of which are listed on the Kuwait Stock Exchange, have moved into the provision of kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools in a big way. It is seen as a growth area and there is money to be made.”

According to Kuwait-based financial services firm Kipco Asset Management Company (KAMCO), during 2002-09 private sector provision expanded at a rate of 43.7%, with the number of students enrolled at private schools (both primary and secondary) growing from 137,923 in 2002 to 198,144 by 2009 – an increase in market share from 30% to 36%. Of the 1253 schools recorded in 2009, 38% were privately run. KAMCO is one of several private firms to have expressed interest in education sector opportunities. In 2007 it completed its subscription to the Kuwait Education Fund, with an initial capital of KD5.8m ($20.91m). The fund aims at investing in both private and public sector companies.

“In terms of reputation, private schools such as the American School of Kuwait, American International School of Kuwait, New English School, Kuwait English School and Al Bayan Bilingual School are the main players in secondary education,” Majdi Amin Gharzeddeene, the senior vice-president at KAMCO, told OBG. “However, there are higher numbers of public schools that are able to compete with private schools on price.”

ROOM FOR MORE: Al Rayan Holding Company, a private firm that owns and runs six private schools in Kuwait, has identified the mid-market of the private school sector as a growth area. “The growth in demand for private schools has been advancing in line with the economy,” said Nasser Al Khaled, Al Rayan’s chairman. “The number of expatriate families sending their kids to school here is increasing, as is the number of Kuwaiti families wanting to move from the public to private sector. We have targeted the mid-market, where most Pakistani and Indian expat families send their kids to school.”

In the mid-market, costs per student per year range from KD300 ($1081) to KD2000 ($7210), whereas highend prices range from KD3000 ($10,815) to KD4000 ($14,420). In Kuwait Al Rayan competes with other educational firms like Ajial Education, Afaq Educational Company, Marefa Exemplary Company and SAMA Education. The firm saw a 7.7% rise in student numbers since 2009. According to Al Rayan’s analysis, the private sector share of the primary and secondary schools market will increase from some 36.5% in 2010 to 43.2% by 2016, while the public sector share is set to drop by 6.7%, from 63.5% in 2010 to 56.8% by 2016.

SCEPTICS: But the growing privatisation of schooling has not yet convinced everyone. In early May 2010 parliament pulled back from a mooted privatisation of up to 30 public schools and has since excluded the oil, health and education sectors from the new privatisation bill. This attitude may change, however.

“In talks with the government in 2011 there was discussion of an Abu Dhabi Investment Council model of public-private partnerships for secondary education,” Al Khaled told OBG. “Schools would have key performance indicators set by the MoE, and private providers would meet them. Private firms would be paid either by setting fees per student or from a private sector budget approved by the ministry. The proposal was dismissed by the new education minister but it’s only a matter of time before we revisit this type of proposal.”

MODERNISATION: Although types of private education will continue to play an important role in the sector, Kuwait remains dedicated to providing education to all of its citizens. The current strategy is aimed at improving the quality of education in all public schools and universities. Specifically, the government aims to modernise existing schools, build new ones, develop more contemporary and relevant curricula and establish an e-education project for 344 primary and secondary schools. New infrastructure projects include a central database, new computers and servers. The MoE also plans to build up to 182 schools, a new ministry building and an institute for training and applied education. Meanwhile, Kuwait University will be relocated to a new purpose-built KD65.3m ($235.4m) facility.

The MoE is also focusing on a quality project to improve teacher training. Speaking at a school in Ahmadi in March 2011, the assistant undersecretary for education Mona Al Loghani said the ministry had started phase two of the project, which involves assessing existing teacher capabilities to determine if they require further training. Once completed the results will help inform a new programme to be applied across all public schools. Efforts to ensure the competence of staff have also included schemes to attract quality teachers, including proposals to raise the salaries on offer.

VOCATIONAL: A major challenge for the government has been to prepare students for the job market after their public education. “With the high numbers of students coming out of high school, public universities are having trouble finding a place for them all,” Akashah told OBG. “These days everyone would like to go to college, but this is hard to guarantee with the limited space available. Private universities have helped absorb some of this problem. I do not want to deprive aspiring students from poorer backgrounds, but we need a much more integrated policy that provides vocational training and develops closer links with private companies.”

The Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET) is one of the largest technical colleges in Kuwait, with five programmes (basic education, technological studies, business studies, health sciences and nursing) and at least 10 training institutes for the energy, construction, secretarial and marine navigation sectors, among others. The PAAET is also planning a new information technology college that offers courses in computer engineering and computer science. “The main challenge we face now and in the future is to ensure our graduates can find jobs in the private sector,” said Abdulrazzak M Al Nafisi, PAAET’s director general. The authority already has an incubator to advise students about setting up their own business in the marine navigation sector, or as mechanics and electricians.

Some obstacles to vocational training appear to be cultural, however. As in many developed countries, graduates do not always see the advantages of vocational training. “Negative attitudes to manual work severely dampen demand for vocational and technical training,” Gharzeddeene told OBG. “It is often seen as a system of education for the poor or those unable to get into higher education. Many suspect that vocational training is second-class compared to academic qualifications. This feeling has grown over the years and makes it difficult to develop such programmes.”

ENTER THE PRIVATE SECTOR: Private universities and training colleges are trying to change such attitudes. Established in 2003, the Australian College of Kuwait (ACK), a Kuwaiti-owned private university that is partnered with several Australian higher education institutes, awards engineering and business diplomas, and runs marine and aviation maintenance programmes at its campus at West Mishref.

“Entrepreneurship needs to be cultivated through project-based training, with access to the right people and facilities that will allow students to problem-solve and apply their knowledge to real situations,” Abdullah Al Sharhan, the chairman of ACK’s board of trustees, told OBG. He added that the idea of starting and running one’s own business needs greater support. To inform and encourage students, sometime during autumn in 2012 ACK plans to set up a committee to create an “entrepreneurship club” of ACK graduates that have started their own businesses.

Al Sharhan also argued that higher education must better mirror job market demands. “It is important that educational institutions p roduce the right mix of people to fit Kuwait’s demands. They need to have specific training that offers skills for the actual job. There must be a balance between knowledge, skills and attitude.”

Another private institution aimed at producing well-rounded graduates is the American University of Kuwait (AUK). As of October 2010 it enrolled around 2100 students in a variety of undergraduate degree programmes. Like ACK, AUK has engaged in fruitful partnerships and exchanges with foreign universities such as Dartmouth College in the US. As a liberal arts college, AUK places a special emphasis on holistic learning, meaning that students get a broad education that includes coursework in the social sciences and humanities. Winfred Thompson, the president of AUK, told OBG that the overall goal of such an education is to stimulate creativity. “A common problem in the Gulf region, stemming from the history of a very technically focused education, is that people learn how to do things but not about how to think about the way things should be done. Our effort is to get students to think beyond routine and to look at new approaches.”

INTO THE WORKFORCE: Providing a support network for students and changing current attitudes to vocational training are important steps in providing Kuwaiti students with the right qualifications to succeed in the job market. With the rising numbers of new graduates every year this is becoming particularly difficult. The problem is further compounded by the government’s aim to reduce the numbers of Kuwaitis in the public sector from some 95-96% to 92% by 2014.

Other issues that require attention include the limited availability of land, which has made it difficult to build enough schools and universities to meet demand. The difficulty in accessing land to build on is an ongoing complaint from private providers. “With regard to leasing or buying land there are too many regulatory restrictions at the moment,” Abdel Raouf Tawfik, a consultant for finance and investment at investment services firm Al Madina, told OBG. “For education projects, the basic build-operate-transfer model offers investors a maximum of 20-25 years, but for such projects to recoup initial investments requires at least 30-35 years.”

Al Madina has a focus on supplying higher education and wants to establish a new technical college or university focusing on engineering, information technology, nanotechnology and telecommunications. Active in the market for the past three years, the firm is discussing a partnership with a Swiss university.

OUTLOOK: Kuwait’s history of providing its citizens free education has made many in parliament and other government ministries wary of going too far with privatisation, a tension that will remain going forward.

Parents who can afford to are choosing private schools, which they consider more internationally reputable and able to provide their children with the skills needed to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. Meanwhile, public schools, training institutes and universities will all receive funding for new programmes, curricula and facility upgrades.

With an ever-increasing number of Kuwaiti students graduating from university, the government’s biggest challenge remains to make the transition from higher education to the job market as seamless as possible.