Oman’s education sector has expanded rapidly since the 1970s, with the total number of schools in the sultanate rising from three in 1970 to 1725 in 2016. The sector is overseen by the Education Council, which was founded in 2012 to streamline all matters pertaining to education development in the country, and which is composed of the country’s key education bodies, including the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE).

Private sector participation first began in the mid-1990s, in response to both the need for a more thoroughly balanced education offering, as well as increased consumer demand from a growing population. Today, private institutions, both at the school and university level, form an important and growing component of the education landscape.

The Education Council is currently in the process of formulating the National Education Strategy 2040, which is expected to have a significant impact on the way education is delivered across the sultanate. Elsewhere, the work being carried out by the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) is primed to provide not only the public, but also key education stakeholders, with reliable information on the quality of higher education in Oman and to guide the sector towards international standards.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: Upon ascending the throne in 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said set about transforming and reinvigorating the nascent education sector. The young sultan’s commitment to improving the “human individual” found outlet in numerous education investments, which, in his words, aimed to “produce young Omanis who are aware of the world around them; who believe in their religion and their country; and who are able to use their creative potential, talents, and scientific and intellectual abilities to serve their country, improve their community, and preserve the sultanate of Oman’s distinctive character and ancient heritage”.

In 1970 there were three schools for the sultanates’ 300 students. Within one year an additional 13 schools were established for a total of 7000 students, and by the following year this had expanded to 45 schools serving 15,000 students. Investment in the sector was a significant driver for this growth as allocated funds jumped from OR1m ($2.6m) in 1973 to OR9.4m ($24.4m) in 1974. By 1975 there were 176 schools serving a student body of over 50,000, and in 1980, a decade after Sultan Qaboos assumed power, more than 100,000 Omani children were receiving a basic education.

Although it quickly became apparent that Oman would require foreign expertise to form the basis of the country’s emerging workforce, the government was similarly quick to launch training programmes to equip young Omanis with the skills required by the market. The first cohort of vocational trainees was recruited in 1972, with 70 Omani men selected to undergo vocational training, many taking place in neighbouring Arab countries. In 1992 Sultan Qaboos underlined the importance of vocational training, declaring that it was “a national duty… to create thousands of working opportunities that did not require advanced degrees”.

COLLEGES & INSTITUTIONS: The sultanate’s higher education institutions (HEIs) emerged in the 1980s. The first of these was the Oman Institute of Banking, today’s College of Banking and Financial Studies, which was established in 1983. The following year saw the opening of both the Teacher’s College (known today as the College of Applied Sciences) and the Technical Industrial College (currently called the Higher College of Technology). This was followed two years later by the establishment of Sultan Qaboos University – the sultanate’s first and only public university – which opened its doors and started accepting students in 1986. By 2016 the number of public HEIs in the sultanate had reached a total of 35.

The private sector has played an increasingly prominent role in education since 1996, when Royal Decree No. 41 allowed for the establishment of private colleges and institutes in the country for the first time. The nation’s private HEIs, which numbered 28 in 2016, offer a wide variety of programmes across the different academic stages, and also provide programmes in the vocational, technical and management fields, in addition to the wide array of language programmes on offer.

BUDGET: The budget allocation for education in 2018 is OR1.59bn ($4.1bn), constituting 13% of total expenditure. This figure remains unchanged from last year, but is a slight reduction compared to the OR1.65bn ($4.3bn) allocated in 2016, when education spending accounted for 14% of total spending. The reduction came as the government continued efforts to rationalise public expenditure, initiated in response to the fall in oil prices that started in mid-2014, and which led to a 14% contraction in GDP in 2015. Prior to 2015 government spending on education had been growing strongly, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17% between 2010 and 2014, and although spending has since eased somewhat, the government remains committed to the sector, with spending on education as a proportion of total spending on a par with OECD countries such as the UK (11%) and the US (15.5%).

INDICATORS: The investment the government has made in the education sector in recent decades resulted in the sultanate ticking steadily upward on various global education indicators. According to the World Bank, the net enrolment rate at the secondary level for both sexes grew from 68.6% in 2000 to 94.3% in 2015. This in turn has led to a corresponding rise in adult literacy, which grew from 81.4% in 2003 to 93% in 2015, a figure which puts the sultanate on par with regional neighbours such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and well ahead of the global mean of 86%. The average number of students per teacher at both the primary and secondary level has also improved steadily, with 11 students per teacher in 2017, compared to 13 in 2008.

Meanwhile, in 2017 Oman was ranked second in the Arab world and ninth globally by the British Council in terms of openness of higher education systems and student mobility. The sultanate also occupied the second position among other Arab countries with regard to sustainable development policies, and ranked 12th internationally in terms of national policy and regulatory structure to support international student mobility.

EDUCATION COUNCIL: Oman’s Education Council was established by Royal Decree No. 48 in 2012 as the government’s supreme education body, responsible for formulating policies and legislation for all levels of education, both private and public, throughout the sultanate. The council is currently helping formulate Oman’s National Education Strategy 2040, which is being developed in response to directives issued by Sultan Qaboos in 2011 and 2012 calling for a comprehensive evaluation of the education process in Oman, and with a stated objective of equipping young Omanis with the skills required to compete and succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based world. The strategy, which is composed of five substrategies, including education management and education funding, represents a major marker in the sector’s trajectory in Oman, and is expected to have a significant impact on the delivery of teaching throughout the sultanate.

The Education Council includes, among others, the MoE and the MoHE, while the OAAA, which has financial and administrative independence, reports to the Education Council.

The MoE is the supervisory and regulatory body responsible for the delivering of all preschool education in the sultanate. The MoE is also responsible for licensing all private schools in the sultanate and for approving all private schools’ syllabi.

The MoHE is responsible for regulating higher education across the sultanate’s private universities and colleges. Additionally, the MoHE is responsible for issuing scholarships to Omani students undertaking studies both at home and abroad. Government-funded scholarships are an integral part of the higher education system, with many students and private HEIs relying on them.

The Ministry of Manpower (MoM), meanwhile, regulates all technical and vocational training in the sultanate through two directorate generals – one for vocational training and the other for technical training – and the Technological, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system.

The OAAA is an independent authority responsible for reporting on the quality of higher education institutions and programmes in Oman. Originally established as the Oman Accreditation Council (OAC) in 2001, it became the OAAA in 2010.

Another important body is the Research Council, which was established in 2005 by Royal Decree No. 54, and which is the main policymaking body and funding agency for scientific research.

REGULATORY FRAMEWORK: As outlined above, the MoE is responsible for establishing all public schools across the elementary, primary and secondary levels, and is also responsible for granting approvals to all private schools wishing to set up in the sultanate. In addition to MoE approval, private schools – which are subject to foreign investment rules – cannot be established without the issuance of a trade licence from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Private schools moreover cannot be wholly owned by a foreign investor (except in the case of GCC nationals) and therefore require a local Omani partner in order to operate.

The majority of private schools in Oman take the form of limited liability companies run by managers. This is in contrast to private universities, which are run through a board appointed by a council of trustees. Private universities in the sultanate are overseen by the MoHE, which is responsible for approving the articles of association put forward by the founders of a prospective private institution.

On a more general level, the Education Council determines the number of private universities that can be established in the country. Each private university is required to have a board of trustees whose responsibilities include appointing the head of the university and their deputies, as well as the members of the university board, which is responsible for determining the conditions for admission into the higher education institution, and for the appointment of the deans and the board of colleges, research and scientific centres.

BY THE NUMBERS: According to the National Centre for Statistics and Information there were 748,308 students enrolled across the sultanate’s 1725 schools during the 2016/17 academic year. These figures are up on the previous year, when 724,395 students were enrolled in 1647 schools. The Muscat Governorate was home to the largest proportion of schools in 2016/17, with approximately 23.1% of the total. This was followed by Al Batinah North with 16.2% and Al Dakhiliyah with 12.2%.

Government schools unsurprisingly dominate the schooling landscape, with the majority of students (564,356) enrolled at one of the country’s 1100 government schools in 2016/17. However the number of private schools has grown significantly in recent years, outstripping growth levels witnessed in the public sector; the number of private schools jumped from 444 to 578 between 2012/13 and 2016/17, while the number of government schools went from 1043 to 1100 during the same period. The dominance of private school growth is also reflected in enrolment figures; enrolment at elementary through secondary (K-12) schools grew at a CAGR of 22.8% in the private sector compared to 0.5% in the public sector between 2009/10 and 2014/15. The total number of students enrolled in private schools in the sultanate stood at 103,358 during the 2016/17 academic year, compared to 101,860 the previous year and 79,382 in 2012/13.

In addition to the above, there were three special education schools in Oman in 2016/17, as well as 44 international schools. A total of 61,930 students were enrolled at international schools in 2016/17, representing 8.3% of the total student body. This is up from 49,948 in 2012/13, with growth being driven by an expatriate population which grew at a CAGR of 9% between 2012 and 2015.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Oman’s higher education system comprised 63 institutions in 2016, of which 35 are public institutions and 28 are private. These vary in status between universities, university colleges and specialised institutions.

The public institutions include Sultan Qaboos University and six applied science colleges that fall under the supervision of the MoHE. Some institutions are supervised by other government ministries, including seven public colleges of technology, which are supervised by the MoM, 13 health institutes, which are supervised by the Ministry of Health, and the sultanate’s sole faculty for Islamic studies, which is supervised by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Meanwhile, the College of Banking and Financial Studies falls under the supervision of the Central Bank of Oman.

Of those who graduated from secondary school in 2014/15, 89.6% were accepted into HEIs for the following academic year. This equates to approximately 34,000 students, a drop of roughly 2% on the previous year, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information. Of the students enrolled in courses at HEIs in the 2015/16 academic year, 54.3% were female and 45.7% were male. Looking ahead, total enrolment at Oman’s universities and colleges is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% between 2015 and 2020, which, according to a Gulf Financial House report, will be driven by population growth.

A major feature of Oman’s higher education segment are general foundation programmes. Given that all secondary teaching – apart from international schools – is delivered in Arabic, whereas the majority of higher education is delivered in English, the vast majority (over 90%) of Omanis entering higher education have to first attend a foundation course in English in order to prepare for their studies. General foundation programmes are offered by all HEIs in the sultanate and include courses in English as well as other subjects such as mathematics and IT, which are taught in English.

PRIVATE HIGHER EDUCATION: Private higher education was introduced in the mid-1990s in response to both the rising demand of a growing population, and as a means of reducing the sector’s reliance on government funding. In 2016 there were a total of 28 private HEIs in the sultanate: eight universities and 20 university colleges”. While enrolment at these institutions has been growing more strongly than at public institutions over the past decade, the period 2015 to 2016 witnessed a slowdown for the private segment. Enrolment at private HEIs grew at a CAGR of 11.9% between 2009/10 and 2014/15, compared to a 2.1% CAGR for public HEIs during the same period. However, the total number of students enrolled at private HEIs dipped by 6.1% in the 2015/16 academic year, falling to approximately 16,100 students. This drop was echoed further afield, too, with the number of Omanis enrolled at foreign HEIs in 2015/16 falling by 7.8% to 1391. The dip came on the back of the sudden fall in oil prices that occurred in mid-2014, with the number of those choosing to invest in private education abroad dropping as a result.

Muscat University is looking to capitalise on the rising number of Omani students choosing to stay at home rather than pursue studies abroad, and in October 2017 welcomed its first intake of 100 degree students. “The straightened economic environment of the past couple of years has made Omanis more cautious about spending on higher education abroad,” Yusra Mouzughi, interim vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor of academic affairs at Muscat University, told OBG.

In its bid to address the demand for education on a par with international standards, Muscat University has entered into partnerships with various UK institutions, including Cranfield and Aston Universities, and 90% of the university’s faculty comes from the UK. Students will be awarded dual degrees from both Muscat University and the partner UK university depending on the programme.

In addition, the university has various local partnerships, including with Oman Data Park for scholarships, and KPMG and Petroleum Development Oman for business and engineering student internships, respectively. “The concept of a new private university in Muscat was approved by Oman’s Education Council within the context of the government’s efforts to develop human resources in Oman in cooperation with leading figures in both the public and private sectors,” Mouzughi told OBG.

TECHNICAL & VOCATIONAL TRAINING: Publicly funded technical education is one of the oldest academic systems in Oman and began with the establishment of the Oman Technical Industrial College in 1984. Four vocational training centres were subsequently set up across the sultanate, and in 2001 these five centres were renamed and upgraded into colleges of technology, of which the Higher College of Technology in Muscat is one. Since then, the Shinas College of Technology (2005) and the Ibri College of Technology (2007) have also been set up, and the seven colleges overseen by the MoM accounted for 38% of students enrolled under government coverage in Oman in 2015/16.

With the sultanate’s economic diversification plan Tanfeedh – the National Programme for Enhancing Economic Diversification, which was launched in 2016 – underlining the need to reduce its reliance on oil, and as the state’s belt-tightening measures continue, technical and vocational training is coming into greater focus as a tertiary option for many locals. Omanis, like their GCC neighbours, have historically shunned the option of technical or vocational education in favour of academic degrees that lead to public sector employment.

But that sentiment is shifting, as is the scepticism surrounding private education. “Despite the scepticism that persists among prospective students about the quality of private education, it is often the private sector that fills the gap when it comes to technical education,” Lawrence Alva, CEO of the National Training Institute (NTI), told OBG.

Government-led diversification and Omanisation drives of recent years, as well as cutbacks in state positions and salaries, have led many young nationals to train or retrain for sectors earmarked for investment in the years ahead. The number of students enrolled at the sultanate’s technical colleges increased from 24,379 in 2010/11 to 35,493 in 2015/16, and according to the Gulf Financial House report, this trend will continue, with a projected annual growth of 20% in the years ahead. “Many people want to come back to ensure their current positions or to enhance their future careers,” Aleksandar Djordjevic, director at the Centre for Continuing Education & Professional Studies, told OBG. “The awareness of what is available is on the rise thanks to the campaigns that we and other colleges are running alongside the MoM, and as a result, the overall level of interest that the public has shown in vocational training has grown substantially. For instance, we saw intake of our Business and Technology Education Council Programme, which is a vocational programme by nature, double in September 2017 compared to 2016.”

ACCREDITATION PROCESS: The OAAA, which was initially established as the OAC in 2001 before being renamed in 2010, is in the process of a major overhaul of the sultanate’s higher education accreditation framework. When complete, it will put the sultanate on a par with international benchmarks.

The OAAA, which is made up of an independent board and reports to the Education Council, engages in two main activities in the sultanate: institutional accreditation and programme accreditation. Institutional accreditation is a two-step process, the first of which involves a quality audit of each institution. The quality audit cycle, which began in 2008, is now approaching completion, with more than 60, or 95%, of the sultanate’s HEIs having undergone quality audits as of October 2017. The audit reports are then published online with the feedback structured according to nine broad areas of activity, and presented as formal commendations, affirmations and recommendations, or as informal suggestions. The second stage of institutional accreditation is known as standard assessment. This commenced in February 2016, and as of October 2017 the OAAA was approximately 15% of the way through the process. The results of the accreditation process are published online, with a web tool enabling clear comparison of the results across single activities as well as across institutions.

The programme accreditation side of the OAAA’s activity has seen less measurable progress. Before institutions can submit programmes for accreditation, the institutions themselves need to be fully accredited. Given that the OAAA has not yet fully accredited any institutions, programme accreditation has been postponed for the time being, but its commencement is planned for the future.

What has taken place, however, is a quality audit of the general foundation programmes that every HEI runs, and which are attended by the vast majority of Omani students entering higher education. “At any given time, around 40% of the student population in higher education will be on a foundation programme, so this is a significant portion of the higher education profile,” Tess Goodliffe, deputy CEO of technical affairs at the OAAA, told OBG. “Given this, in 2008 the OAAA, which was then the OAC, developed standards for the foundation programmes run across the sultanate and is now carrying out audits which will result in a report that will give an idea of the overall quality of the programmes. Once we have completed the cycle of foundation programme quality audits, we will be able to review the standards and look into implementing a universal accreditation process for all general foundation programmes in the sultanate.”

QUALIFICATIONS FRAMEWORK: Additionally, the OAAA is in the process of developing a comprehensive qualifications framework, which is being worked on in partnership with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). The framework, which is currently in the consultation stage, will have 10 levels allowing employers to see where a prospective employee’s qualifications sit, whether they are academic, professional, technical or vocational. This means that all types of qualification will be recognised as there will be a mechanism in place via which qualifications can be identified and compared.

In Oman today there is a strong orientation towards academic qualifications; for instance, getting a job in the civil service requires a university degree. However, having a comprehensive qualifications framework in place could help promote equality of esteem.“A bachelor degree, for example, is a level-seven qualification,” said Goodliffe.

“The new qualifications framework will support transferability, as eventually we’ll live in a world where instead of employers saying they are looking for somebody with an bachelor degree, they can say they are looking for someone with a level-seven or level-eight qualification. Having a qualification framework means that you can develop a highly skilled workforce because the qualifications will be recognised across the board, and as a result people will invest in raising the skill level of their workforce.”

The qualifications framework draft was completed in partnership with the SQA and put out for consultation at a symposium attended by various education sector stakeholders in May 2017. Another symposium, this time in Arabic, was held in October 2017. The consultation process is extremely important, according to Goodliffe. “The consultation process ensures that there is a quality assurance mechanism, and so if somebody is approached with a qualification that’s listed on the framework, then they know they can trust the qualification,” she told OBG.

SCHOLARSHIPS: Oman’s commitment to education under Sultan Qaboos was signalled from the outset of his rule with the spate of investment into education that took place in the 1970s. One major feature of these early efforts which continues to this day is the government’s generous scholarships scheme, with thousands of the nation’s youth benefitting from some form of state-sponsored support every year. The Directorate General of Scholarships was established in the 1970s, and one of its main bodies was the External Scholarships Department, which was tasked with sending promising young Omanis to further their studies abroad in neighbouring or allied countries, with these Omanis later assuming senior positions within the infrastructure of the state. The MoHE later developed out of the External Scholarships Department in 1994.

In August 2017 the MoHE announced that it would be awarding 1643 external scholarships and 9638 scholarships for the 2017/18 academic year. In total, approximately 35,000 pupils are studying in various disciplines under the government’s scholarship grant in 28 universities and colleges across the sultanate. Given the number of students on public support, many colleges are almost entirely reliant on fees from scholarship recipients. Oman-based Al Ahlam Training and Higher Education Services, for example, receives 80% of its income from scholarship students. However, fears that government cutbacks would affect these revenue streams appear to have been unfounded; the number of scholarships awarded for 2017/18 are broadly in line with 2012/13 figures, when the oil price was above $100 per barrel, and when the MoHE awarded 9738 internal scholarships and 1395 external scholarships.

“Most of our students are on government-funded scholarships and those numbers are still intact,” Djordjevic told OBG. “The fear that we would experience a downward sloping trend in this regard because of the budget cuts has yet to materialise, and indeed we are still looking very good in terms of our yearly intake of students.”

OMANISATION: With a growing population, 30.5% of whom are aged between 15 and 29, Oman is looking to the private sector to deliver the twin goals of diversified economic growth on the one hand, and meaningful employment for the rising number of Omani graduates on the other. To kick-start this, in 2010 the government introduced a minimum Omanisation target of 35% for private companies operating throughout the sultanate.

Despite this, the private sector continues to be dominated by expatriates, an issue the minister of commerce and industry, Ali bin Masoud Al Sunaidi, addressed in 2017 when he announced that companies that failed to meet the 35% Omanisation target may start to lose out on government benefits. According to government figures, just over 10% of those working in the private sector are Omani, or approximately 223,000, compared to roughly 1.85m expatriates currently in private employment. Government efforts are also being targeted toward addressing this. Labour market reform one of the five key focus areas of Tanfeedh as a core tenet of Oman’s ninth five-year plan (see analysis).

LABOUR PREPAREDNESS: Alongside these targets, efforts are also under way to enhance the labour preparedness of those emerging from training colleges and institutions, with courses tailored to fit the needs of the labour market. “It’s important for universities and colleges to ensure that what they teach is meeting the demands of the labour market,” Tahseen A Rafik, dean of the Global College of Engineering and Technology, told OBG. “They can achieve this by establishing committees with employer representatives, workshops and internships, and even leveraging the prior work experience of current students.” At the NTI, for example, administrators and employers coordinate on the type of training needed, with employers engaged from the start of a programme’s development to ensure what is offered dovetails with their needs.

“We never encourage off-the-shelf courses to employers, but rather provide a range of module choices,” Vincent Paul, manager of technical training at the NTI, told OBG. “There are several meetings, and then the curriculum goes back and forth between the employer and us to ensure it is fully agreed upon and approved before we deliver the programme.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Education sectors across the GCC have been attracting intense international interest over the past decade. This is being fuelled by the region’s strong fundamentals, chief among which is a population that is set to reach 65m people by 2030, a third of whom will be under 25.

In addition to this international interest, disposable income levels have been on the rise, with consumers increasingly willing to spend high amounts on quality education. “Investing in the health and education sectors is a smart decision given that Omanis tend to seek the best quality for these services and are loath to compromise on these things,” Redha Juma Al Saleh, vice-chairman of administration and finance affairs and chairman of the Financial, Banking and Insurance Committee at the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told OBG.

Another major driver has come in the form of government initiatives that actively seek and encourage private sector participation, a trend that has intensified in the wake of the drop in oil prices as governments across the region look to private partners to cater to growing demand. In Oman, the availability of government incentives to set up private HEIs, including land grants, tax exemptions and a matching grant of 50% of capital contribution up to OR3m ($7.8m), is expected to continue driving investor interest in the years ahead.

Many industry players see that the greatest opportunities lie in the training field, and indeed a handful of training institutions in the sultanate, including the Oman Tourism College and the International Maritime College Oman, are already examples of partnerships between the government and private sector interests and how they can succeed.

“I see a lot of room for more professional and vocational training in Oman,” Djordjevic told OBG. “We’ve seen the numbers rise in recent years, and I think there is still big potential there, particularly for bridge programmes between high school and university-level courses, and also for language skills.”

OUTLOOK: Although the Omani government has continued its rationalisation initiatives started in 2014, the education sector has remained largely insulated from major cutbacks. The reductions that have occurred are expected to open the way for greater private sector participation, with international interest fuelled by both Oman’s sizeable youth population, as well as the government’s continued focus and determination on achieving a knowledge-based and diversified economy.

The rollout of the National Education Strategy 2040 is expected to bring yet more improvements to a sector that has for decades been prominent in national budgets and development strategies, an approach in line with Sultan Qaboos’ early governing priorities. The work being carried out by the OAAA to implement a comprehensive and internationally benchmarked system is set to bring greater clarity to the sultanate’s educators and employers alike.