Costs a concern as demand expands in Kuwaiti education

Education is set to witness rapid change, with reforms deemed a priority given the role of the sector in the drive towards a diversified economy in line with Kuwait Vision 2035, the country’s long-term development strategy. As such, efforts are well under way to implement new curricula and assessment methods. At the same time, favourable demographics mean the private education sector is thriving.

Figures

Kuwait has a relatively young population, a result of both historically high birth rates and continued immigration as the country’s economy continues to attract expatriate workers. Of the total population, 25% were under the age of 15 in 2013, as per World Bank figures. According to investment bank Alpen Capital’s 2014 “GCC Education Industry” report, in the GCC as a whole 17.5% of the population, or some 6.9m people, were in the 15-25 age bracket, where demand for higher and tertiary education is at its peak. The report put total spending on education in Kuwait at $3.6bn in 2010 and rising to $5bn in 2011. According to local press, the country budgeted KD1.7bn ($5.86bn) for education in 2015, equivalent to some 9.5% of the state’s total budget for 2013. Alpen Capital estimates this could reach $8.3bn by 2016.

Reform

Kuwait came in 81st out of 144 countries in terms of higher education and training in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Global Competitiveness Report” for 2014-15, and 97th in terms of staff training. In the more recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, Kuwait came 47th out of 53 countries, which was last among GCC member states. However, it did well in terms of gross enrolment figures, ranking 34th out of 144 countries on the WEF’s index in terms of secondary school enrolment. Furthermore, according to the “Human Development Report 2014”, the country achieved 93.9% literacy among citizens aged 15 years and older.

In view of all this, there is significant interest in reforming the present system to improve standards. This is partly due to economic considerations. Vision 2035 envisages a series of reforms and investments to transform the country into a regional services centre by 2035, diversifying its economy away from oil and reducing its present reliance on hydrocarbons. Creating such an economy requires a skilled workforce, making education and training a key component of Vision 2035. For example, part of the drive to diversify away from hydrocarbons will mean more use of renewables, which is one segment that Anas Meerza, group CEO of the National Technology Enterprises Company, believes could benefit from staff training. Meerza told OBG, “Before we can educate the public on renewable energies, we must first make sure employees in both the private and public sector have a deep understanding.”

Mandate

The National Council for Educational Development performs duties including inspecting schools, running international tests to provide quantifiable data with which to compare the Kuwaiti education system to others, and liaising with both the Ministry of Education (MoE) and bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank to deliver technical expertise on curriculum improvements. The reform process is based on four pillars: updating the curriculum to make it more competency-based than content-based; boosting standards for teachers, including a new system for teacher licensing; improving governance and leadership standards in schools; and upgrading infrastructure for schools. Nizar Hamzeh, president of American University of Kuwait (AUK), told OBG, “A way to fortify Kuwait’s education sector is to attract more international universities and eliminate the regulatory limitations we currently face.”

While redesigning educational curricula is necessarily a slow, time-consuming process anywhere in the world, a recent progress update from the World Bank noted that the Kuwaiti authorities had succeeded in modernising the syllabus for 12 key subjects across grades 1-12, leading to a new integrated curriculum that is both child-centred and competence-based. A new national assessment system, known as MESA after its key components maths, English, science and Arabic, has also been introduced for grades five, nine and 12. Other proposed initiatives to improve standards include an independent schools inspectorate and a centralised body to deal with university admissions, as is the norm in many European countries.

Public Schools 

Prior to the advent of the modern system, educational provision in Kuwait consisted of small schools known as kuttabs, which focused on religious education. In 1939 the first modern educational institution was set up, and by independence in 1961 there were 40,000 pupils in the nascent school system, of which 40% were female. The constitution of 1962 enshrines education as a basic right, and in the years after independence access to schools was expanded. The system is largely based on that of Egypt, which provided most teaching staff during the early years following Kuwait’s independence. It consists of four stages: nursery school (ages four to six); primary (six to 10); middle (10-14); and secondary schools (14-18).

During the 2013/14 academic year, the government operated 803 public schools, catering to a total of 360,845 pupils and employing 60,902 teachers, according to figures from the Central Statistical Bureau (CSB). These schools included 199 nursery schools, 259 primary schools, 206 middle schools and 139 secondary schools. The government also operates nine religious institutes and 29 special schools that cater to disabled children or those with special needs. The MoE runs the public system directly, and the teaching corps is employed directly by the ministry.

Private Schools

However, the government only makes provisions for the education of the children of Kuwaiti nationals, and as such many private schools have sprung up to cater for the children of expatriate workers and for Kuwaitis who prefer to send their children to English-language schools. The most prestigious, and expensive, of these tend to be schools following a Western curriculum, such as that of the US, UK or France, followed by schools offering an Arab curriculum, or bilingual Arabic and English instruction. There are also schools that follow the education systems of Asian nations, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

In 2010 revenue from private school fees in Kuwait exceeded $1bn for the first time, according to Alpen Capital. In 2013/14, as many as 250,746 children in Kuwait attended private schools, which employed 14,940 teaching staff, according to CSB figures. Of the private schools, those with an Arabic curriculum included 17 nursery schools with 4863 children; 41 primary schools with 42,238 students; 50 middle schools with 32,179 pupils; 48 secondary schools with 27,379 students; and seven special needs schools with 818 pupils. For the same year, non-Arab private schools included 90 nurseries with 34,634 children; 93 primary schools with 64,764 students; 85 middle schools with 29,155 pupils; 65 secondary schools with 13,951 students; and five special needs schools with 765 pupils.

Most private schools in Kuwait operate on a for-profit basis, and while some are run by sole proprietors, there are also several large chains in the segment. The Kuwait Educational Fund is a joint venture between KIPCO Asset Management Company, one of Kuwait’s biggest financial groups, and the state-owned National Offset Company. Structured as a public-private partnership, it invests in educational projects across the country. Educational Holding Group founded in 1982 and one of the largest providers of private education in Kuwait also includes the Gulf University of Science and Technology (GUST) and the Afaq chain of schools. United Education Company, founded in 2003, also operates a number of tertiary institutions, including AUK and the Al Rayan chain of K-12 schools, which has more than 10,500 pupils. The MoE retains some responsibility for private schools and is tasked with inspecting and licensing such institutions to ensure minimum standards. The MoE also regulates fees and has the power to cap tuition fee increases. Indeed, costs at private schools – and to a lesser extent, at private universities – have risen sharply in recent years, prompting calls for greater regulation of fees (see analysis).

Public Universities

Kuwait University (KU), which was founded in 1966, is one of the country’s leading tertiary institutions. It is the only public university in the country and offers a full range of courses across 16 colleges – including a faculty for graduate studies – at five campuses spread across the country. According to the CSB, during the second semester of the 2013/14 academic year KU counted over 36,000 students. Of these, just under 11,000 were male and over 25,000 female, with just over 2000 pursuing graduate studies. Of the total student body, around 4500 were non- Kuwaitis. A new campus, Sabah Al Salem University City, is currently under construction at a cost of $5.8bn, and is set to open by the end of 2015. It will be one of the largest educational campuses in the world, and will offer 25 faculty and administrative buildings, as well as a 600-bed teaching hospital attached to the Faculty of Medicine. A second public university, Jaber Al Ahmad University, is due to be completed in 2015. It will offer courses in law, engineering and management, among other subjects, as well as vocational degrees.

Private Universities

First established in the early 2000s, private universities have been able to meet the demand for higher education, as KU lacks the capacity to take in all students that qualify. The Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) regulates both public and private institutions, but private universities must be registered with the Private Universities Council (PUC), a key regulatory body. In turn, the PUC requires that any institution wishing to accredit itself must have in place a partnership agreement with an institution of learning abroad in order to ensure high standards are upheld.

Currently, there are eight private accredited universities operating in Kuwait. As with private schools, private universities operate on a for-profit basis. Broadly, private higher education institutes in Kuwait offer subjects that are popular, and hence over-enrolled at KU, such as engineering, law and economics degrees, although humanities are also popular at certain institutions. Although none host doctoral research programmes, a number offer post-graduate degrees, such as MBA programmes. Almost all private universities use English as the language of instruction, and consequently many also offer intensive courses to bring students’ language skills up to scratch. These schools include: GUST, Kuwait-Maastricht Business School, AUK, Australian College of Kuwait, Box Hill College Kuwait, American University of the Middle East (AUM), Arab Open University and American College of the Middle East.

Partnership

Of these, GUST, founded in 2002, is the oldest institution. It is partnered with the University of Missouri-St Louis, and since 2012 with Florida International University. Its Colleges of Arts and Sciences and College of Business Administration offer a variety of courses to more than 3400 students. AUK, founded in 2003, offers 13 degree programmes in arts, sciences and economics, and is partnered with Dartmouth University in the US. It counts 3000 students, of whom onethird come from abroad. Box Hill College Kuwait is the only private women’s university in the country and is accredited by Australia’s Box Hill Institute. It offers six degree programmes and opened in 2007. AUM received accreditation with the PUC in 2010 and is affiliated with Purdue University in the US. It offers business and engineering courses. According to a report from the GCC General Secretariat released in late 2014, Kuwait was the top destination for GCC students seeking an education in other Gulf countries, with 16,000 GCC students pursuing education in Kuwait at all levels.

Vocational Training

The Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET), founded in 1982, is the government body charged with providing vocational education in Kuwait. It reports to the MoHE. During the 2013/14 academic year around 50,000 students were enrolled in vocational training at 29 PAAET institutes, in subjects such as nursing and construction, as well as courses geared to factory work, secretarial work, tourism and fashion. Vocational training suffers from an image problem in many countries, and Kuwait is no exception. Many younger Kuwaitis have grown up expecting to take a job in the public sector, and may therefore see less value in a more practically oriented vocational course. However, expanding the skillset of the Kuwaiti population to enable them to take on jobs that are held by expatriates is a key component of Vision 2035, and as such, Kuwaitis with the right skills are increasingly required at all levels of the job market.

Research

Kuwait’s universities remain primarily teaching-oriented institutions, rather than research-oriented ones. In part, this reflects the recent foundation of KU and of the private institutions. However, there is a growing awareness in government circles that research and development (R&D) is the engine of any modern knowledge economy, and so more research centres will be needed as part of Kuwait’s diversification and transition to a knowledge-based economy. However, this remains a goal for the longer term, with policymakers focusing on the near term for now to make improvements in the school system.

The Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) was founded in 1976 and is funded by a 1% tax on local profits. In addition to funding various literary and scientific prizes, KFAS also supports a number of education and research centres, such as the country’s Scientific Centre, the Dasman Diabetes Institute, and the Sabah Al Ahmad Centre for Giftedness and Creativity. KFAS recently specified developing Kuwait’s R&D capacity as one of its strategic objectives, and aims to promote technology transfer into the country through cooperation with a number of foreign partners, including in the field of clinical research.

Gender

The Kuwaiti education system is also characterised by a pronounced gender gap: women tend to outnumber men overall and often achieve better results. This may be partly due to differing social expectations. Kuwaiti women tend to feel more financially secure, whereas young men are often expected to enter the labour market earlier so as to be in a position to support a family. In 2013, 44% of Kuwaiti women over the age of 15 were in the labour market, according to the World Bank, compared with 83% of men. There are indications that women’s greater focus on education may be paying off: youth unemployment among females aged 15-24 was 12.7% in 2013, while it was 22.8% for their male counterparts, according to the World Bank.

Land Issues

In Kuwait obtaining land can be difficult, and this is as much an issue for education companies as it is for other businesses. Most land is owned by the state, either directly or by various public bodies such as the Ministry of Defence or the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, which means that when land does become available it can be expensive. Many educational institutions are built on plots obtained on a build-operate-transfer basis, driving up costs for schools. A further challenge is that education has long lead times for investors looking to recoup their money.

Staff

The majority of the teaching staff in state schools are Kuwaiti, but there is a large number of teachers from other Arab countries. For the 2013/14 academic year, CSB figures showed that Kuwaitis accounted for 96.8% of nursery staff, 67.8% of primary school teachers, 49.8% of middle school instructors and 40.4% of secondary school teachers, or some 59% of the total teaching corps in public schools. In the private sector, since most schools follow the curriculum of a particular country, the staff will tend to be largely drawn from that country (i.e. teachers at an Indian school will be Indian, a British school will have British staff and so forth). Salaries in the private sector have also been rising, partly due to growth in Kuwait’s economy, and partly because high salaries have traditionally been needed to attract staff from overseas. In terms of teacher training, the College of Education at KU is the country’s sole teacher training college, and in the second semester of 2013/14 it had 6346 registered students.

Outlook

Demographic conditions ensure that the number of students entering education in Kuwait at all levels is set to continue to rise for some time to come. Costs at private institutions are likely to keep increasing given demand, unless the government adopts more stringent regulation of fees and makes the administrative process for hiring teachers in the private sector, particularly foreign staff, smoother. In the public sector the implementation of new assessment guidelines for both pupils and teachers is likely to raise standards.

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The Report: Kuwait 2015

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