Fundamental to the sultanate’s long-term development plans, education and training have long been a central focus both for government expenditure and private sector investment. Over the past few decades, this focus has borne fruit in the form of some major and rapid successes.
Omani young people, male and female, from all regions and social classes, now receive a sound, universal core education. On the current agenda is the next stage: the successful development of education and training programmes in a way that dovetails with the needs of a future, more diversified and knowledge-based economy.
This should enable the development of an explicitly Omani workforce, capable of tackling high-tech tasks, as well as creating a more private sector-oriented, entrepreneurial culture.
These tasks are challenging, but the commitment of the government to achieving them remains strong, with education and training likely to remain a top priority for many years to come.
When Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said ascended to the throne in 1970, the sultanate’s education system consisted of just three primary-level schools, with these only accepting male students. The majority of all education before then had been via religious institutions, taking place at mosques, madrassas, or in private homes. The sultan introduced the first national education system, which consisted of three levels – primary, preparatory and secondary. After completing these, students sat a national exam, and those who were successful were granted a secondary school leaving certificate.
In 1976 the first five-year plan for national education was implemented, which focused on expanding educational opportunities throughout the country, building infrastructure and establishing institutes for teacher training. By the end of the plan period, there were 373 schools and institutes teaching around 106,032 students throughout the sultanate.
Five- Year Plan
Having established a solid base, successive five-year plans saw Oman’s education system evolve rapidly, with highlights including the expansion of special education programmes and the development of teacher-training colleges, which helped train the trainers by allowing teachers to earn diplomas. The year 1986 saw a major leap forward in higher education with the inauguration of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU). In SQU the sultanate not only acquired its first state university, but also its first higher-level college of education, offering programmes up to the master’s and doctorate degree levels.
This was particularly important given the nationwide Omanisation drive, which was introduced in 1988. This set targets for each sector of the economy and government, stating a specific percentage of employees who must be Omani nationals. The concept was introduced to help knowledge transfer and bring Omanis into the workforce – which in many areas, including education, was dominated by expatriates. Continuing this drive among teachers, in 1994/95 all the teacher-training colleges were raised to the university level, a move that enabled graduates to earn bachelor of education degrees. Currently, Omani educators may also take advantage of the National Centre for Vocational Development, run by the Ministry of Education (MoE) – the sector’s top governmental body. This offers specialised training and continuous development courses for teachers.
In 1998 the 10-year basic education system (BES) was introduced. The BES consists of two phases. The first is made up of two cycles of basic education, one from ages five to 10 and one from ages 11 to 15. The second phase comprises two years of secondary education. The aim of the system is to teach students communication, critical thinking, science and technology with an emphasis on IT training. After the BES, students may choose to continue education at tertiary institutions such as SQU, other specialised colleges, or go abroad.
In addition, a post-basic education programme was introduced in the 2007/08 academic year for grade 11 and 12 students. Built around core studies in Arabic and English, Islamic culture, mathematics, social studies, IT, research methodology, science and life skills, the programme was designed to encourage students to develop proficiencies in high demand by the local labour market: IT, mathematics and critical thinking skills. Students who meet the post-basic education programme criteria earn a General Certificate Diploma.
Raising The Bar
The eighth five-year plan ended in 2015 and aimed to continue to raise the bar in terms of education quality, student performance evaluations and human resource efficiency, as well as further developing school curricula and emphasising the use of technology in education.
These continuing national plans have effectively transformed the education of Omanis. In 2013 almost all children in the sultanate were enrolled in school, with education at more than 1000 state schools offered free of charge, and Almost 98% of students completed primary school that year and 92% were enrolled in secondary school, according to World Bank statistics. The number of students repeating a grade or dropping out altogether declined nearly 10-fold between 2009 and 2014.
Looking to the next five years and beyond, the government has now ordered an evaluation of the entire education system with an eye towards further development. A roadmap is in the works, based on studies carried out by Omani and international experts, to gear the education system towards producing skilled, productive and adaptable graduates ready to compete for jobs.
Indeed, education holds the key to achieving the primary goals of the sultanate’s Vision 2020, the country’s long-term economic development plan.
All of Vision 2020’s goals – economic diversification, sustainable development, the enhancement of human resources and increasing the role of the private sector to economic growth– are linked in one way or another to the quality of the country’s basic, secondary and tertiary education systems.
Education remains crucial for another reason, too. With about half of the country’s population under the age of 21, it is imperative that the government find a way to create jobs for the growing number of nationals who will soon be entering the labour market. Student numbers are increasing rapidly, up by 28,345 year-on-year between August 2014 and August 2015 alone, and this trend is set to continue going forward.
At the same time, rising Omanisation targets mean that there is ever-growing demand for qualified Omani employees, with some sectors lagging behind others.
In banking, for example, the May 2015 Omanisation rate stood at 93.3% for local banks and 90.5% for foreign lenders. Yet in construction, a sector that employs around 700,000 people, only 56,000 of these – less than 9% – are Omani. The Omanisation target for the sector is 30%.
In order to encourage more local employment, in mid-August 2015 the Ministry of Manpower ordered private sector companies to submit their 2016 plans for Omanisation by the end of the year or face a freeze on new expatriate hires.
The successor to Oman Vision 2020, Vision 2040, was being finalised in late 2015 and focuses on five areas for improvement in education and training: management, quality, research and development (R&D), funding, and differentiated and phased enrolment.
In order to achieve its goals, a Restructuring Education System Committee (RESC) will set up a new educational framework meant to build capabilities, give educational institutions more responsibilities and operate on the basis of output.
The head of the RESC, Amer Al Rawas, told a national symposium on education in mid-October 2014 that the project was looking into reforming both the public education system and the higher education system, evaluating the capacity of the country’s higher-education institutions (HEIs), diversifying them to align with market needs and reviewing the quality of education management. “The study spotted the major challenges in education Oman faces by analysing data and conducting field visits locally and internationally,” Al Rawas told symposium participants.
According to Ahmed Hassan Al Bulushi, dean of Caledonian College of Engineering, academia and industry are inherently different, and there is currently no mechanism to harmonise the two sectors. “A body to synchronise coordination would go a long way towards supplying the appropriate manpower for the sultanate’s development needs,” Al Bulushi told OBG.
Aligned With Industry
The MoE is embracing Vision 2040’s targets by not just providing universal free education and preparing students to meet international educational standards, but also by aligning the education system’s curricula with the needs of industry and Oman’s economy.
New curriculum standards based on knowledge, skills and student attitude are meant to discourage learning by rote memorisation and encourage critical thinking. “We are focusing on clear strategies on quality improvements and effective monitoring of the system to ensure sustained development,” Madiha bint Ahmed Al Shibaniyah, the minister of education, told local press in an October 2014 interview. “We are linking basic education with international institutions to learn from their experiences” with the objective of providing “the right combination of incentives, support and resources that will help accelerate the changes needed to improve the quality of education in all schools”.
The Right Skills
As higher numbers of students graduate, economic planners, business leaders and sector specialists have been working with greater intensity to ensure that new job seekers are fully equipped for an increasingly competitive work environment. Adapting the sultanate’s education system and expectations of students to the needs of the private sector could help produce graduates who are not only qualified for the jobs available, but also open to a wider variety of employment opportunities. However, this mindset shift is unlikely to happen overnight, and will require ongoing cooperation between the government and private sector players.
Eyes On Vocational Training
In addition to the new curriculum standards and quality improvements to support educational and employment outcomes of Omani students, the expansion of vocational training constitutes a further pillar of education reform, linking up with the broader effort to boost Omanisation levels (see analysis). “The increase in the number of vocational courses and institutes is the result of the sultanate wanting more Omanis in the workforce,” Lawrence Alva, CEO of the private sector National Training Institute (NTI), told OBG. NTI is a case in point when it comes to vocational expansion. Starting with programmes targeting oil and gas, it now offers courses to the construction and manufacturing industry, logistics and soon, railways. Quality is key, with NTI’s acquisition by the UK’s Babcock part of a process of achieving international standards.
In this regard, the recent contract between the Ministry of Oil and Gas and OPITO International, a not-for-profit global oil and gas training standards body, is also illustrative. OPITO, in concert with the Oman Society for Petroleum Services, oil and gas employers, and the government, is set to issue recommendations that are expected to upgrade the training received by the country’s oil and gas labour force, boosting employment opportunities for Omanis in the process. These workers will have been trained and qualified to recognised industry standards in mechanical and electrical maintenance, instrumentation and controls.
Government-sponsored vocational training could also help change the cost-benefit analysis for private sector companies that have traditionally opted to hire low-cost workers from abroad rather than invest in training local graduates. Debate continues among educators, politicians and the public over how best to balance student choice with national business and economic needs, particularly given ambitious Omanisation targets across a variety of sectors. Comprehensive vocational training could provide a solution, giving students more specialised, tailored skills and helping professionalise trade work.
Tertiary education has followed a similar, if even more dramatic, trajectory to basic and secondary education. Back in 1970, Oman had no universities or colleges. Students wishing to continue their education had to travel abroad to the UAE or beyond, and this remained the case until 1986, when SQU opened. In the years since, the number of HEIs in Oman has increased to 55. These HEIs are both publicly and privately owned and operated, and range from colleges and training institutes to universities.
At the same time, the number of Omani students entering higher education has also blossomed. According to information given at the annual HEI fair, EduTraC Oman 2015, the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) granted around 28,000 scholarships for Omani students to enter the tertiary level in 2014. By comparison, the total number of students who graduated from HEIs in Oman in the 2012/13 academic year was 16,675, according to the NCSI. EduTraC Oman also saw attendance from some 160 HEIs from 18 different countries, illustrating the size and scope of global interest in Oman’s tertiary sector.
Currently, a second public university, Oman University, is in the planning stages. This is to be located within a science and technology city. In addition to housing the Oman University campus, this city, which will be in the governorate of Barka, will also be home to R&D facilities, as well as internationally accredited foreign university campuses.
The science and technology city concept is aimed at attracting investment in technology and R&D, which in turn is expected to produce both a qualified workforce and more opportunities for skilled Omanis. The programmes and degrees offered by Oman University will be aligned with national development plans and projects. In addition, the R&D facilities are expected to act as a magnet for an intensification of research into socioeconomic and health issues.
When Oman University opens its doors, the MoHE expects more than 1400 students to enrol per year, and aims for it to become the sultanate’s leading public research facility.
At a March 2015 meeting of the Higher Committee for Oman University Project, it was announced that the university’s science programmes will focus on sustainable energy technology, medical science and public health. During the first part of its two-stage implementation process, the university’s headline research subjects will include renewable energy, mineral exploration, public health and health e-services, transportation, agriculture and aquatic sciences, and mineral treatment, as well as the production and development of IT systems and digital media in Arabic.
R&D activity is also funded by The Research Council (TRC), which has a mission to create an innovation ecosystem in Oman that is responsive to local needs and international trends. In 2014 TRC funded five education-related studies that investigated subjects such as how to diversify sources of funding for higher education in the sultanate; how to develop critical thinking skills in basic and post-basic education; the challenges and opportunities in using English as a medium of instruction in Oman’s HEIs; job market training for HEI students; and enhancing students’ performance in assessment tests.
Taki Al Abduwani, the dean of Gulf College, a private institution in Oman, told OBG, “To bridge the gap between academia and the workforce it has become the responsibility of HEIs to foster innovation, entrepreneurship and to gauge success by the employability of our students.”
Education is a sector in which foreign investment is actively encouraged by the government. A 1977 royal decree allowed for the establishment of private schools and welcomed education-related foreign investment. Since then, investments in higher education, renewable energy and ICT, among other areas, have been highly sought after.
The government is especially keen to attract investors that can develop the management expertise and training of Omanis, as well as to offer opportunities for technology transfer.
In return, the government grants exemptions on taxes and duties on capital goods and raw materials for renewable five-year periods for HEIs and private sector schools and training institutes, among other benefits.
Although the MoE provides supervision to private schools, in general they are free to choose their own textbooks, exam regimens and curricula. This freedom extends to the use of English to teach science, IT and mathematics. Private schools may also offer A-level courses and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education and International Baccalaureate qualifications.
International School System
International schools, which mainly serve the sultanate’s large expatriate community, are granted a great deal of independence. They are able to make their own decisions about curricula, teachers, administrators and enrolment, and to raise funds.
These schools are overseen by the MoE’s International Schools Office, which ensures compliance with the ministry’s rules and regulations regarding facilities and equipment.
Seven private universities have already opened their doors across the sultanate, and the geographical spread of these institutions is in line with Oman’s strategy of regionalisation, which aims to create employment and wider opportunities in governorates other than Muscat and Salalah.
The seven include Sohar University, the sultanate’s first private university, which offers both undergraduate and post-graduate programmes and maintains technical and academic affiliation with Australia’s University of Queensland and Jordan’s Mu’tah University.
Dhofar University, a not-for-profit private HEI in Salalah, offers a foundation programme, two-year diploma and four-year bachelor’s degree programmes, as well as a Continuing Education Centre. The Arab Open University (AOU), which is affiliated with the UK Open University (UKOU), offers diplomas and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in areas such as business administration, software development and educational technology and leadership. Graduates receive dual certification from UKOU and AOU.
The German University of Technology (GU tech), is affiliated with Germany’s RWTH Aachen University. GU tech offers bachelor’s of science degrees in applied geosciences, computer science and logistics, as well as bachelor’s of engineering degrees in environmental, mechanical and process engineering and a master’s degree in petroleum geoscience. As of spring 2015, GU tech’s 1100-plus students hailed from some 28 different countries.
European study programmes are the focus at the University of Buraimi, which is affiliated with Austria’s University of Vienna and the Vienna University of Technology and the UK’s University of Bradford. Another regional university, Nizwa University, is a non-profit HEI governed by its faculty. Located in the interior region of Al Dakhiliya, Nizwa University offers more than 30 bachelor’s and six master’s degree programmes, as well as 20 diploma programmes. The university’s student body numbers nearly 6500.
A third regional university, A’Sharqiyah University (ASU), is located in the A’Sharqiyah region, around 150 km from Muscat.
Currently, ASU’s colleges include business administration, engineering and applied sciences, but it plans to expand its offerings with two additional colleges: medicine and health sciences and graduate studies. ASU cooperates with Oklahoma State University and Texas Technological University in academic programme design and implementation. ASU currently enrols a student body that numbers more than 2100.
In addition to these private universities, around 20 private colleges also operate in Oman, with specialities running the gamut from IT, design and dentistry to maritime studies.
The private sector seems particularly popular among female students. According to NCSI data, in the 2013/14 academic year, of a total 6599 students graduating from private HEIs, 4177 were female and 2422 male. The respective numbers for public HEIs were 5182 and 4894. These figures additionally show how efforts to promote gender equality in representation among the student body have achieved notable success since 1970.
Ensuring that HEIs meet high-quality standards is a task recently undertaken by the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA), which took over the role from the Oman Accreditation Council in 2010. The OAAA is currently working on the development of a comprehensive national qualifications framework – the Oman Qualifications Framework – covering all branches of education. Established by royal decree, the Oman Accreditation Council continues to conduct audits of academic, vocational and other training programmes.
The fact that the government has maintained a high level of expenditure on education, despite the decline in oil prices, is a testament to how important it considers the sector to be to Oman’s future. This level of funding is likely to be sustained, even if the price of oil continues to drop, as there is a clear recognition in Muscat that education and training are fundamental to the success of the sultanate’s wider economic, political and social aspirations. For international investors, Oman thus stands open to investment in a number of educational and training activities and products. These range from HEIs to private primary schools, and teacher training to course material development.
At the same time, there is also an understanding that the sector has to adapt to more closely meet the needs of the labour market. This involves not only tailoring courses to teach the technical skills required by employers, but also the process of instilling a culture of enterprise, which is especially important given that the current goal of many Omani graduates is to obtain a secure government job. Those jobs will likely be in much shorter supply going forwards, with colleges and schools now having to prepare new generation of workers to a more evolved job market. With all of this in mind, it seems as though there is plenty to do in Oman’s rapidly expanding education and training sector.