Education: Centres of excellence

Concerted efforts, new institutions and deployment of technology are part of a national strategy to position Oman as a regional hub for education  

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The Sultanate’s education field is on a sustainable growth path supported by both government and the private sector. Oman government, which attaches top priority to developing educational institutions across the country, is aiming at building a knowledge-based society through increased investment in higher education centres, streamlining curriculum and enhancing the role of the private sector in higher education.

The Omani government has been allocating sizable funds in the recent past, besides implementing long-term development strategies through five-year plans. This is not different this year as well, despite constraints in resources due to a drop in oil prices. After spending the rich oil generated funds for developing educational institutions across the country over the years, the planned budget allocation for education sector is RO1,596 million this year, constituting 13.6 per cent of total budget expenditure of RO11.7 billion.

This is for building new schools, colleges and specialised institutions in different parts of the country, besides meeting the current expenditure of educational institutions. Since a major chunk of the Sultanate’s 4.81 million population is below 25 years, there is a growing need for additional educational institutions, which include primary schools, high schools, higher education centres, specialised job oriented educational institutions and research and development centres.

National strategy

Almost two years ago, the Ministry of Higher Education unveiled a long-term plan called National Strategy for Education 2040, which include a series of well-researched recommendations for effective education of students from early childhood to the graduation level.  The recent formation of Muscat University is in line with the national strategy and is expected to help in enhancing the quality of education immensely in the coming years. The Muscat University, which is aiming at providing the best quality education in the country, is line with the government’s strategy to mould skilled professionals for the sectors identified by the government as a part of the Sultanate’s diversification programmes. In other words, students who come out of the university will be suited to the specific skillset required by the job market. The new university is expected to bring in uniformity in curriculum, which is lacking in the country as several institutions in Muscat are now affiliated to different universities in various countries.

The new university  will also help check the trend among students to go abroad for higher education; it will also focus on research in science and technology. Muscat University, which has affiliations with Cranfield University and Aston University in the United Kingdom, will offer bachelor and master’s degree programmes starting from September 2017. It will offer both undergraduate and post-graduate courses in three main streams – Business and Management, Engineering and Technology, and Transport and Logistics from Cranfield University and Aston University. While the undergraduate programmes intake was over in October 2016, the post-graduate courses will start in September 2017.

Presently, there is a gap between the vacancies and the qualification of students and Muscat University will pay extra attention on developing and nurturing the right skillsets of the Omani youth. Another major priority area for the university is transport and logistics, including supply chain management – a priority sector for Oman to take advantage of its strategic location as a transshipment hub of the region.

Muscat University is confident that this sector represents a key growth area for Oman, as well as a significant source of employment for many years to come. Also, in the last few years, the private sector in Oman started taking an important role in establishing colleges and universities. The private sector has been receiving support from the government through investor-friendly policies aimed at augmenting the scale and quality of education. Population growth and rise in disposable income have supported the growth of private sector education. In fact, government measures to encourage private sector investments alongside an increasing preference for international curricula among residents are also attracting renowned foreign education institutes to the country.

The population displays a strong ability and willingness to spend on quality education at international schools, translating into a huge opportunity for private players. Although private sector is gaining prominence in field of education field, Sultan Qaboos University still holds a premier position. The Sultanate has seven private universities, which include Muscat, Sohar, Dhofar, Nizwa, Buraimi and Sharqiyah, and 19 private colleges spread across the country catering to the needs of students.

 

Setting benchmark

The formation of all these universities and colleges not only helped students in the interior regions to pursue higher education, but also developed the country’s status at levels equal to or above other countries in Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Regional universities offer programmes like pharmacy, nursing, engineering and information technology, which is in line with the specific private sector requirement. Several incentives were offered to private entrepreneurs to set up higher education facilities and universities, which include grants and easy availability of land. Several private entrepreneurs and business houses have taken advantage of the incentives to establish private universities. However, a tax incentive available for higher educational institutions was taken away by the government in early 2017.

The Sultanate’s educational institutions are increasingly deploying information and communications technology to facilitate effective learning. The gradual spread of technology across the education institutions is likely to prepare the students for a future in an increasingly technology-oriented job market.

Moreover, the use of internet and devices such as laptops and tablets is facilitating a more enjoyable and effective learning atmosphere, which is likely to result in improved grades of the students. A plan to establish two major specialised institutes, including an engineering college, for meeting the demand for additional oil and gas industry professionals took a back seat with lack of opportunities in the oil and gas sector. This was due to retrenchment in oil and gas sector, in the aftermath of a drastic fall in oil prices.


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