LEAP TO SUCCESS

Oman 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Having made impressive strides to improve education over the past three decades, Oman anticipates even higher standards and more opportunities for its students in the years to come.

Oman's national education system has overcome a variety of challenges to achieve the national goal of developing a stable workforce, reducing employment turnover, and increasing opportunities for the local youth. Drawing upon success stories in the region and establishing its own standards, Oman boasts a highly capable teaching force, equal access for both male and female students, and a strong higher education sector with impressive enrollment figures.

Although primary and secondary education in Oman is provided free of charge, it is not mandatory at any level. Nevertheless, interest in schooling has skyrocketed from only three formal schools with 900 students in 1970 to more than 600,000 students attending 1,053 public schools in 2012. Similarly, there were just 5,000 teachers in the Sultanate in 1981, of which 8% were Omani citizens. Today, the country boasts 43,000 teachers, and 89% of the local teaching staff is of Omani origin.

According to the latest data, the country's gross enrollment rate averages at 97%. During the 1998-1999 school year, only 64% of students completed the last year of secondary school, but by the beginning of the 2010s, that figure had shot up to 86%. Women in particular have shown the most significant improvement, with enrollment levels at the tertiary stage similar to those seen in the top-performing countries of South Korea and Singapore. In line with these trends, dropout and repetition rates across the board have declined dramatically since the Ministry of Education was formed in the 1970s.

In terms of state spending, the education and training sector was allocated $3.4 billion, or 10% of all projected state spending for 2013. This figure marked a 16% increase in comparison to 2012, when the country spent $2.9 billion, or 9% of the local budget on education, according to a KMPG report. In recent years, public expenditure on education has hovered around 5% of GDP on average.

Although the most recent Human Development Index reported that Oman's literacy rate in adults older that 15 is 81.4%, the Sultanate has taken steps to overcome the challenge by installing adult education centers around the country. The literacy rate has already grown by a remarkable 54.7% since 1990, and youth literacy, in parallel, has risen from 85.6% to 97.3% over the same period.

TERTIARY OPTIONS

Currently, 54% of Grade 12 graduates seek higher education, with 92% of them ultimately deciding to study in Oman. With a number of top-tier programs in a variety of fields on offer, gross enrollment rate for tertiary education in Oman reached 36% in 2012.

As the country's flagship school, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) has pioneered the road to growth in terms of programs in technology, applied sciences, as well as the rapid increase in the number of higher education institutions and private universities in Oman. As the only national university near the capital city of Muscat, SQU currently educates 13,500 students. Starting in 2012, new government scholarship programs are giving the chance to 500 Omani SQU students to study abroad for undergraduate education in the US every year for the next five years.

Considered to be among the top-three tertiary education providers in the country, the University of Nizwa boasts approximately 6,500 students, 99% of whom are Omani. However, the school is looking to boost its international student body, which currently comprises 70 students from 15 countries. In line with the government's goal to provide students with an education that can be applied to an increasingly globalized world, the University of Nizwa prides itself on exchange student programs, with foreign nationals arriving from 15 countries and outbound students spending a summer of study in the UK, the US, France, Germany, or Malaysia. Students can choose from a selection 43 undergraduate degree programs and seven Master's degrees at the school, with “the most popular [majors] those that are required by the market: pharmacy, nursing, engineering, information, systems, and English," Professor Ahmed Al Rawahi, Chancellor of the University of Nizwa, told TBY. However, in the last three years, the school has begun to take on new projects in the field of research. “We've published many papers and conducted a lot of clinical analysis," Professor Al Rawahi added.

Other schools, such as the Caledonian College of Engineering, have also focused strongly on research. With 300 staff members for 3,200 students—80% of whom are immediately employed—the school is seeking to invest in the future of the country at large. “We spend around $2 million on research in Oman. We have dedicated research centers in renewable energy, waste to energy, and solar power, " Dr. Ahmed Hassan Mohammed Al Bulushi, Acting Dean of the Caledonian College of Engineering, explained.

Meanwhile, Oman is engaged in an ongoing debate regarding the importance of a traditional degree versus the more technical, career-focused approach of vocational training. As a large percentage of high school graduates opt out of university, vocational training will undoubtedly play a more significant role in Oman's economic development in years to come.

While the future looks bright for Oman's youth, the local authorities recognize that there is still work to be done. Following the counsel of the World Bank's Education in Oman: The Drive for Quality, regulators see room for improvement in terms of quality, a goal that can be achieved swiftly with continued political commitment, careful planning, and the appropriate allocation of resources.