STAY SHARP

Oman 2015 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

For Oman, education is a crucial part of the country's development goals.

Much has changed since His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said took the throne of what was, by his own admission, an isolated and uneducated country. Bemoaning this fact in 1970, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said established education as a critical component of Oman's national development; “our country has been deprived for a long period of time of education, which is considered the basis of administrative and technical efficiency… starting from this fact, the education and training of our people should start as soon as possible." In 1970, there were only three schools in the entire country, with a capacity to educate only 900 students, all of whom were male, and all at the primary level. At these three schools, only 30 teachers were employed. In accordance with this decree, education in Oman has experienced a remarkable transformation. Speaking to The Times of Oman, Minister of Education HE Dr. Madiha bint Ahmed Al Shibaniyah revealed that in 2014, there were 1,042 schools, over 500,000 students, and 55,000 teachers nation wide. And with almost half of Oman's population under 21 years of age, demographic trends will place immense demands on the country's educational system in the coming years, presenting both challenges and opportunities.

Another important outcome of Oman's push for improved education is its impact on gender equity. According to UNICEF, youth literacy rates for both young women and young men were 98% in 2011. Gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary education as well. The net enrolment ratio in primary school is 77% for girls and 78% for boys. In secondary school, the net enrolment ratios for girls and boys are 81% and 83%, respectively. This indicator is a positive signal, as Omanis strive to move up from their 2013 gender equality ranking of 122. Having achieved gender balance in student enrolment, women also represent a majority of the teaching force. Women have also attained many senior positions in supervision and administration, as well as in curriculum and textbook development. While girls and boys attend separate schools from grade 5 onwards, the curriculum content for both genders is almost identical. On the grade 12 General Education Diploma examinations, the results for public school candidates show that the pass rate for Omani females is 9% higher than for males.

In 2013, $3.38 billion was budgeted for educational spending by the state, a 25% increase, in real terms, over the previous year. Alpen Capital's 2014 GCC Education Industry report revealed that Oman's overall enrollment rates were well above the global average, and in line with GCC enrollment rates. Pre-primary gross enrolment was 54.6%, primary was 109%, secondary was 94.2%, and tertiary was 24.7%. At 18.8%, Oman's spending on education as a percentage of total government spending for 2014 was well above the GCC average of 15.5% according to Alpen Capital Data. And with countries like Saudi Arabia pouring billions of dollars into educational projects, this percentage is a remarkable accomplishment. The 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report also found Oman's education much improved, but with room for more improvement. Out of 148 countries, Oman came in 57th in quality of primary education, 53rd in quality of educational system, and 33rd in extent of staff training. Other areas exhibited room for improvement, such as quality of math and science education at 87th, quality of management of schools at 88th, and availability of research training at 73rd.

Educators in Oman have identified the pre-primary period as a critical period in which to prepare children for success in later educational endeavors. This translates into increased emphasis on nurseries and kindergartens. In 2012, the pre-primary enrolment rates stood at an impressive 54.6%, up from only 6.5% in 2000. Much of this is taking place in the private sector. In the 2008/09 school year, approximately 41,000 children were enrolled in preschools. Of these, 35% were in private Quranic schools, 29% in private kindergartens, 17% in Child Growth Houses or Child Corners, 13% in international schools, and 3% in Oman Police, the Royal Armed Forces, or public Quranic schools. The total early childhood education enrollment for Omani and non-Omani children represents approximately 39% of the four to five year olds in the country. While this is an impressive development, Oman still lags behind other GCC countries such as the UAE, where this rate is at 87%.

TERTIARY FOCUS

With employers scrambling to fill positions, and Oman looking to increase its percentage of indigenous employees, the onus has fallen on higher education to alleviate this shortage. Public spending, new universities, and increasing enrollment are already paying off— the UN's 2013 Human Development Report indicated that Oman's human development index (HDI) value for 2012 was 0.731, moving the country up to 84 out of 187 countries. An article by HE Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed Al-Sarmi, Oman's Undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, showed that government scholarships played a large role in this transformation. According to Oman's Shura Council data, during the 2009/10 academic year, 31.4% of general diploma graduates were beneficiaries of the government undergraduate scholarship program. However, by the 2012/13 academic year, 28,774 students were enrolled in the same program, representing 73% of general diploma graduates.

In 1986, the Sultan Qaboos University was founded with an initial enrollment of 500 students. In 2014, almost three decades later, there are 54 higher education institutions offering instruction in fields such as technology, health, law, banking, and education. These new institutions are expected to play an important role in Oman's 2020 and 2040 development visions. Caledonian College of Engineering, rated the fastest growing college in the country, added 16 new engineering programs in 2013 alone. These additions are bolstered by hands-on training. Speaking to TBY, acting dean Dr. Ahmed Hassan Al Bulushi explained that Caledonian College of Engineering has, “introduced compulsory internships… each student has to be placed in industry positions and have exposure to industry before they have graduated." This pivot toward practical training is reflected throughout Omani higher education. To address the shortage of skilled labor in the country, the Omani Ministry of Manpower established vocational training centers in Saham, Al Seeb, Shinas, Sur, and Ibri. These centers offer vocational, technical, and commercial programs. In 2011, Oman LNG inked a deal with the Oman Society for Petroleum Services to sponsor industry-related training for 160 nationals. This trend is catching on, as of 2012, Taiwanese engineering companies offered to train Omanis in the field of engineering. And in 2014, the state-run Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) inaugurated the New Wells Learning Centre.