COMMITTED TO EXCELLENCE

Oman 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

The growing privatization of education in Oman has helped catalyze a new dawn in education, and students across the country are benefitting from more choices than ever before.

In the field of education, few countries in the world have undergone as rapid a transformation as Oman. A concerted focus on universal access and high standards are working to reshape Oman into one of the best-educated countries in the Gulf. A series of five-year plans and high levels of government spending continue to ensure that the Omani education system remains on track to take a place among the best systems in the world one day. Though declines in oil and gas prices have put pressure on the Omani federal budget, these declining revenues have created an exciting new opportunity for private sector firms, and a number of new institutions are taking steps to capitalize on this new environment.

In the last few decades, Oman has reinvented its education system, and the country now boasts some of the best education statistics in the MENA region. In 2016, the Omani government budgeted OMR2.5 billion for education spending, a significant allocation that represents a OMR700 million increase from 2015 spending levels. Adult literacy rates were nearly 95% in 2015, representing a dramatic improvement on the country's rate of 81% in 2005. With youth literacy rates approaching 98% for males and 99% for females, primary school enrollment at 98.4% for males and 96.8% for females, and secondary school enrollment at 93.9% for males and 93.6% for females, according to UNICEF, Oman has proven its commitment to core education standards. Tertiary enrollment rates are lacking, however, and in 2014 only 24% of the college age population were enrolled in higher education institutions, a rate well below the 60-70% seen in developed countries. Oman hopes to double this rate in the next few years, and its latest five year plan hopes to achieve 50% enrollment by 2020.

According to the latest statistics from the National Centre for Statistics and Information, there are more than 750,000 students studying in the country, and almost 525,000 of them study in public schools, while nearly 100,000 study in private schools and almost 60,000 study in community schools. Religious schools and police and military academies account for the remainder of Oman's student population, with more than 22,000 individuals studying in these institutions. With 37% of the country's population below 25, Omani officials in the public and private sector recognize that demographic realities necessitate the development of highly educated, globally oriented youth, and they are taking steps to ensure that next generation of Omanis has the tools it needs to succeed.

The country boasts 1,048 government schools, and 511 of those are coeducational. Of the remaining institutions, 192 are girls' schools and 345 are boys' schools. The three governates with the largest number of schools are North Al Batinah, Dhofar, and Muscat, with 174, 149, and 147, respectively. Of Muscat's government schools, 18 have student bodies exceeding 1,000 pupils, while North Al Batinah has only six government schools of equivalent size. Muscat also tops the private school rankings, hosting 182 private sector institutions, while North Al Batinah comes in second with 68, while A'Dakhliyah rounds out the top three with 56 and the other governates split the remaining 180 private schools. There are also a number of international schools in the country, and their combined enrollment figures are almost 58,000.

According to World Bank data, Oman's primary school gross enrollment rate is 107% for females and 109% for males. All primary school education is provided free of charge by the Omani government. According to the 2016/2017 Global Competitiveness Report, the quality of Oman's primary education was ranked 78th, while the quality of its education system was ranked 80th. Additionally, Oman was 89th in the quality of math and science education, 119th in the quality of management schools, 84th in internet access in schools, 112th in the local availability of specialized training, and 49th in extent of staff training. Though each of these measures allow room for improvement, Omani education officials are confident that a series of reforms and initiatives will drive improvement across all categories.

Private Education

The privatization of education has been a notable trend in the Omani education system, and private education institutions have recorded annual growth in their enrollment rates of almost 9% in recent years, while public schools have recorded a paltry 1.3% over the same period.

One of the leaders in the movement has been A'Sharqiyah University, a private institution founded in 2010 that serves students from all across the country and the region. Notably, almost 90% of A'Sharqiyah University's student body is female, a fact that is not reflective of overarching design, but the product of performance divergences between the genders. As Dr. Abood Hamed Al-Sawafi, Vice Chancellor of A'Sharqiyah University, noted in a recent interview with TBY, “The fact that 90% of our students are female was not planned, it just reflects the demographics of those doing better in high school who want to come to university and learn." The private higher education marketplace has created an environment that encourages and rewards the diligent and the studious, and, so far, Omani women have been proving that nothing can keep them back.

In an effort to draw the best and brightest to their campuses, private universities, such as A'Sharqiyah, have been establishing relationships with top-tier international institutions, bringing renowned faculty to Oman, launching cutting-edge initiatives on various campuses, and in some cases founding brand new universities. In this spirit, the German University of Technology in Oman (GUtech) was founded in partnership with one of Oman's oldest and most august institutions, RWTH Aachen University. In an exclusive interview with TBY, Prof. Dr. Ing. Michael Modigell, Rector of GUtech, noted, “The vision was to create a university that follows the academic programs and scope of a university of technology in Germany, while at the same time utilizing the rich cultural and natural heritage of the Sultanate of Oman." GUtech is a perfect example of the kind of forward-looking educational initiatives taking place in Oman, and the university has graduated 199 students since 2012. Government and university officials hope that curricula at GUtech and schools like it will generate the kind of hands-on industry-oriented knowledge that will help lead Oman into the future.

The government has also been supporting private universities through a number of initiatives, including land grants, direct grants, and funds for scholarships according to Dr. Al-Sawafi of A'Sharqiyah University. “The government's vision is to support quality higher education in Oman and make sure we can compete on the world stage." As Oman looks to the future, it can take satisfaction in the fact that its next generation of citizens will be among the best educated in the history of the country.