TEST FOR THE NATION

Oman 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: PREPARING OMANIS FOR THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Apart from the need to diversify its economy, Oman also faces a pressing need to diversify the expectations and ambitions of its students.

The education system in Oman is going through a transition stage that is seeing changes from primary school all the way to the preparation of high-level executives. However, a significant cultural paradigm first needs to be addressed in regards to the population's expectations and preference for public-sector jobs.

The friendliness of its people, combined with its investment potential, has allowed Oman to become a preferred destination for expats holding higher diplomas and, frequently, advanced degrees to come to the Sultanate to perform a variety of jobs in the private sector. In contrast, expectations among Omanis who hold higher diplomas is quite different, as the selection of job opportunities in the public sector is only as high as the percentage of citizens holding government positions. Simply put, Omani graduates overwhelmingly prefer to work in the government over the private sector. This represents a challenge for higher education institutions and ministries alike, as they attempt to develop diversified, competitive education programs that respond to current and future employment trends, tilting more and more toward the private sector as it continues to grow and expand across the nation.

In a country of almost 4.5 million, around half of which is populated by expatriates, the capacity for employment in the government sector is shrinking, while the cultural mindset of many Omani professionals continues, unaltered, with only 8% of domestic prepared higher diploma holders preferring to work in the private sector, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). In order to address this matter, the Council of Ministers has been stressing the need to upgrade the ongoing national education programs, while highlighting the relevance of a collaborative effort with the private sector to contribute to the support of scholarship programs abroad. In this regard, Khimji Ramdas has stepped up to the challenge and has submitted a scholarship plan to set up a USD250,000 fund. In collaboration with Harvard University's Committee on General Scholarships, the plan will provide financial assistance to Omani students pursuing a degree at Harvard.

On another front, a new education initiative is making waves among the highest levels of Omani corporations, as the National CEO Program (NCP), launched by the Public Private Partnership Taskforce (Sharaka), under the patronage of the Diwan Royal Court, begins to bear fruit. The NCP's goal is to develop the next generation of private-sector Omani leaders and executives, with its second cohort scheduled to graduate in May 2017. Designed to address an emerging need for talented local leaders in the private sector, the NCP, in collaboration with the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland, has developed a fully integrated business program that combines learning, coaching, and practical applications with the aim of having a measurable impact at a professional, organizational, and national level.

As the development and implementation of some of the Sultanate's education projects has been affected by the slide in oil prices, technical specializations and entrepreneurship are being increasingly promoted by the government, with the aim of raising the number of technological and industrial specializations in the country. However, Oman's restructuring of its education system needs to be carefully analyzed and must take into consideration the needs and opinions of its citizens. According to the NCSI, 45% of Omani engineering and technical science students are skeptical about having sufficient skills upon graduation necessary to succeed in the job market, while more than two-thirds of private higher education students (69%) considered that the limited opportunities for practical training is a major drawback that negatively effects their chances of getting a job after graduation. The Omani education sector faces a critical trial on a structural level and a steep climb ahead that needs to take into account the growth of the population, the high cost of construction of state-of-the-art academic facilities, and the reduced number of qualified Omani educators.