TBY talks to HE Dr. Abdullah Mohammed Al Sarmi, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, on transnational education, creating global citizens, and supporting research.

HE Dr. Abdullah Mohammed Al Sarmi
HE Dr. Abdullah Mohammed Al Sarmi has been the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education of the Sultanate of Oman since 2004. He is a Board Member of the Public Authority for SME Development, the University of Oman Project, and The Public Authority of Manpower Registrar. Having graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, he earned his master’s in research methodology in 1995, and his PhD in educational measurement and statistics in 2000. Prior to his appointment at the Ministry of Higher Education, he was the assistant dean for postgraduate studies and research as well as an assistant lecturer at Sultan Qaboos University.

Developing human capital has been a priority for the Sultanate since the 1970s. How did Oman's education system grow to more than 50 higher education centers?

The development of human capital has been a key policy of the Omani government since the new renaissance of the Sultanate. In His Majesty's speeches from 1970 onward, he always emphasized human resources as a cornerstone for the development of Oman. General education as well as higher education has been funded generously by the government, and we now have more than 131,000 students enrolled inside and outside Oman. We have over 6,000 students studying at the government's expense overseas in different countries, such as US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, or Ireland to name a few. It is a good sign that both students and parents in Oman value education and aspire for the best education whether inside or outside the country. That puts lots of pressure on the Ministry to deliver high-quality education and other services the students need. Not only the number of institutions increased, but also the number of students has jumped to more than 130,000 currently enrolled in higher education. With that figure, Oman has been the fastest country in human development from 1970 until now according to international reports.

How do you align higher education programs with the needs of the labor market?

We are always focused on the needs of the labor market, modifying our programs and introducing new ones accordingly in the local universities as well as providing licenses to feature new programs as a result of sound feasibility studies. Besides, the students sent on government scholarship to study programs abroad are needed by the private and the public sector. We try to read the market through surveys and official letters we send to government and non-government organizations. We ask about their needs for human resources and different specializations and plan our scholarships and licenses accordingly. Out of the 131,000 students studying in higher education, 30% are studying engineering.

What initiatives are you implementing to boost cooperation between Omani universities and foreign academic and research centers?

Most of our private universities and colleges have some sort of academic affiliation or cooperation with foreign universities. With such academic affiliation, local institutions get international expertise to develop new programs. International collaborations with different universities and agencies are made as a criterion of quality. All Omani institutions strive for such collaboration and they heavily invest in academic and student exchange. In terms of research, the Research Council strategy has earmarked renewable energy, health and diseases, and oil and gas as top research priorities for the country.

What is your outlook for the future generations of the Sultanate who will need to find alternative sources to sustain Oman's growth?

There are a lot of plans going on to diversify the economy. From the higher education side, our mission is to prepare Omanis to be independent learners to learn new skills and knowledge. Having graduates that are narrowly specialized in certain areas are not the right graduates for the future; graduates should be capable of expanding their education and learning new subjects in order to adapt to future changes in the economy. These are the kind of capabilities we are trying to emphasize in higher education so our graduates will not have any difficulties in finding jobs and adapting to upcoming challenges. Oman has come a long way in terms of education, but its ambitions are still high. We will continue working to have global Omani citizens who can compete in the international labor market.