In late August the Council of Ministers decided to set up a ministerial committee to examine recommendations on the need to diversify educational outputs in line with labor market demands. The committee, to be headed by the Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Dr. Ali Al-Mudhaf, will examine all aspects pertaining to educational outcomes and methods of syncing them to the job market.

The cabinet’s decision to set up the committee follows recommendations by the National Authority for Academic Accreditation and Quality Assurance of Education, which found a wide divergence between the outputs of education at secondary and tertiary educational levels and the skill-sets demanded by the labor market. The cabinet committee is also tasked with reviewing and suggesting measures to reform the educational system, raise the efficiency of school curricula and the skills of teachers.

Belated though it be, the acceptance by the Cabinet that the education system needs a major overhaul, and the decision to set up a high-level committee to follow up on this issue, is indeed welcome. The wide disparity between the knowledge and skill-sets demanded by the labor-market, and those available with young nationals joining the job-market has become increasingly evident with each passing year.

In this regard, a review of educational outcomes at Kuwait University, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that in 2016-17 (the latest year for which data were available), despite the university’s strategic intentions to enroll more students in subjects that were in demand in the market, the bulk of first-degree graduations (78%) continued to be in social sciences and humanities, with only 22 percent being in Science, Technology. Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, which were the proficiencies that employers wanted.

Emergence of the fourth industrial revolution and increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technologies in many fields will drive the demand for a workforce skilled and knowledgeable in these technologies. The need for Kuwaiti youth to diversify into more innovative IT domains was also driven home recently by the Director-General of the Youth Public Authority (YPA), Dr. Mishaal AlShaheen AlRubaie.

In a media-interview last month, Dr. AlRubaie noted that the government was providing all support to equip and skill youth to help them succeed in the marketplace. “At the Youth Public Authority we have a job creation program where we are focusing on skills and career paths instead of a university degree,” said Dr. AlRubaie. Pointing out that having a degree is no longer enough to land a job in an increasingly competitive labor market, he explained, “At YPA, we have the facility program certification, where we convert young people’s education levels into more market-appropriate positions.

“We basically re-educate our youth. Kuwait needs more coders, cloud architects, web developers, risk managers, and auditors, so this is the direction in which we will be pushing our young stakeholders to explore their skills development.” While accepting that many young nationals still preferred employment in the public sector, AlRubaie hoped that by equipping youth with requisite skill-sets needed in the labor market, “we can redirect more of our Kuwaiti youth from the government to the private sector”.

Currently, ninety percent of jobs available are in the governmental sector, which is already highly saturated. “I think one of our biggest problems in Kuwait is latent unemployment, where people go to work with nothing to do all day. This relates to a large chunk of the workforce in Kuwait,” said Dr. AlRubaie. Wasting time at work, day after day affects the individual both physically and mentally, and results in the low productivity that has become characteristic of the public sector in Kuwait. Providing high quality education and equipping youth with skills to meet market demand are seen as key to overcoming job-market anomalies in the country.

Education in Kuwait is a right guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution. The state not only considers education a moral and constitutional imperative, it is also a strategic priority given its importance to secure the sustainable growth and development of the country going into the future. In this regard, the state’s 2035 strategic vision of New Kuwait, stresses the role of educational institutions in developing human resources and in training individuals to form part of a skilled national workforce. Education is viewed as the main tool in building a high caliber society at the institutional, cultural, economic and social levels.

The government’s commitment to education both as a social good and a prerequisite for its economic diversification strategy has led to significant outlay being directed towards education. According to the latest World Bank data, Kuwait’s spending on education in 2020 was 6,6 percent of total GDP, and this spending formed nearly 12 percent of total government expenditure. But, outcome from these expenditures over the years have consistently been less than encouraging.

Despite being a pioneer in the region in establishing a higher education institution in the form of Kuwait University (KU) in the mid-1960s, today the country ranks low, relative to its peers in the region, in most international educational assessment indices.In the 2019-20 Times Higher Education (THE) University Rankings — an impartial and definitive source of data, insight and expertise on higher education worldwide — KU was placed in the range of 801-1000 among world universities. This was not only a drop from the 601-800 range it occupied in 2017-18, it was also well behind regional leader King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia (201-250), or Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates (301-350).

According to a new World Bank report, educational levels in Kuwait have in recent years fallen by about 4.6 years — the educational level of high school graduates in Kuwait were found to be below the average for fourth-grade students. The fact that educational outcomes are not commensurate with expenses incurred by the state, was also reiterated in a recent report by leading economic consultancy firm, Al-Shall Economic Consultancy.
The consultancy, in its report titled, ‘For Kuwait’s Sake Let’s Teach Our Children Integrity’, called for initiating major education reforms, both at the general and higher levels, and making it a priority for the authorities. The report noted that the average cost of a student in government schools in its four stages, from kindergarten to secondary, was estimated at around KD3,800 annually.

This heavy public expenditure per pupil, said the report, was surpassed only by the student cost in private American schools, where it was KD3,900 annually. On the other hand,the annual average cost of students in bilingual schools was about KD2,900; it was around KD2,600 in the British schools, and the average cost was only KD500 per year in Indian schools, and KD427 in Arabic private schools. All of these institutions had better educational outcomes than government schools.

Education worldwide is witnessing a revolution in terms of reforms to curricula in order to bring them in line with rapidly evolving digital techniques and technologies. However, in Kuwait, the curricula in government schools still remain oriented towards equipping youth for jobs that are increasingly non-existent, and will no longer be relevant in future.

In a bid to improve the quality of education, the Ministry of Education, in association with the National Center for Educational Development (NCED), has over the years undertaken several programs in collaboration with the World Bank and other entities. However, an audit review conducted in 2018-19 by the State Audit Bureau was highly critical of the expenses incurred by the ministry in signing a contract with the World Bank aimed at improving the quality of school education.

The bureau pointed out that the contract which was signed for KD11 million failed to achieve its objectives, as the ministry failed to implement, supervise and follow-up on recommendations made by the World Bank. As a result, Kuwait,which in fiscal year 2016-2017 ranked 92nd in the world for the quality of secondary education, dropped to 111th position in 2018-2019 after the World Bank program was implemented — or not implemented by the ministry.

With all due respect to the venerable State Audit Bureau, it needs to be stated that the shortcoming in educational outcomes cannot be blamed solely on World Bank programs. In a separate evaluation of its program, the World Bank had underlined several discrepancies in the implementation of its recommendations by the Education Ministry. The Bank noted there was little, if any, support for the education reform process among the executive and legislative arms of government, as well as among those tasked with implementing the programs in the classrooms.

In addition to the waste of funds and other irregularities pointed out by the Audit Bureau, there are also reports of alleged misappropriation of funds and other financial wrongdoings at the Ministry of Education. In June, the then Minister of Education Dr. Saud Al Harbi, referred several ministry employees to the Public Prosecution after it was discovered that they had been paying themselves monthly bonuses for which they were not eligible.

One senior administrative member is said to have awarded himself a bonus of KD1,500 per month since April 2019, while another lady working in the Private Education Department is alleged to have self-awarded herself a bonus of KD800 per month. Is it any surprise that the lack of values demonstrated by those responsible for teaching, should percolate down to those being taught. Witness the repeated warnings issued by school authorities to students of a zero-tolerance policy towards the rampant copying and cheating observed in annual examinations.

One reason for the continued decline in educational outcomes in Kuwait can be traced to those doing the teaching. In general, teachers in the national cadre, and even more so, expatriate teachers who are usually here on a brief contract period, lack any real commitment to their profession. For many of them teaching is just a half-day job that pays well and offers all the perquisites that come with a public sector job in Kuwait.

Teaching is more than just a sinecure profession; it needs to be considered a vocation and has to be undertaken by people who have a passion and dedication to teaching. Besides imparting knowledge, teachers are entailed with a huge responsibility — that of empowering, motivating and molding the next generation of Kuwaitis, and imbuing in them the mores and values of society. As long as this dedication to teaching does not exist among teachers, it is doubtful if any, World Bank or other, programs will be anything other than expensive exercises in futility.

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