With more than 96 percent of the adult population literate, Kuwait has a high literacy rate compared to both regional (79%) and global (86%) standards. Adult literacy rate is the percentage of the population aged 15 and above who can read and write, and on this measure 94.9 percent of female and 96.7 percent of male adults in the country were literate.

Kuwait society has always emphasized literacy, even long before oil wealth began seeping into the economy. From the first modern Al-Mubarakiya School in downtown Kuwait that was established in 1912 to provide education to the elite members of society, to one of the world’s largest educational campuses, the mega new campus for Kuwait University, the Sabah Al Salem University City in Shadadiya to the south-west of Kuwait City, the government has spent billions of dinars on education each year.

The new University City, which sprawls over 6 million square meters, integrates six colleges of Kuwait University and five medical campuses. The new campus, which began receiving its first batch of students in September 2019, will when fully functional provide education to nearly 50,000 students, both male and female, in various faculties and colleges. The campus and its facilities are a pointer to how far education has evolved over the years in Kuwait.

Following the founding of the first school in 1912, which was exclusively for boys, it took more than two decades before the first school for girls was founded. Back then educating women was not considered a priority and the first school for girls confined educating them to Arabic language, Islamic studies and home sciences. Education came under state aegis in 1935 and a year later the national education department, the forerunner of today’s Ministry of Education, was established to supervise the public schools, with teachers hired from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine to teach at the secondary level.

Discovery of oil in 1938 and the country’s independence in 1961 led to rapid acceleration of educational developments. Adult education programs for women were launched in 1963, though a similar program for men began in 1958. According to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the country’s adult literacy rate which was below 50 percent at the time of independence, climbed to over 72 percent in 1975, before soaring three decades later to 94 percent in 2005, and on to 96.1 percent in 2018.

However, adult literacy on its own is not an indication of an educated populace. Education can be summed up as the application of knowledge, skills, values, morals, and beliefs that are acquired among others through literacy. Although people can be called literate because they know how to read and write, and use it to acquire useful information, they cannot be considered educated if they do not know how to apply the knowledge gained through literacy.

Knowing how to drive a car is not the same as being educated on driving and applying it to drive safely, while adhering to traffic rules and regulations. In Kuwait we have an enviably high literacy rate, but when it comes to an educated public, there remains much to be desired.
Even the basic definition of literacy — the ability to read and write — is no longer valid or sufficient in a 21st-century world. Today, literacy must include the ability to use languages, numbers, images, digital tools and other means to compile, comprehend and communicate information, and acquire useful knowledge. According to UNESCO, literacy is defined as the ‘ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts’.

Kuwait has over the years steadily increased spending on education and improving literacy levels in the country. According to data from UNESCO supported by figures from the World Bank, in 2019, government spending on education formed 12.1 percent of total government expenditure, or around 9 percent of the country’s GDP. Though the pandemic caused a slight fall in education spending in the 2020 budget, it nevertheless remained at 11.9 percent of total government expenses. However, repeated studies have shown that increasing spending on education does not necessarily translate into an improvement in the quality of education in Kuwait, at best it only leads to an increase in the quantity of education.

And, Kuwait has plenty of educational institutions, with nearly a 1,000 public and private schools and institutions offering general education in Kuwait, which comprises elementary, intermediate, and secondary school instruction. There are also several specialized schools for differently-abled children. On the tertiary university level, there are state-funded higher education institutions such as Kuwait University, the College of Basic Education, and the Higher Institutes for Theater and the Music Arts that offer training in a wide variety of fields and specializations such as arts, science and technology, petroleum engineering, business studies, communication, education training, and medical sciences, to name a few.

Beyond basic level and tertiary education, vocational training opportunities are available through colleges offering specialized courses and industrial training institutions run by the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training. These institutes provide every citizen with the opportunity to attain gainful employment, or for self-actualization to realize one’s full potential. In addition to government support for education, the Ministry of Education also supervises and sanctions the private education sector, which plays a crucial role in the country’s education system.

Private educational institutions enroll nearly 40 percent of school age children at the primary, intermediate and secondary levels, and usually impart education based on a curriculum followed abroad. At the higher tertiary level there are also nearly a dozen private colleges that impart general and specialized courses. Kuwaitis who opt to forego the free education provided by Kuwait University can opt for courses in paid private colleges. Besides the many opportunities for obtaining a high-quality education in state-of-the-art facilities in Kuwait, qualifying national graduates and undergraduates also have the option to pursue education or specialized training at international institutions abroad.

Kuwait has no doubt made impressive gains in education infrastructure that has led to nearly wiping out illiteracy among the population, going from more than 50 percent of people being illiterate at the time of the country’s independence in 1961, to less than 4 percent today. However, despite having cutting-edge educational facilities and providing free education to citizens, the level of educational performance and its quality have led to many questions being raised on why the benefits realized are not commensurate with the billions spent annually on education. Policymakers have been scrambling to come up with answers and solutions to this conundrum.

To its credit the government recognized this shortcoming early on. Cognizant of the need to utilize the country’s human resources to meet the economic and social developmental challenges of the new millennium, the authorities made human capital development a priority in its ‘New Kuwait’ National Development Plan. The long-term development plan, which aims to realize the country’s Vision 2035 to transform Kuwait into a regional hub for commerce, finances and culture, highlights education as a crucial catalyst in the process. Enhancing education was seen as critical to achieving economic diversification, sustainable growth and social progress that are pillars of Vision 2035.

In accordance with this ambitious target, the government made improving the general level of education in Kuwait through reforming the education system a priority policy. In March 2015, the Ministry of Education and the National Center for Education Development (NCED) and the World Bank launched the second phase of the Integrated Education Reform Program. The first phase, which began in 2010, focused on learning outcomes, curriculum enhancement and development, effective teaching and school leadership, and developing national education standards.

The second-phase of the program that ended in 2020 was targeted to support capacity building, improve the quality of the teaching and learning, and monitor impact on schools and students. It also aimed to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Education and the NCED in policy, decision-making and implementation of integrated reforms. At the end of this ten-year long education improvement exercise, a Program Achievement Report by the World Bank cited several limitations in achieving the desired outcomes and in its implementation.

In what is probably a veiled reference to the political stalemate in the country’s parliamentary style of functioning and its revolving-door governments with varying priorities, the World Bank report underlined the lack of sustained, high-level political commitment and support to the education reform process, which the bank said “led to key decisions being stalled at critical moments in the program’s trajectory, and limited its potential for positive impact”.

The report also noted the “absence of clear, complete and frequent communication among stakeholders, across and within project teams, and with the public” which undermined smooth implementation of the reform process. In addition, the dearth of adequately skilled and qualified numbers of human resources also affected effective implementation, with staff turnovers leading to ‘lost’ capacity and the need to retrain replacements, which sometimes further delayed implementation.

The pertinent question that the report raises is why engage in expensive exercise programs if there is no intention to follow through on the recommendations made, or to implement the program in full? The answer probably lies in that it is far easier and politically less expensive for the government to authorize studies and engage in educational, or other, reform exercises, than it is to implement the recommendations made. Rather than confront vested interests lined up against implementing reforms or suffer political setbacks, the government has often chosen to quietly shelve these reports in its archives.

To understand this desire not to rock the boat, one probably needs to go back in history. The transformation of Kuwait from a rudimentary desert settlement with basic public structures and services to a megapolis with all modern amenities and infrastructure, including impressive educational facilities, was not an outcome of oil wealth alone. Immediately following Kuwait’s independence, the government and citizens drew up an inexplicit social contract that ensured revenues from the copious oil wealth would be distributed among nationals through lavish state subsidies, as well as investments in free education, health, housing and social welfare.

Moreover, all citizens were ensured employment in public sector entities, which provided short working hours and high salaries that were buttressed by additional bonuses, perks and privileges. In return there were no demands made on the quality of output or performance of employees. This led to every job aspiring national heading to the public sector for employment.

While generous state subsidized welfare schemes, and assured public sector employment, were possible during a time when treasury coffers were overflowing from oil revenues, and handouts to citizens formed only a miniscule of annual government income, these are no longer tenable or sustainable now.

In recent years, lower oil income, repeated budget deficits and a state treasury on the verge of being depleted, have combined to create a situation where continuing to lavish subsidies and provide employment to every aspiring job applicant in an already bloated public sector is no longer viable. However many citizens, long accustomed to a subsidized lifestyle are reluctant to let go of the privileges that they regard as an entitlement by virtue of their birth as Kuwaitis.

Attempts by the authorities to encourage national youth to seek employment in the private sector have not had any meaningful success. Just as unmotivated as graduates were to take up private sector employment, even more so were private sector employers who find it more cost effective to hire expatriates. Many unemployed nationals who have come to depend on attractive public sector jobs and life-long state largesse cannot seem to comprehend a situation where they have to compete for jobs in a challenging private sector market. They would rather prefer to remain unemployed for years in the hope of joining the public sector than work in private companies where they would be held accountable for their output or performance.

Moreover, after graduating from public schools or receiving a nominal college or university education, many of the young national job aspirants are ill-qualified to compete in the challenging private sector labor market. Implementing the educational reforms suggested by the World Bank and others would invariably lead to opposition from vested interests and political fallouts that the government appears to be in no haste to confront. Fear of being accused of breaching the unarticulated social contract signed at the time of independence with citizens, has kept the government glued to maintaining the status quo.

Rather than confront vested forces and implement much needed educational reforms, including raising education standards, providing more effective educational and vocational training, tailoring education to meet the needs of the market, and preparing national youth to become more competitive in a 21-century marketplace, the government obviously chose to take the easier path and do nothing meaningful. This may not be a viable strategy in the long-run, but it remains a practical short-term strategy that seems attractive to the authorities at present.

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