The tangible and intangible benefits that a good quality education brings to individuals, and which accrues to the state in the form of increased human capital are innumerable even if they are not easily visible. On the other hand, the lack of quality education is more easily discernible; all one has to do is to look around.

In Kuwait, we have had many surveys and insightful reports published on the mediocre quality of education provided, and the low level of outcomes derived, but all of this has been of no avail. Low outcomes have been reported right from the primary stage all the way up to the higher education level. For instance, the latest figures from the World Bank’s Human Capital Project on Kuwait shows that more than half of Kuwaiti children cannot read and comprehend a short, age-appropriate text by the age of 10. The pre-primary enrollment rate of 62 percent among 3-5 year olds also lags that of many high-income countries where the average is 83 percent.

Kuwait, an early adopter of the World Bank’s Human Capital Project, ranks 77 out of 157 countries, which is low compared to countries of equal income level. The World Bank report also highlights the quality gaps in education outcomes, skills, and diminished human capital in Kuwait, with the country lagging many other high-income countries in human capital wealth. Data from the World Bank shows that in Kuwait, human capital accounted for only around 24 percent of the total wealth generation in 2018. By comparison, human capital accounted for 56 percent in Australia and Italy, 64 percent in Germany, 71 percent in the UK, 72 percent in Canada and 78 percent in the US.

Furthermore, in the World Economic Forum’s ‘The Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016’, Kuwait ranked 103rd out of 140 economies in the quality of its primary education; the state also ranked 88th on the overall quality of higher education and training, 99th on mathematics and science education, and 86th on school management. On the extent of staff training Kuwait ranked 84th, and 81st on the availability of internet access in schools and 112th on the availability of specialized training services.

In yet another indictment of Kuwait’s education system and its outcomes, the US-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) — which conducts the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) — found Kuwait and the region as a whole faring well below the international average, despite spending a significant portion of their GDP on education.

Kuwait’s expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was 6.6 percent in 2020 — the highest among the GCC states, where the average spending on education was 4.8 percent of GDP. Ironically, the countries in the region spending the most in terms of GDP on education fared the worst when it came to TIMSS scores. In 2019, among the three countries that spend more of their GDP on education relative to the regional average, the average TIMSS score for 8th grade students in mathematics and science respectively were: 394-433 for Saudi Arabia, 403-444 for Kuwait and 411-457 in Oman.

In contrast, among the three states that spent less of GDP on education than the regional average, Qatar’s score was 443-475, followed by UAE with 473-473, and Bahrain at 481-486. Singapore, which topped the 2019 TIMSS listings, scoring 616 and 608 respectively in mathematics and science, spent only 2.6 percent of its GDP on education in 2019.

The disconnect between spending and outcomes reveal that factors other than finances are involved in the poor academic showings in Kuwait, and that they need to be examined in depth if we are to improve educational achievements in future. Incidentally, nearly 70 percent of Kuwait’s budgetary outlay for education is set aside to cover administrative costs, only 30 percent is devoted to the education process.

A survey report on 260 public and private schools in Kuwait published by the country’s ministry of education in January of this year confirmed that the education imparted and outcomes received at these institutions were ‘disappointing’. The survey results gained widespread attention in the media and drew criticism from several civil society organizations that expressed their unease on the deteriorating level of education. They called for raising awareness on the plight of education in the country and urged authorities to address the situation on a priority basis.

We had noted in an editorial published back then that the problem was not a question of the government being unaware of the deplorable state of school education prevailing in the country. It was a case of inability and to an extent unwillingness on the part of policymakers to introduce the far-reaching systemic changes needed to revamp the educational process. Also, part of the blame for the low quality of education in the country rests with the government and parliament that have consistently accorded a low priority to education, even though there is no dearth of concerns expressed in this regard on the floor of the National Assembly.

In Kuwait’s highly centralized education system, where the Ministry of Education has overarching responsibility for educational processes and outcomes, the crucial decisions on education rests with a handful of people that include assistant undersecretaries, district heads, managers, and supervisors. District heads who oversee the six education districts in the country are responsible among others for teacher allocation, student assessment, and local administration.

Lack of effective monitoring and evaluating the performance of these individuals leaves room for allegations of corruption, inefficiency and ineptness. As a previous TIMSS study on Kuwait suggested, perhaps we need to create a closer nexus between policy formulation and practical implementation in order to achieve better outcomes. The closer rapport would help bring about a balance between the centralization and decentralization of different elements in the education and school system, and hopefully ensure a change in attitudes toward assessment and evaluation of schooling in the country.

If the authorities needed further goading to wake them from their lethargy and tackle education as a priority issue, it came in the form of a new report published recently, this time on the quality of higher education in the country. The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) annual ranking of world universities found that the country’s venerable Kuwait University (KU) was placed in the 1001 to 1200 group out of the total 1,300 universities surveyed for the 2022 annual listing.

Additionally, the QS classification reveals that KU ranked low not only on the global scale but also regionally among Arab states, with the university dropping from the 19th spot it occupied in 2019 to 27th spot in 2022. Many of the countries that outranked Kuwait in this year’s listing do not possess even half the financial resources or infrastructure that KU has access to. The low ranking of KU once again reiterates that it is not a lack of funding or inadequate infrastructure that prevents the deliverance of high quality education.

Despite having one of the largest budgets among state entities at around KD560 million annually, and having reportedly spent close to KD3 billion recently in building a new state-of-the-art university campus at the Sabah Al-Salem University City in Shadadiyah area — billed as one the largest academic campuses in the world — the university has not been able to stem the steady erosion in quality of academic outcomes over the years. The poor showing in QS and other international rankings over the years is perhaps indicative of the deep malaise and inefficiency that has crept into the halls of this once esteemed edifice.

Established in 1966, Kuwait University was considered a beacon of higher education, attracting college-level students from across the region well into the 1980s. Over the decades since its establishment, KU has grown to become a multi-faculty institution of higher education comprising 16 colleges offering 92 undergraduate and 89 graduate programs. Enrollment at the university has grown from around 400 in its early years to over 38,000 students today; faculty numbers have gone from 31 to around1,600; and administrative and academic support personnel have risen from 200 to more than 5,000. Sadly, the quality of academic output at the university has not kept pace with the rapid advancements in infrastructure, courses offered and faculty strength.

In a scatching commentary on the quality of higher education in the country, published in World Literature Today and titled:, ‘In Ruins: Reflections beyond Kuwait’, eminent Kuwaiti author and associate professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University, Mai Al-Nakib notes that Kuwait University’s sharp drop in the QS World University Rankings for 2022 is no surprise. She points out that, “many of the students I teach at the undergraduate level cannot read, write, or think critically. Most register in the Department of English Language and Literature because the public-sector job market offers competitive salaries for English-language speakers. There is a discernible apathy, a lack of engagement with ideas, and a desire to be rewarded good grades without effort”.

“Kuwaiti university students are paid the equivalent of $660 a month, regardless of merit, just for being enrolled; money rather than knowledge is the key motivator for many young people to attend university, which is free and has low requirements for acceptance,” writes Al-Nakib. She goes on to disclose that “Kuwait University professors are pressured to inflate grades by parliament members, who interfere in the institution, and by administrators, who do not want to deal with parliament”.

Anecdotal and first-hand experience from the past allow us to vouchsafe that the transactional nature of grading in higher education, and even earlier, at the school level, among those tutoring and those being taught, has existed, and as Professor Al-Nakib attests continues to prevail. Teachers, assistants, laboratory guides and other academic support staff with direct access to alter or impact grading, especially if they are expatriates, have been coaxed or coerced with various inducements. The enticing offers range from financial to the all-important driving license or a visa for a relative in exchange for helping adjust the grading of a ward.

As a new UNESCO report on corruption in higher academic institutions states: “Education forms the basis and the fabric in which a society is transformed and different facets of well-being are shaped. Corruption in higher education has a larger negative influence, it destroys the relation between personal effort and reward anticipation. Moreover, employees and students develop a belief that personal success does not come from hard work and merit but through canvassing with teachers and taking other shortcuts.”

Professor Al-Nakib concludes her essay by pointing out that over decades, hundreds of excellent reports have been written by local and international experts on education in Kuwait, to no avail. “The unyielding consistency with which these studies and suggestions are ignored confirms that the neglect is no accident. This is a choice Kuwait is making — leaders, parliament members, and parents alike — to keep education standards as low as possible in the hopes that the boat will not be rocked. The opposite, in fact, is what future ruins will reveal. The annihilation of education brought us to our knees.”

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