The world marks International Day of Education each year on 24 January. The day aims to raise awareness on the importance of education, and the need to expedite transformative actions for inclusive, equitable, and quality education for everyone, everywhere. Education is a fundamental human right and its significance to individuals, to societies, and to the overall development of humanity cannot be over-emphasized.

Education advances learning and acquiring knowledge, promotes values, and virtues, improves confidence and helps develop critical skills like problem-solving, decision-making, mental agility, and logical thinking. In addition, education is considered a force-multiplier in sustainable development of nations and one of the most potent enablers to help young people become active, responsible global citizens.

Despite the primacy of education and its enabling influence on society, UN Secretary-General António Guterres,in his address to the ‘Transforming Education Summit’ held at the United Nations last September, lamented that, “With nearly 70 percent of 10-year-olds in poor countries unable to read and barely learning, instead of being the great enabler, education is fast becoming a great divider”.

He went on to add that while with their access to finances and educational resources, “the rich get the best jobs, the poor, especially girls, displaced people, and those with disabilities, face huge obstacles to getting the qualifications that could change their lives”.

Kuwait was among the 130 countries that attended the ‘Transforming Education Summit’ at the UN in New York last September. Addressing the gathering on behalf of His Highness the Amir, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Prime Minister His Highness Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, said that Kuwait was keen on developing and transforming education within its borders and around the world.

The prime minister added that Kuwait was cultivating the skills of its youth in order to enable them to lead the country, as the nation steadily advanced along the path of its 2035 New Kuwait development plan.

He pointed out that “Kuwait’s national policy gave precedence to developing human resources, and that the country allocates 12 percent of its domestic spending to develop education, including through new modes of education supported by the government, the private sector, and civil society.”

Kuwait’s keenness to ensure quality educational output is no doubt laudable, and the country’s spending of a relatively high 6.6 percent of its GDP on education in 2021, is certainly commendable. But unfortunately, the outcomes from education are far less than that aspired for. The need to transform education, due to the poor quality of its outcomes, is evident everywhere one looks. The most egregious manifestation of this was in the rampant cheating that takes place during secondary school exams.

Last week it came to light that more than 40,000 secondary school students from various public schools were involved in an exam- cheating network that included teachers, supervisors, other school staff and employees of the Ministry of Education. Media reports on the case, which is currently before the Public Prosecutor’s office, indicates that exam question papers were leaked to a select group of students in exchange for monetary benefits. The students then subsequently sold these questions to other students for cash, with a total of over KD1 million said to have been transacted for this illegal process.

The widespread cheating once again brings to the fore the poor quality of education in the country and reiterates the finding of numerous reports, by local and international entities that have attested to the dismally low outcomes of education in Kuwait. A report in January 2022 by the Ministry of Education, following a survey of over 260 public and private schools found that the education imparted and outcomes received in the country’s schools were ‘disappointing’.

In a bid to improve education, governments over the years have conducted multi-year integrated modernization programs to address critical issues in Kuwait’s education system. The most recent attempt conducted by the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the World Bank, was the five-year ‘Integrated Education Reform Program’ that began in 2015. The program aimed to reform curricula, develop national assessment systems, improve school leadership, and create professional standards.

However, an assessment report on the program by the World Bank, following the conclusion of the program in 2020, found that due to lack of timely and comprehensive implementation of recommendations, the program had in large measure failed to achieve many of its objectives. The educational shortcoming and inadequateness of youth in Kuwait to compete effectively in the knowledge economy of today was again underlined by the 2021 publication titled, ‘Unlocking Human Capital Potential in Kuwait as Global Actor in the Knowledge Economy’, prepared by the United Nations Kuwait office.

Pointing out that in the new knowledge economy, wealth is based on the knowledge acquired and its use, and not on material factors of production, the report contended that Kuwaiti youth were ill-prepared to participate in this new economy.

Noting that that the contribution of human capital accumulation to wealth in high-income countries (HICs) is over 70 percent, in the US (79%), in South Korea (69%), and the world average is 64 percent, the report added, in Kuwait the share of human capital to wealth was only around 24 percent. The report asserted that underperformance in terms of the Human Capital Index, relative to nations with similar incomes, in Kuwait is associated with the country’s weak “human capital generating capacity for wealth”.

Additionally, the report in its assessment of human resource qualification systems and their outputs, highlighted several shortcomings, including that pre-primary enrollment rate in the country remains low at 60 percent, compared to the average of 83 percent for other high-income countries. Also, despite increased government expenditure on early years’ education, and children expected to stay 12 out of 14 years in school, a child learns the equivalent of only 7.4 years. In other words, a high-school graduate in Kuwait learns the equivalent of a middle-school graduate in Singapore, said the UN report.

The UN analysis also went on to note that a quarter of the human capital accumulated is not currently being utilized in the labor market, largely because of low economic participation by females.This results in a broadly persistent gender gap that placed Kuwait 122 out of 153 countries in the Gender Gap Index produced by the World Economic Forum.

The labor market segmentation has also led to higher unemployment rates among Kuwaitis (6.4%) compared to migrants (1.7%). The report attributed this discrepancy in employment to the fact that nearly 58 percent of unemployed Kuwaitis said they would refuse to work in the private sector. Also, Kuwaiti graduates showed only a limited willingness to adapt their skills to labor market needs.

One reason for the low quality of education in Kuwait can be attributed to the state’s policies since the country’s independence in 1961. The welfare state that emerged following independence, backed by new-found oil wealth, resulted in the government guaranteeing secure and lucrative jobs in the public sector for all working age citizens. The perpetuation of this policy over the past six decades — where the government sector serves as the employer of first and last choice for most nationals — has resulted in a lopsided and fragmented labor market and distorted labor allocation.

This policy has also resulted in a public sector bursting at the seams with overemployment, and an unsustainable public wage bill that accounts for over 70 percent of annual budget expenditure. Providing secure sinecure employment for all adult nationals, has also inadvertently undermined the education system. Today, students emerge from educational institutions with nominal degrees and mediocre capabilities that are out of sync with labor market demands, and make them ill-equipped for the current knowledge economy.

Maintaining the outdated policy of implementing slow, incremental educational improvements has clearly not succeeded and will no longer suffice. What is needed is a paradigm transformation of the education system through deep and far-reaching systemic changes to the educational process, conducted simultaneously at multiple levels,and in a concerted, consistent and sustained manner.

However, in a country where nearly everyone involved in the education process has a stake in maintaining the status quo, it is doubtful whether such a drastic intervention and transformation of the education process will ever be implemented, let alone succeed. The thinking, ‘why replace what is not broken’, appears to percolate down the education pyramid.

It begins with the lawmakers at the top who decide what reforms get introduced and implemented. However, while publicly voicing support for enhancing educational levels in the country, they do not relish the prospects of an educated and empowered youth that could demand long-due answers from their elected representatives and appointed executives in parliament.

It is also in the interests of erstwhile employees and managers in the public sector to maintain the status quo in employment processes. Even though they are aware of the need for well-educated youths possessing job-oriented skill-sets, these decision-makers are also wary that the hiring of talented youth could pose a challenge to their own jobs down the line.

Teachers and administrators who are ultimately responsible for improving student training and outcomes, prefer to continue teaching and administrating using outdated models and modalities. Rather than undergo fresh training in new education and administrative processes that would benefit students and outcomes, many of these employees prefer to obstruct and obfuscate any educational reforms that have the potential to infringe on their current cushy jobs.

Finally, the students at the bottom of the education pyramid are quite happy to continue the learning by rote and exam-oriented learning process. Rather than putting in extra-effort to imbibe new experiential learning techniques, they favor the current learning process, knowing fully well that even with a middling education the state will ensure their comfortable life and livelihood in future.

The UN Kuwait office report concluded by noting that in order to yield greater rates of return on educational spending, and to transform the labor force to become more productive and creative so as to effectively participate in the knowledge economy, it is critical for Kuwait to invest in public health, nutrition, education and vocational training of youth, especially of young women, as well as invest in creating an innovative environment through internal and external partnerships.

Let us hope that the people responsible for education in the country will read the UN report, and, more importantly, act on it.

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