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More university places and better quality needed, says report

The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must urgently develop and implement higher education policies aimed at expanding student enrolments and strengthening quality.

This was proposed in a report, GCC Education Industry, produced by investment bank Alpen Capital last month, which included detailed profiles of the higher education capabilities of Arab gulf states.

The report indicated that increases in income levels and rising populations, coupled with an expanding expatriate population, have pushed up the gross enrolment rate at primary and secondary education level.

The resulting rise in the number of high school graduates has put pressure on GCC member governments to focus on the development of higher education.

Rising demand and quality issues

Between 2011 and 2016, the report expects that the total number of students will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.7%, rising from 10.2 to 11.6 million, and the share of the age cohort enrolled in tertiary education is forecast to increase from 12% to 13.4%. This would still fall far short of the share of the age cohort in tertiary education globally, which UNESCO put at 26% in 2007.

The population of the Gulf states is expected to increase at a CAGR of 2.5% between 2011 and 2013, while the expatriate share of the population is likely to grow from 47.8% to 48.4% during the same period.

The report foresees that the number of higher education institutions across the region will grow mainly on the back of rising enrolment rates in GCC member countries.

Despite several initiatives by governments to increase higher education enrolment, new graduates are finding it hard to get a job in the region because they lack the right skills, mainly due to lack of tie-ups between the education sector and business.

“This may reflect a mismatch between the skills taught to graduates and the requirements of the labour market,” the report commented.

Also, the quality of higher education across the region is still not on a par with standards in developed nations and some emerging economies.

A shortage of skilled teachers and weak links between the higher education market and the labour market is one of the primary reasons for low quality higher education, which pushed GCC students to study at overseas universities, said the report.

Private and foreign higher education

To deal with this problem, most of the GCC nations are inviting reputable foreign universities to open campuses in their countries and private colleges across the region are also looking to enter into partnerships or become affiliated with international institutions.

As a result the private higher education segment, which is relatively underdeveloped, is likely to grow in the future as new private and foreign universities set up operations.

For example, in Qatar, to expand the reach of higher education by inviting in foreign universities, the government established Education City, which included nine global universities by 2011.

According to an August 2011 report, based on a Guide to Universities in the Arab Countries issued by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States, Dubai International Academic City is one of the region’s leading education service providers, hosting over 58% of foreign branch campuses in the Arab world.

Among the GCC countries, Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village host 23% of the total number of universities.

However, investors in the higher education space are currently faced with strict government regulations in some GCC countries with respect to granting of licences.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia licenses to run higher education institutes are not provided to overseas operators. Instead, overseas players have to enter into management contracts with local Saudi education providers, to participate in the sector.

Enrolments by foreign students have been steadily increasing in the private higher education sector because the GCC region offers good job opportunities for graduates with strong qualifications, which encourages students from the Middle East, North Africa and less developed nations in Asia to migrate to the region.

GCC member countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are the most popular among overseas students.

This is due to the uncomplicated and trouble-free processing of visas and the presence of private universities that collaborate with foreign institutions, offering migrant students quality Western education in a multi-cultural environment, the report says.

In a relevant development, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education has directed Saudi universities – except for colleges of health – to allocate about 10% of their seats to expatriate students residing in the kingdom, according to a report in the local Arabic daily Al-Watan.

The Alpen Capital report also noted some major upcoming higher education projects, including the future establishment of three colleges of Kuwait University City, the UAE-based New York University by 2014 and Qatar-based Northwestern College of Media and Communication by 2013.

Foreign universities popular

Sanjay Vig, Managing Director of Alpen Capital, told University World News that a primary reasons why GCC governments were encouraging the entry of foreign universities was to improve quality.

“Foreign universities that have entered the GCC are established institutions with international curriculum and quality standards,“ he said.

“Moreover, these foreign universities are extremely popular with the expanding expatriate population who wish to pursue higher education in world-class private colleges after completing their schooling in private schools.

“Hence, establishing foreign universities in the GCC [also] helps to expand enrolment within the GCC.”

But Mohammed Kuchari, associate professor of microbiology at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, said that instead of relying on foreign universities, which had proved unsuccessful especially regarding their role in promoting development, GCC states should build domestic institutions “and facilitate technology and knowledge transfer into the region through partnership with word-class universities and research centres”.

GCC states, he said, had the resources to establish national postgraduate and research centres and to produce their scientific workforce at home.
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