New strategy to address university admissions crisis

Kuwait’s strategy for urgently widening higher education access includes strengthening post-secondary paths into vocational and higher education, developing world-class, independent universities in different regions, encouraging the creation of private universities and providing scholarships for study abroad.

The university admissions crisis in Kuwait was highlighted recently by local and international bodies, including the Ministry of Higher Education and the World Economic Forum.

As a result of lack of places Kuwait’s university council, chaired by Minister of Higher Education Nayef Falah Al-Hajraf, approved the acceptance of 7,859 Kuwaiti students for the first semester of 2012-13 but postponed the acceptance of 1,540 students for the second semester.

A 2012 report on global competitiveness indicated that Kuwait's tertiary enrolment rate is ranked 91 in the world with a value of only 18.9, which is well below most other Arab states, such as Lebanon (52.5), Bahrain (51.2) and Jordan (40.7).

With regard to the quality of its education system, Kuwait came 108 in the world.

To tackle these problems, a new strategy calls for, among other things, diversifying routes of secondary education by creating two paths: for academic education through universities and for vocational education through technical schools.

There are currently two state-supported institutions of higher education in Kuwait: Kuwait University and the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training or PAAET, a two-year college.

In addition, there are a number of private post-secondary colleges and universities that are approved by the Ministry of Higher Education.

To ease the pressure on the public institutions, the new strategy calls for stimulating further development of private universities and supporting their activities so they can accommodate high school graduates.

Faridah Ali, acting secretary general of the Private Universities Council, told University World News that 16 private institutions have been licensed in Kuwait: nine have already started, three are expected to open in the next academic year, and the remaining four will start thereafter.

The operational private universities have already enrolled about 15,000 students, and they graduated about 1,700 students in 2011.

The strategy also calls for increasing the number of scholarships for studying abroad. Official figures indicate that there are about 50,000 Kuwaiti expatriates studying abroad, mainly as a result of not being able to complete their studies due to lack of university places.

In line with the development strategy and existing job market, members of the national assembly indicated that as an oil state, Kuwait – like Saudi Arabia and other, Western countries – should establish a petrochemical university.

They also called on the government to establish a body similar to the existing PAAET, a public authority for education and training whose focus would be specifically on supervising the performance of universities.

One of the first steps in implementing the new strategy is setting up two new higher education institutions: Sabah Al-Salem University City, and Jaber University for Applied Sciences, or JUAS.

The US$5.8 billion Sabah Al-Salem University City is one of the top 10 education projects in the Arab Gulf States.

The university will focus on providing world-class educational facilities equipped with the most advanced learning resources, with a view to preparing human resources for Kuwait’s future development.

It will house 11 colleges on the main campus, with an additional five colleges on the medical campus, and will accommodate 40,000 students and 10,000 faculty.

Located to the south-west of Kuwait City on a six-million square metre plot, the new university city will be constructed in line with the segregation policy, with two adjacent campuses, one for male students and the other for females. The facilities are expected to be completed in the 2014-15 academic year.

Under the Ministry of Higher Education, the other new university, JUAS, will focus on advanced, work-oriented teaching and on applied research and development, with the aim of promoting the development of the scientific workforce and technology-based industry.

JUAS will also focus on strategies for scientific and technological research and action plans to promote science education in national higher education institutions. The new university will encompass the existing applied faculties of the PAAET.

And in a further development, Kuwait plans to establish a US$48.5 million nanotechnology centre, in an effort to develop the country as a knowledge economy.

Funded by the government and located at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the new nanotechnology centre is to be established in cooperation with Japan. It is designed to enhance graduate education, promote advanced research and create an environment for innovation for researchers in Kuwait.

Finally, the new strategy proposes setting up a centralised state system for processing applications to universities, along with studying the system of recruitment in the civil service to serve the labour market, and encouraging graduates to join the private sector.

But not everyone is in favour of these developments.

Speaking to University World News about the establishment of the new universities, Haydar Khajah, associate professor in the department of mathematics and computer science at Kuwait University, complained: “They are establishing two copies of one university...they may establish 10, for that matter...the same mentality shall prevail.”

He argued that Kuwait was “fooling itself” when it came to science and technology, as it was “not an industrial society, nor is there any real appreciation for science or technology; we are merely end users of such”.

When asked about supporting the private sector to build new universities and additional campuses, Khajah was equally dismissive: “The private sector looks at the world from a financial perspective – profits first – and we have examples of those here in this country. I wouldn't send my kids to any of them.”

Rather, he argued for systemic change: “Before thinking about new universities, an overhaul of the Ministry of Education is urgently needed. It dumps illiterates in their thousands on the university every year.”