With a vision of 'enabling human potential within a culture of care', the Australian College of Kuwait was established in 2000 as the country's first private technical college, and is today proud to offer one of the finest vocational education programs in the region. In an interview with United World, Chairman of ACK Mr. Abdullah Al-Sharhan says that the college is now working towards completely changing the dynamics of the country; shifting its great focus on oil to the greater development of its people, while also urging the creation of a stronger private sector for the realization of a more advanced Kuwait
The State of Kuwait has been blessed with two natural resources – its oil and its people. But neither of them has been developed to its full potential because the country has relied on the first one much more than the second. So from your personal opinion, what do you believe Kuwait needs to do to fully develop its resources?
As you said, we have two resources but I would prioritize people before oil. To develop the potential benefits that can be derived from oil you need people.
The future of oil goes beyond its being a major source of energy. Via the petrochemical industries, oil can and is providing thousands of useful products. We have to develop the manpower to help Kuwait industrialize using oil as basis. We should create the manpower to tap the huge potential of developing downstream industries that use oil products as feedstock, starting with refineries, and moving on to petrochemicals.
I have been following the ratio of energy versus petrochemicals in the use of oil. In the 1980s, about 15 percent of world extracted oil was used to produce petrochemicals. Now it is over 20 percent going toward 25 percent. In my view that is the future of Kuwait.
Another more immediate aspect of concern is related to how we invest the proceeds generated from the export of oil.
This should be done with a view to ensuring a sustainable flow of income for future generations. Since 1970s, Kuwait has been setting aside 10 percent of the revenues from the export of oil for future generations. If that is invested well, it will generate not only a parallel flow of income but also create opportunities for employment. Kuwaitis could be employed in the enterprises in which we invest.
Proceeds from the export of oil should also be used to create viable industries locally starting with those that produce import substitutes.
We are spending a lot of money on importing numerous goods including food items which we could be manufacture or produce here. To supplement this we could invest in food production industries in countries such as Turkey and Sudan. There are vast possibilities regarding what could be done with the proceeds of oil.
At the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned the importance of a change of dynamics from public sector to a more important private sector. What in your opinion is the role that educational institutions like the Australian College of Kuwait (ACK) have for preparing younger generations for this change of dynamics?
Private businesses are what develop a country. The government can support and create the needed infrastructure for development of the private sector. Education should be directed toward satisfying the needs of the private sector. That is what we are doing at ACK.
I do not want my graduates to work for the government. In fact, when they graduate from ACK, they themselves do not want to work in that sector. They want to go to the private sector where they can generate self-respect.
You have actually experienced this change of dynamics. You were in the public sector and now in the private sector, right?
Yes. What we need to do is provide the infrastructure for the development of the private sector. The private sector cannot develop in a vacuum. It needs the government’s support and parliamentary understanding so as to pass laws that will help aid its progress. For example, we passed a foreign investor’s law recently which is a good law, but several existing laws that affect negatively the ability to attract investors remained unchanged.
So when we want a change, we have to analyze all factors that come into play, and adjust those that impede the achievement of desired goals.
If we want to advance the country, we have to develop the private sector and encourage partnerships with foreign investors and foreign institutions that can help us.
We must also create the manpower that can help Kuwait develop its industries and economy. Development cannot take place without properly trained manpower.
Kuwait is part of this world, and it needs to attract people with special skills. We have to encourage foreign companies with expertise to come to Kuwait by providing incentives. People think foreign investors are coming just to make money which to a certain extent is true, but the underlying fact is that we need their know-how.
We want to be partners with them and not just agents. This can be achieved if we teach our young people to realize that they have to work hard to justify becoming partners with foreign investors. This is what we have to do.
On a personal level, what motivated you to be part of this change of dynamics in shifting from the public sector to establishing this institution?
After graduating from California, I signed my first contract with an oil company in New York before coming to Kuwait. I was probably the first Kuwaiti to sign a contract with a company abroad to work in Kuwait. I enjoyed the learning experience. It is not the knowledge but the skill set that I acquired that made me productive.
What are the principles that you saw in the Australian model of education that made you decide to implement it here?
I was working with an Australian company in the early 90’s after the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. At that time we needed to develop Kuwait.
One of the projects that came up was the development of naval school affiliated to the Ministry of Defense. Since I was working with Australians, we brought in the University of Technology in Sydney and the Australian Maritime College to establish the school. I noted that the Australians not only taught theoretical lessons but also provided skills and developed the attitude of students. I realized that they focused on three areas – knowledge, the skill to apply that knowledge and attitude toward the work place.
They stressed the importance of being diligent, honest in your work and proud of what you produce. If you don’t have the skill, how can you be proud of what you produce? These are the principles that we have adopted at ACK.
When other educational universities followed the Egyptian educational system, did you have any cross feelings such as I have competition but I am playing a bigger role as well because what is important is that more of the younger generations are going to get good quality education?
I cannot speak about other colleges or universities, but in the case of ACK I thought of those individuals who did not obtain the necessary grades in high school to be accepted in institutions of tertiary education.
Most of the other universities even the private ones say ‘If you don’t have at least a C average, don’t come to me’. So what happens to these individuals? Often grades do not reflect their capabilities. In fact, I was one of them, as my grade was D or something equivalent. But I went to the United States. It took me 5 years to graduate but I graduated.
So what if I spent an extra year studying compared to 40 years of working? And I thought I am sure many of these students have capabilities that have not been tapped. In consideration of this, we established ACK based on the principle that instead of saying “I will not take you. You have to come to me”, we say “I will come to you and take you with me”.
The result is that these students are grateful because ACK gave them a fresh opportunity. Secondly, ACK provided a platform for them to gain skills along with knowledge.
When you enter ACK, you see the phrase ‘Developing Human Potential in a Culture of Care’. Knowing the deficiencies of Kuwait’s high school education in providing a proper foundation, we give those who lack it a second chance that they would otherwise not have. ACK provides supplementary courses to enable them to succeed. If they fail, it is alright because they can try again. When every door is closed and they have no other option, we open our doors to them.
Then after two years, they can achieve a diploma that allows them to work at a professional level if they so choose or they can continue studying towards a Bachelor in Technology. They also have the option of coming back to study, after having chosen to work for a while.
I am happy about the fact that ACK has graduated 4,000 students in 9 years. Last week, an oil company came here for campus placements, as we had graduated a class two weeks before. The company was eager to recruit our graduates.
Regarding the move from public to the private sector, the private sector needs people with knowledge, skill, and an attitude of perseverance and knowing what they can do. Many of our students have started businesses. Last week, we brought in three of our former students who are now entrepreneurs to talk about how they started and what problems they encountered. Their message was about perseverance. I myself am an entrepreneur. I built the Australian College of Kuwait from nothing.
Please tell us more about how it all started?
Initially, I had to convince a few investors and we started with very little capital along with all possible obstacles. We first had only 250 students. Then I won an offset program bid with Boeing which included a live Boeing 737 which is now located in a purpose built hanger on campus. Our Aviation program is approved by European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and we are number 74 in the world. In addition, our partner in training is Lufthansa.
Currently our student body is around 2500. Our flagship is the School of Engineering which offers diplomas and degrees in civil, mechanical, electronics and oil and gas. ACK’s School of Business offers diplomas and degrees in management, marketing and human resources.
Speaking about values - the values that we believe define Kuwait, you spoke about knowledge, skill and attitude. But you as an educator with the immense passion that you have for educating people, how does ACK imprint these values on the students?
It is not easy to teach values, but the culture of ACK helps. To acquire skills, students are assigned projects and they learn to work together as groups.
The business students have to build virtual companies while the engineering students work on physical projects such as robots. When students possess the skills and knowledge, and they see the sincerity and genuine dedication of their instructors, the culture becomes ingrained in them. Wherever they go at ACK they experience honesty. They see people who want to work and produce something. We hold competitions for them and give out awards.
In short members of ACK’s staff have first to set an example by adhering to the values we want to instill in our students. We hope that our students will adopt values such as work ethics in the same manner of acquiring values within a family. It is difficult but the only way we can do it is to ensure that such a culture is followed in the college. We still haven’t succeeded completely but this is not the end of what we want to achieve.
2014 is a year of celebration since it will be 10 years since the establishment of the university and graduating over 4,000 students. What are your goals for the future?
We celebrate small successes and open the horizons for our students so that they can obtain a proper foundation that will allow them to succeed in obtaining a diploma and if they are interested, go for higher education.
I hope that the government will allow us soon to give a Bachelor of Engineering degree, followed by a Masters’ and, PhD degrees as well widening the possibilities for conducting research. We want to do research in the fields of environment, water and energy which are important for developing a country.
I also want to help industries through applied research that provides solutions to problems they encounter. I want them to come to us for such solutions. We want to reach that level but there is a long way to go. Research is a vital part of ACK’s future, which I am sure will happen.
Your unique and personal point of view is truly inspiring. You said that you could be at home as proud as you are, enjoying the beautiful weather or you could be in Germany with your wife half the year. But you decided to come here and contribute to the development of Kuwait by bringing in right education. What drives or motivates you?
I have been working for more than 50 years and why should all this experience go to waste? We are all still learning.