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Developing by degrees

Interview - February 8, 2012
Mr. Abdullah Al-Sharhan, Chairman of the Australian College of Kuwait, discusses the importance of nurturing the country’s future through education
How do you view the current situation in Kuwait, and where is it going in 2012?

First of all, I think we have to move forward… We have been stagnant for a long time. We are now going to go through a period of transition between what happened before and what is going to happen. The recent dissolution of Parliament and the energies associated with new elections could act as a catalyst for fermenting fresh ideas based on the experiences of the past.   Hopefully a new parliament will start with renewed vigor. We need a lot of legislation in order to move forward. This should include revising legislation that was not 100% to the benefit of the country.

The public is weary of what was going on. The Parliament was not getting around to passing necessary legislation – it’s members were preoccupied with preparing detailed questions that kept the ministers busy answering them, as they had to respond within two weeks. I am hopeful that with the prodding of the Emir that the new parliament will focus more on legislating.

So you think that things are moving forward and there are signs of change?

I am hoping that there will be a sensible parliament, that recognizes that the country has to develop its private sector. The private sector has been neglected. One of the main obstacles to the development of the private sector is that the Government employs more than 90% of the Kuwaiti workforce. They earn very high wages. They form a formidable voting bloc. These people have been pushing the Government to increase wages. The people are spoilt and their demands are a cause of inflation, which they do not feel. They can buy what they want and pay by installments. The only people who are working productively are those in the oil sector. This includes KPC (although it is wholly owned by the Government and its employees are considered as government employees).

We hope that this situation will be reversed with legislation, because it is very dangerous. When you increase salaries, that creates a commitment that you cannot easily take back. This is not sustainable especially as government revenue is not in its hands – it is determined by the market. Twelve years ago the revenue per oil barrel was $12 and now it is above $100. We should adopt the pre 1958 Iraqi model where every cent of revenue derived from the export of oil had by law to be invested in physical and human capital development, or the current Norwegian model. Norway started to tap its oil resources three decades ago and dedicated the derived revenues to build its infrastructure and invest in forming physical and human capital, as well as invest in long term financial instruments. Not one dollar of oil revenue goes toward spending on consumption. The current and future generations are and will be living on the proceeds of these investments. When you have only one natural resource, human capital becomes the indispensible complement.

How competitive is Kuwait in terms of human capital and a knowledge-based economy? How is Kuwait going to face the challenge of educating people in a more knowledge-based economy?

Priority should be given to creating human capital that is productive. You need people who are trained in the oil sector and in investment and finance as well as people who are specialized in services. That comes from education and continuous training. People have to keep on learning. Education only gives you the basic knowledge, but you have to be and remain an avid learner. That is why at the Australian College of Kuwait (ACK) - we believe that there are three things that we have to provide our student with: knowledge, the skills to use that knowledge and the correct attitude towards the workplace. That is what you have to do to develop people. The experience that give you skills are important. We have not yet succeeded 100%, but we have started. This is the basic vision of ACK.

I would now like to move onto the famous $105 billion development plan and the Emir’s vision for 2020. How does education fit into the vision?

I would like to see most of the oil sector services privatized, but it can only be privatized when you have the skilled people to run it.

The market is hungry for specialized people. Education programs should be set in conjunction with the private sector. ACK works with the oil sector. Our subjects are business and engineering. We have projects that combine both – the engineers need to know about business aspects and vice versa. Everybody is working with technology and if you are just a businessman, you are limited in what you can achieve. Innovation comes with skills, not just with knowledge. This is what the market wants. ACK has been around for seven years and most of its 2,500 graduates are working in the private sector. I do not want them to go to the Government. We prepared them for the private sector.

Please give us an overview of the beginnings of the Australian College of Kuwait and the challenges you have faced. What are your plans for the future?

First of all, the idea of establishing ACK started because we realized we should help people to progress. When we submitted our proposal to establish this college, we did not state that we wanted to be a university. We wanted to be a vocational college because, at this stage, the general education system is still evolving and needs to be developed considerably. The only education most students in Kuwait receive has been via ‘chalk and talk’. This has been deficient because most of the teachers in Kuwait are from abroad, and view their mission in the narrow sense of a job and not the broader sense of a teacher as an educator.

Most students on the other hand, want a university education as a means to earn higher salaries. The universities however require a certain GPA level. This is because they want to maintain the quality and cannot handle massive numbers. So they have to raise the GPA requirements in order to control these two elements.

Many students do not have the required GPA due to lack of study skills and they have been spoilt by their parents. ACK was predicated on giving such students a second chance, and to create a fresh opportunity for them. That was to be achieved by improving their learning skills and giving them a little bit of theory and a lot of practice. Students love to work with each other, such as in building go-karts. They are sick of ‘chalk and talk’, so at ACK we are educating them through providing them with skills. When you have skills, you can innovate.

Can you please give us an overview of the courses you offer and what you are focusing on.

We took students with a low GPA and gave them a foundation year to improve their English, Math and study skills. When they succeed, they join a two year diploma program. If they do not pass, they can repeat. They are still young. If they pass they can go on to attain BSc and MSc degrees and then go on to research, if they so wish. We open the door for academic progress to those who are capable and desire to continue. For those who are not capable or lack the desire to continue they at least have a vocational diploma as an exit. The market is hungry for skills in business and engineering so you cannot go wrong. ACK provides opportunities to everyone. We have a lot of problems and I have made mistakes, but we have learnt from them.

Research is a huge part of Kuwait’s knowledge-based economy as well as innovation and technology. How is your college focusing on this right now and what is it providing students in order to go out into the real world in such a technological society?

We are still at the beginning. We are building the future potential for research. When a student acquires a master’s degree then he is at a stage to start academic research. Some instructors are using their classes for their own research, but I think it is still too early. We are only seven years old and I would like to focus first on education and skills. We are creating a club where business and engineering students can create their own projects and we can help them. If there are viable projects then we will incubate them (help them to start the project after graduation). We help them from a technical point of view and the Government has funds for small projects. We have not done that yet, but that is in our plans.

ACK has aviation maintenance and maritime navigation assets that it acquired via the Offset Program. These facilities have allowed ACK to provide unique training opportunities in Kuwait.

That is a huge competitive advantage.

It took us four years to obtain these facilities, and it has helped us tremendously. It represents a lot of capital that we could not afford. Now our aviation unit is internationally approved.

International qualifications are vital today.

This is one thing we insisted on with our partners. There are many other private universities that did not want to do that because it is expensive.

How is ACK working on international quality standards?

After the liberation I started a small training and education projects company. I won a project in the early 1990s from the defense ministry to reconstitute the naval school, which was completely demolished. We proposed to design and build the school and find the instructors, which is the most important thing. We trained the officers in order for them to become instructors. We developed training programs for the management of the school, as well as bringing in the required equipment. After liberation there were many companies that wanted to do business in Kuwait. One of them was a small Australian company, which we signed a contract with. The contract was renewed three times before ACK was established in conjunction with Australian universities. We graduated 35 officers with Australian qualifications. International cooperation has always been a basic ingredient of our operations.

What motivates you every morning to wake up and come to the University?

The students are my motivation. I love young people, they are the future. But they cannot move forward unless somebody leads them to their future. So we opened the College. The government does not understand us at times, but thank God that they always accommodated us when we go and talk to them and tell them what we are doing. The students give me a reason to wake up.

I think you are on the right path but people’s perception of education, innovation and different ways of teaching has to change.

The youth today are exposed to the international media and they can see what is happening. They are skilled in IT and they are fascinated with Twitter and Facebook. It is becoming a media, but they need to have a profession and a vocation. I hope to produce employees and entrepreneurs for business. That is really what ACK is focusing on now.

I see the College as the realization of your dream.

We are just starting and with the help of the Australians. One third of our income goes to them because I want the best of our students.

Where do you see the College in the future? What is your vision?

I would like to see the College producing the human capital that the country needs, hence our collaboration with industry. If you do not work together with industry, you do not know what they want. We have an advisory committee from the industry. We have agreements with private companies. Many companions take part in job opportunity fairs for ACK graduates. Students can ask questions. We have a good rapport with industry. We take our students on tours to acquaint them with real life situations and where they are going to be working. The Kuwaitis are spoiled, so we try to make them feel that with their skills they can get somewhere and that it is normal to start work on the floor and then move up. Graduates can come back to ACK as well – we offer afternoon classes. We are flexible; and try to cater to their needs. I admire students who work and who want to study in the afternoons – these are the types of people that can contribute to Kuwait’s future. 

What final message would you like to send to the readers of USA Today?

Human capital is the most important capital in any country. Human capital development is the only way to progress your country.