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Education for a productive future

Interview - March 6, 2012
Dr. Khalid M. Al-Saad, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Higher Education, feels young citizens should be trained for the private sector in order to safeguard the country’s economic future
DR. KHALID M. AL-SAAD, UNDERSECRETARY AT THE MINISTRY OF HIGHER EDUCATION
DR. KHALID M. AL-SAAD | UNDERSECRETARY AT THE MINISTRY OF HIGHER EDUCATION

His Highness the Emir introduced a four year development plan for 2010-2014 with a very high expenditure: we are talking about billions of dollars here. Education and health are at the forefront of the agenda and are the main drivers of society and development in Kuwait. Can you give us your insights as to how higher education is involved in the development plan and what are the challenges that lie ahead in the next few years?

When you discuss education, higher education comes in the middle between basic education and the labour market. So the three pillars of higher education need to be tackled in a wider context not just by looking at higher education on its own. Coming back to the four year development plan the Ministry has a few projects that contribute to the vision of His Highness the Emir. That vision is to have Kuwait as a commercial and financial centre where the private sector is the engine of growth. This requires all aspects of the economy to be involved - education, health, commerce, the public sector. In our area we have a few projects that contribute. First we have what we call a Merit Graduate Scholarship, which is similar to what we have at the undergraduate level. With the merit program at the undergraduate level there are more financial incentives for scholarship students to be enrolled in  American Ivy League universities (the top universities), and to compete to score three out of four GPA. So this program has incentives for students to excel. We are counting on people to be future business leaders. Now the new project that we have is at the graduate level. We are at the stage of putting the program together at the moment. It will involve graduate merit schools in the US, Europe and Japan and East Asia.

So you are giving the students an incentive to perform at the higher level.

Yes at the higher level.

So you could say it is in order to get the prize of studying abroad, a way of motivating them.

Yes. It has a financial incentive which a traditional scholarship does not have.

We all know that Kuwait is well endowed with hydro-carbons and that the main source of wealth of such a rich country as Kuwait is oil. I have interviewed a few people already within the education sector and they all say that wealth in Kuwait has brought certain bad things. One of those things is the actual lack of motivation of the students to actually move on to higher education. What are your views on this?

We always confuse this, we think of oil creating jobs but it does not create jobs it creates wealth. There is a big difference between jobs and wealth. In 1987 we did a macro-economic study in all sectors with a group of professors from Harvard and MIT. The main recommendation of that study was to transform oil into human resource development because we think the future of the country lies in human resource development. If you look at why Kuwait was the shining star of the 1960-70s it was because of the human resources (Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti) that we had at that time. Kuwaitis were pioneers in the Gulf for studying abroad and coming back and for trading with other countries. I’ll give you an example: my dad could not read or write, he did not go to school. But, he spoke a foreign language; he spoke Urdu because he traded with the Indians. So this is the type of human resource development that contributed to the early stages of development. With reference to the “curse of oil” that people talk about, because the oil is owned by the government, the government was not able to sterilise the wealth effect of the oil. When you become rich without working hard for that money you tend to become lazy and take it for granted. That is what happened to the average Kuwaiti coupled with the wrong policies that contributed to that behaviour. The wrong policies of the government in terms of salary scale in the public sector and Kuwaitization (replacing expatriate labour with Kuwaiti labour) policy without checks and balances. I can give you an example, when I joined the university as a professor after getting my PhD there was a small difference between a Kuwaiti faculty  and non-Kuwaiti faculty salary which is the social allowance. But if I look now, 25 years later, the gap is bigger and this is not healthy for the labour market mechanism. If a country is rich and wants to distribute wealth amongst the citizens it can do that through allowances such as social allowances or pay-offs for the citizens, but not in terms of pricing jobs.

90% of the jobs in Kuwait are in the public sector and the other 10% are from the private sector. There is a very big gap as you just said, in terms of people actually going on to higher education with the objective of just ending up in the public sector. Doctor, what is the Ministry of Higher Education doing other than through the incentives of money and scholarships abroad? How are you going to make people realise that the public sector should not be their main objective and goal in life?

Through our scholarship program we encourage our students to be enrolled in top universities, to compete. Once they have that motivation, then they would find the private sector more self-fulfilling, more challenging, and more rewarding than the public sector, because the private sector is more competitive. Also we are concentrating on areas needed for the private sector and needed to transform the country into a commercial and financial sector such as IT, finance, and medical sciences. In addition we encourage students to engage in internship programs to acquire the skills needed by the private sector or to able them to have their own businesses, rather than seeking public sector job.

There is lots of talk about mismatching skills. People going to university, studying a particular career then after four or five years of a degree there are no jobs available in what they studied. This is a huge problem here in Kuwait. How is the Ministry informing people about the actual opportunities available here in Kuwait so that people can actually choose their economic path?    

In this country we have a Civil Service Commission which is supposed to be in charge of assessing the needs of the labour market. But, the Commission is not capable of a long-term vision because it relies on the ministries in terms of their needs and it is in charge of the public sector not the private sector. The needs of the private sector should be assessed by an agency and that agency also needs to address expatriate labour cost and the subsidy involved. It does not make any sense for a business to hire a Kuwaiti and pay him ten-times what an expatriate gets. This should be corrected in order for the private sector to be the largest employer, because the government cannot continue to be the largest employer. All the Civil Service Commission rules and regulations need to be addressed and overhauled. The latest increase in salaries to certain professions has disturbed the economic basis of employment. For example, an engineer working in the private sector used to earn more than what he earns working for the government. By this salary increase the government has doubled the salary of engineers and upset the balance. We have adopted the wrong policy in the public sector. There should not be any changes in the salary scale of professions. I am not talking about administrative/clerical work and so on, but professions such as lawyers, accountants, engineers, medical doctors need to be addressed within the private sector.

There is much talk about privatisation in the next few years do you think that would impact directly on the level and quality of education in Kuwait?

I am a private sector believer because my dad was in the private sector. Although I have taken a civil service job, I believe that the private sector is the engine of growth because if you take the experience of 300 years ago the government was not the engine of growth. It can be the engine of growth for a certain period of time but not for life, which is not sustainable. We have two things that need to be corrected. First, de-politicising issues related to the private sector which means the government, with the parliament, needs to address the issue of politicising any role the private sector play in economic development. There is always accusation from parliamentarians that the government has given a particular person a project because they wanted to benefit that individual without a fair competition.

Moving now into the more private side of higher education in Kuwait. You have the Australian College of Kuwait, the American University of Kuwait - there are many international partnerships which have been going for more than 20 years here in Kuwait. In your opinion, how important are international partnerships in terms of transfer of knowledge, know-how, innovation, technology? To what extent does it benefit Kuwait?  

Definitely there is a benefit. We live in a globalised world and whether we like globalisation or not, we have to be part of that world. We cannot close Kuwait and say we can live in isolation. Like we have one reserve currency in the  world economy (200 years ago it was the British pound then it became the US dollar then it became the IMF Special Drawing Rights) similarly I believe that we are going to have one common language.  

It would be easier.

A common language or at least every individual speaking two languages. The candidate for one common language is probably English. The transfer of knowledge is very important because in the future we are going to have a knowledge economy rather than a physical product economy. The knowledge is becoming more valuable than certain products - the knowledge in the computer is more important than the computer itself. This is not going to happen unless we have partnerships with other universities, other research institutions. We need in this country to have more emphasis on research and knowledge transfer. We do not value research as much as other countries do and that is a pity. It is the negative side of the wealth that we have. With the wealth that we have we could sponsor so many things. 

You have the Dasman Diabetes Institute, you have the Scientific Institute for scientific research but you are so right with all the wealth this country has it could be at the top world-wide in terms of research.

Per capita and as a percentage of GDP the amount we spend on research is very small.

Doctor our reports are read mainly in the United States, and there is a lot of US labour here in Kuwait especially in the education sector and higher education. What are your comments for when they read the report about what Kuwait has to offer if they ever decide to come here to develop their professional career? 

Kuwait offers openness and Kuwaiti are friendly. They could learn from the culture and from the history. In certain areas we have high competition in terms of studying. Also, America is the largest economy and international trade is only a small portion of their GDP so most of their growth is internal, but this is not going to continue forever. So Americans also need to know the rest of the world for them to sustain their growth. That is why now a lot of universities are opening up to international students,  teaching in many languages, widening their curriculum, having study abroad programs, opening branches. So these are the trends and Kuwait is a comfortable environment because the lifestyle is easy and crime is low. We have certain exchange programs where Kuwait University students go and spend a semester in America and American university students come here and it is a very successful program.

So we could say that you are very happy with the private higher education here in Kuwait?

I am happy but not totally happy.

What would make you 100% happy?

To be 100% happy we have to have quality assessment. We still do not have quality evaluation of graduates. We also need to change the modus operandi between the public and the private universities. The public sector is the controlling body over private universities as well as the provider of incentives for them to compete amongst them. We do not have this yet in terms of channelling money for research, and for student quality. We do have an internal scholarship program but it does not encourage the universities to compete in terms of the quality of their programs. The other thing is that private involvement in higher education and universities should not be for-profit. Higher education is very costly and tuition usually does not cover half of the cost. If we look at the history of other countries the success of private sector involvement in higher education is in America. In the US for the last 300-400 years, you have had the largest number of non-public and reputable universities such as Harvard, and these are not-for-profit institutions. So the main thing to do in higher education is to separate the academic from the finances, and that is why the American system has succeeded.

You cannot always rely on making a profit in education because that would be approaching it just as a business rather than promoting other values. 

Right. Absolutely.

Doctor where would you like to see more co-operations between the United States and Kuwait?

In two areas, health and education, (the military is not my area of interest).

In health we have seen quite a few improvements within special partnerships recently. And I think education is moving on, right?

Yes.

Finally, just a few lines to our readers for when they read this report. What would you like the reader to know about Kuwait and higher education in Kuwait?

I want the reader to know that Kuwait is not just oil and there are many private universities opening up to foreign students to study here. And, it is important that we have foreign students studying in Kuwait because they add to the student body, they learn from each other. We think that at the higher education level the students learn more from each other than from the teachers. So that is why we want to have at least a percentage of foreign students from America or from anywhere. America is our largest destination in terms of our scholarship program and we want Americans to be exposed to our country so that when they meet a Kuwaiti there, they can relate to them. Also, so that they know that Kuwaitis are not snobs, and not just pampered kids. If you put them under pressure they will excel and compete, but of course it is human nature to want to relax when you have the chance.       

I see a healthy competitive environment because if you are at university and your colleague is doing better than you, you will obviously want to do as well as him which is the best way for personnel development.  

Yes.

Thank you very much.

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