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Higher education excells

Interview - April 10, 2012
Dr. Rawiyah bint Saud bin Ahmed Al Busaidiya, Minister of Higher Education, discusses the quality and expansion of Oman’s university system – both public and private – and the opportunities for Omani students to study in some of the world’s most prestigious schools

Please comment on the latest developments in Oman’s Higher Education System.

Wide access to higher education is a continuing policy of the Government of the Sultanate. While growth has been mainly through the private sector, government Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have also expanded in number and seat capacity.

Over the past several years, there has been a rapid expansion of the private higher education system. In 1995, Oman had only one private college. There are now 19 private colleges. In addition, there are currently seven private universities in cities spanning the regions – Salalah, Buraimi, Nizwa, Sohar, Ibra and Muscat – with two more universities in the planning stage. The private system of higher education currently has 26 HEIs with an overall enrolment for the academic year 2010/11 of approximately 40,218 students.

The Government system of higher education presently consists, in addition to Sultan Qaboos University which is independent, of six Colleges of Applied Sciences (CAS) under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE); seven Colleges of Technology under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Manpower, 13 Institutes of Health Sciences under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health; and, an Institute for Islamic Studies under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Awqaf & Religious Affairs – as well as the Ministry of Defense’s Military Technology College, scheduled to open soon.

Apart from its military, Royal Guard and police academies, the Government system of higher education has an enrolment of approximately 48,981 students, bringing the total enrolment in higher education in-country to approximately 81,199 for the academic year 2010/11.

In addition, some 18,300 Omani students are currently studying abroad (2011/12), more than one-quarter of whom are on government scholarships at approved universities in areas deemed important for the productive development of Oman’s human resources. The grand total of Omani students in higher education at home and abroad is currently more than 99,500, which represents approximately 29% of the 18-24 age group. Government sponsored seats represent 67% of secondary school graduates who apply through Oman’s Higher Education Admissions Center.

The Government system still provides the majority of seats and will soon be bolstered by the establishment of a new university for science and technology – Oman University. This very exciting project represents another milestone in the history of higher education in the Sultanate. Oman University is expected to open its doors in 2016 – and, over the succeeding decade, to enroll 15,000 students. It will be located on the Batinah Plain, on the northwestern coast of Oman, adjacent to the planned Science & Technology City. Oman University will focus on human resource development in areas of science and technology that are directly relevant to jobs crucial for targeted economic development.

While Access is provided for virtually all qualified Omani Secondary School graduates holding General Diploma certificates, Quality is an overriding concern and one that is being addressed in a number of ways – through academic affiliation of private HEIs with reputed international universities, through the audits of the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, through the inculcation of best practice by the Oman Quality Network in Higher Education (a voluntary association of representatives of private HEIs), and through the guidance and monitoring provided by the Ministry of Higher Education’s (MoHE) Quality Department currently slated to become a Directorate General.

Could you give us an overview of the research programs and other important initiatives under your umbrella?

Great strides have been made on the research front, first of all with the establishment of a national research body, The Research Council, which is mandated to adjudicate and fund research proposals in the national interest. The Research Council operates on the basis of a state-of-the-art strategic plan for the coordination and development of research and innovation for the nation.

All of Oman’s universities, and especially Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) which has nine advanced research centers, have a strong focus on research. The regional universities engage in research related to both local and national economic development. The Colleges of Applied Sciences have Centers of Specialization that engage in applied research.

SQU is building a Science & Technology (S&T) Park to stimulate research and innovation in cooperation with Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM), and Oman’s corporate and industrial sector. SQU’s S&T Park will also connect with the Science & Technology City next door to Oman University, which in turn will operate in cooperation with the expanding industrial development at the Port of Sohar in the Batinah region. All in all, we are now in a very exciting phase in research, with emergent R&D on several fronts and Oman’s research enterprise as a whole guided and coordinated by The Research Council.

Other important initiatives in research include the continuing expansion of the Sultan Qaboos academic chairs, which now total 16 in prestigious universities around the world. The most recent chairs were established at the University of Cambridge (The Sultan Qaboos Professorship for Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values) and at the College of William & Mary (The Sultan Qaboos Professorship for Middle Eastern Studies).

The holders of these prestigious endowments engage in research of significance at a world-class standard. They are brought together annually at a symposium in Muscat to exchange views and give papers on their research with the aim of enriching Oman’s academic community, as well as strengthening the Sultan Qaboos academic chairs as a noble force for global understanding, peace and harmony.

What are your top priorities for 2012-14 period as Minister of Higher Education?

Our priorities are very clear:

i. Development implementation of the plan for Oman University. We have just selected an international company to conduct the Preparatory Study and are working on the tender for the next phase – the Master Planning.
ii. Updating the Strategic Plan for Education to 2020.
iii. Initiating measures to help ensure that our system of higher education, both government and private, is more responsive to the requirements of the job market in the interest of targeted economic development.
iv. Strengthening the six MoHE Colleges of Applied Sciences through a comprehensive Strategic Plan that will soon be presented for consultation in a national forum.
v. Furthering our initiatives to ensure quality in Oman’s system of Higher Education including the development of a Directorate-General at MoHE dedicated to Quality Assurance.
vi. Establishing an electronic statistical system for the entire systems of higher education in the Sultanate.
vii. In cooperation with The Research Council, bolstering useful and innovative research throughout Oman’s system of Higher Education.

Are you looking at the curriculum of other international universities as role models in adapting the Omani higher education system to the demands of the job market?

We want our graduates to have the skills necessary to impact the economic activity of our country, and contribute to the industry and business in new technologies in Oman. We will be looking at universities with a cross-disciplinary approach and cutting-edge technologies. In the region there are places like Zayed University in the UAE, the King Abdullah University for Science & Technology, and several universities in Qatar’s Education City. Further afield we definitely want to look at South Korea, the USA, as well as China, where they have a series of entrepreneurial universities that we are interested in. Those are places that not only provide graduates with the necessary scientific skills, but with the knowhow to become self-employed to create jobs, rather than go looking for jobs in the government or the private sector. That is an important reason that the Science & Technology City is next door, in order to provide incubators so that critical mass of academics, business people, students, graduates, and researchers, are all in one place, interacting and exchanging advice. It is a very exciting project.

We also have the new Medical City, which is in the planning phase now. But the idea is that it will be a cluster of hospitals and central labs. For instance, I can see the connection between biomedical engineering study, and practice in the hospitals and laboratories, as well as pharmaceutical companies operating out of Science & Technology City. This would be a very interesting initiative in terms of cooperation and providing a master plan to cover utilities, and recreational life in these three areas just north of the airport.

How closely do you collaboratie with other institutions to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in the Omani youth?

For us it is actually a matter of regaining the entrepreneurial spirit. Throughout history Omanis have been known as sailors, going throughout the entire world and setting up businesses and trade. Perhaps we lost a bit of that with the oil wealth and it is time to instill these values again.

In the 1970s and 1980s it was easy to get jobs as the government expanded and ministries were set up, but now I think we have reached a point where there are not many jobs available in the government and civil service. Therefore our youth have to look elsewhere. The next stage is the private sector, but of course there is a limit to what the private sector can absorb. We need to look at the service industry, and tourism is one example where there are lots of jobs provided directly, as well as through auxiliary services and knockdown effects associated with tourism. So we have great hopes for that field, but we also must find other job-creating industries and businesses.

Part of the problem with these big industries, like energy, is that they are all automated. You can spend a lot of money setting up a business, but that does not mean it creates many jobs. Our main challenge is to provide employment opportunities, which is why I see a lot of potential in small businesses being setup by groups of students. The whole world is promoting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) because it is a proven niche to provide employment.

One of the principles in the new university is to provide an internship or work experience element in every program. We want to provide graduates who are fit for purpose and ready to enter jobs. Perhaps having the Science & Technology Park there will encourage us. We will seek partnerships with good universities abroad to provide academic mobility and exchange programs abroad.

Oman is one of the oldest civilizations in this part of the world with a deeply rutted culture and strong traditions. Nowadays, with the digital technology and new social media communications, information is flowing freely and faster than ever. How do you maintain the balance between the providing world-class education to your students, while maintaining the traditional values of Omani society?

I think the government is aware of this, as are all of society’s thinkers and intellectuals. But I think one major asset we have here in Oman are the strong family connections. The family unit and extended family concept is very, very useful to counter the effects of globalization and strange customs and traditions that are coming into Omani society.

We cannot deny that we see change in our youth, but the values are still there. After seeing the behavior of some youth last year, we realized that a lot of things have changed, and we are working on this in order to show the youth what security and stability has provided to Oman. They have to value, maintain, and preserve what has been achieved. There is nothing wrong with wanting to take progress further, while maintaining certain values of respect, family, coexistence, and open debate.
Even in terms of religion Oman has always been seen as tolerant and respectful of other cultures and religions throughout the ages. . I think this has been the case because Oman is a seafaring nation. Wherever Omanis have gone, you never heard of extremism. I think this is something we have to highlight more in our curriculum, universities, and teaching institutions.  

How important is the internationalization and “massification” of the higher education system nowadays?

Internationalization is an important objective of the Ministry and the Sultan Qaboos academic chairs will play an important role in this regard. The Ministry encourages the HEIs under its jurisdiction to internationalize their curricula while maintaining a relevant Omani focus. Also of particular significance are the numerous agreements for academic cooperation and exchange into which the MoHE has entered into with countries and universities around the globe, such as the USA, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, South Africa, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Poland.

Scholarships for Omani students to study abroad are important – not only for the technical knowledge and skills that graduates bring back, but also for the expanded world view that comes from living in another culture and that is extremely important for effective navigation in today’s global world.

The Sultanate endeavors to meet the main challenge of massification by providing quality higher education for all qualified graduates of the secondary school system through the measures discussed earlier in this interview in meeting the twin requirements of access and quality. Fortunately Oman is blessed with sufficient resources to adequately serve its relatively small population in this regard.

What are the main benefits of e-learning and modern ICT in higher education?

Although various kinds of class-based e-learning are widespread among Oman’s HEIs, and the blended learning model (traditional combined with technological) is favored, the distance learning mode has yet to take-off in Oman as a popular mode of learning, no doubt in large part because access to face-to-face education is virtually universal.

Computers and Internet use is now common throughout the Sultanate as part of the Government’s initiative in allocating RO20 million (or US$51.95 million) to supply lap tops, PCs, and other support for social welfare students who previously did not have access to this technology, as well as providing support for educators involved in IT. The electronic classroom is a feature of all, or most, HEIs and in our Colleges of Applied Sciences, the Blackboard system has been in use for more than five years.

It is well known that Internet research is a great benefit to students in their research projects – and also a danger in that it does not encourage depth analysis and critical comprehension. It is incumbent on us to ensure that students are trained in the proper critical use of the Internet for research and also to ensure that they are skilled in traditional research methods through books and journals and e-versions of the same.

The Ministry models the importance of e-technology, in particular through its state-of-the-art, international award-winning Higher Education Admissions Center (HEAC) through which students are admitted on line and through SMS text messaging.

How do you view the future prospects for private higher education in Oman, international linkages and cross border opportunities?

Private higher education on a large scale is a phenomenon in the newly developing world where governments have provided incentives to the private sector to share the financial burden in the provision of higher education for rapidly growing young populations. Participation of the private sector can be seen as an investment in human capital from which corporations benefit through well-qualified future employees. Financial profit is not meant to be a driver, as profit taking is inevitably at the expense of quality provision.

In the developed world, highly successful private HEIs, of which Harvard University is the top example, have a long history in which excellence is accumulated, are generously endowed by alumni and/or foundations, and can command high fees on the strength of prestige and quality. Such institutions rely in part on the ability of students to pay high fees, based on widespread individual wealth within a critical mass of the population and within a cultural framework of acceptability of user-friendly student loan systems.

These conditions do not prevail in Oman and other GCC countries where new private HEIs have been established in the absence of a donor culture and students and their families tend to feel that higher education should be free of cost for them and are reluctant to take loans. Omani students from affluent backgrounds tend to by-pass private HEIs in-country in favor of tuition-free government institutions in Oman, and often prefer prestigious HEIs abroad.

The main challenges faced by private HEIs in the Sultanate stem from inadequate funds, as revenues from investors are usually not sufficient to meet high standards of quality in resources or to attract top-notch faculty. Student applicants for these institutions tend to be those who failed to gain acceptance to Government HEIs because their marks were not competitive enough. Generally speaking, these students cannot afford to pay tuition fees and are reluctant to seek financial assistance in any form other than free scholarships or bursaries.

The Government recognizes this problem and assists by providing scholarships for students from low income or social security families and by assisting owner-investors with land grants, matching capital grants for universities, tax exclusions and other benefits. In addition, the Government has provided qualifying private universities with a one-time endowment of RO17 million, or approximately US$44,153,000, for quality improvements directly related to learning.

Various measures are in place to assure quality, and all private colleges and universities are required to enter an academic affiliation agreement with reputed international universities which typically provide curriculum and quality assurance for not insignificant fees. This is of course because HEIs in the developed world, under pressure for financial resources as their governments cut back in endowments, are keen to secure income from international activities, however philanthropic they may be at heart.

Obviously, greater support for private higher education with respect to increased funding is necessarily at this stage in strengthening most new private higher education systems in the developing world. Governments normally cannot bear the burden alone; and, ideally, increased funding would come from partnerships of the government with the private sector either through formal agreements or in variations on a PPP model.

Oman’s emerging industrial sector has not yet reached the point of maturity where the true value of investing in higher education is fully understood and there is the ability and predisposition to fund without expectation of a financial return on investment. And also, unlike in the developed world, there are no parallels in the Sultanate such as Motorola Corp. that establish and fully fund universities to educate and train future employees.

The Sultanate, unlike some other GCC countries, has been reluctant to encourage cross-border education or the establishment of branch campuses of prestigious international universities. This is because of a desire to concentrate on developing an Omani system of Higher Education largely on its own terms, and to help preserve traditional culture and values.

Until recently, the only branch campus operating in the Sultanate has been the Arab Open University (in affiliation with the British Open University). GUtech, the German University of Technology, appears to have the potential of presenting a good model for emulation with respect to standards and quality. While not a branch campus, it relies on the guidance and academic support of RWTH Aachen, a well-known German university. Université Toulouse Capitole is scheduled to open a branch campus in Oman the near future, hopefully adding diversity and raising the bar.

Another promising model is represented by Oman Tourism College and the International Maritime College of Oman, which serve industry directly and are partly owned by Government in partnership with private sector interests that include overseas companies.

I feel confident that, as Oman’s system of private higher education matures and a significant donor culture develops along with the growing internal culture of self-monitoring for quality, this vital sector within our higher education system will prove successful, adding, as it does, new opportunity and the increased choice and diversity that is necessary for our rapidly developing economy.

What is your vision for the future of Higher Education in Oman?

I believe that the current emphasis on quality will continue to improve our system of higher education, especially with respect to student outcomes as they apply to job-readiness and generic skills, including innovation and entrepreneurialism.

I envision a well-diversified and integrated system of higher education benchmarked at world standards and producing a critical mass of graduates capable of contributing to wealth creation, who are well-versed in generic skills and have a set of core technical skills aligned with Oman’s requirements for economic development. An internal transfer credit system will be in place, helping to ensure that the system is integrated and flexible. Multiple partnerships with the private sector will be secured to assist with program relevance, internships, coop education, on-the-job-training, and job placement.

I believe that our HEIs will become more internationalized in curriculum, more state-of-the-art in instructional delivery, and will attract top students from Oman and abroad, as well as outstanding Omani and international academics who engage productively in research.

Research should be carried out according to an overall master plan aligned with the objectives of The Research Council in a complementary and interdependent fashion so that, for instance, the applied research projects of the Colleges of Applied Sciences and those of the regional universities work in tandem to assist local communities in economic development.

I would like to see focused development within fields such as Science and Technology so that Oman is a strong contributor at least regionally and is known for its expertise in specific fields, such as Enhanced Oil Recovery and Biomedicine. Finally, we can take leadership in modeling green technologies not only in our programs, but also in our buildings and their operations.

You have also been appointed Chairperson of Royal Opera House Muscat. Please comment on the significance of this magnificent establishment for the Sultanate?

The Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) represents a significant step forward in the continuing development of the artistic and cultural life of the nation. The inaugural season was an outstanding success, with all performances sold out and standing ovations for the majority of productions. While residents constituted the greater part of the audience, many people came from the region and as far away as Europe and Asia specifically for the Opera, not only because of the quality of the performances, but also because of the world-class reputation of the venue and the attraction of Oman as a destination. The ROHM will no doubt continue to attract cultural tourism and to boost the reputation of the country as the jewel of the Gulf.

A prominent Italian arts magazine rated ROHM among the best 10 in the world. Many of the top artists who performed in the inaugural season expressed gratitude for His Majesty’s support of the performing arts at a time when opera houses around the world are suffering cutbacks because of the current economic climate.

While opera itself and world class performing arts as we know them today are dominantly of Western origin, the mission of ROHM encompasses the encouragement of local talent and the reinforcement of Omani and Arab culture. The technical staff of the ROHM includes Omani technicians and trainees, at least one of whom started as an usher in the inaugural season. This season about 70% of the programming is from the Arab World or features Arab talent. In this sense, the ROHM is a catalyst for cultural exchange through the universal love of art. We have only just begun to realize the many benefits that the ROHM brings to Oman and the world.

You were appointed to your current position in 2004 and today you are one of the two lady ministers in the Cabinet. Please reflect on your role as an inspiration for women in the Arab World?

As Minister responsible for Higher Education, a portfolio of tremendous importance to the development of any nation in today’s world, my status as a role model for women is not confined to the Arab World, especially in our era of instant communication and international exchange.

As in other advanced countries, women in Oman hold important positions in Government, including as ministers and members of the senate or equivalent (Majlis A’Dowla). Equal rights are enshrined in the Basic Law of the Sultanate and women are found in all major occupations, including non-traditional ones, such as in the Armed Forces and Petroleum Engineering.

I think it is important to note that successful women in Oman, especially those who hold high position, have not been appointed through positive discrimination. I believe that this is also true of other Arab Gulf countries. They are talented, highly qualified, have worked hard to attain their posts and are making outstanding contributions. When I was appointed Minister in 2004, I had served at various levels in higher education for 27 years, the previous four of which were as Undersecretary of Higher Education.

In which areas would you like to see increased cooperation between Oman and the United States?

With respect to cooperation in higher education between Oman and the USA, we have greatly increased the number of students we send to the USA on scholarship. Of the 1,640 new scholarships recently allocated by the Government, a total of 700 are reserved for HEI’s in the USA. So, in fact, comparatively speaking, the USA now has the lion’s share. We are currently cooperating with 19 American universities and this list will grow. Accordingly, we have expanded the staffing and space of our Cultural Attaché Department in Oman’s Embassy in Washington.

We currently have a total of four Sultan Qaboos academic chairs in the USA, again, more than in any other country. These consist of one at Harvard University (the Sultan Qaboos Professorship in International Relations), two at Georgetown (the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professorship in Arab & Islamic Literature and the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Chair in Arabic); and, as mentioned, one at the College of William & Mary (the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professorship in Middle East Studies).

These initiatives are significant in both number and content, but there are still opportunities for increased cooperation in higher education between the Sultanate of Oman and the USA. For example, we would welcome academic cooperation with respect to the establishment of the Sultanate’s planned new University of Science & Technology and we are in contact with U.S.-based companies with respect to the master planning phase of the project.

What message would you like to convey to the readers of USA Today about Oman?

While change has indeed swept though many countries in the Arab World, the Sultanate of Oman is a progressive and stable nation which continuously improves the services and benefits available to citizens. The people of Oman enjoy the wise and enlightened leadership of H.M. Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the country is no stranger to change. In the forty-one years of His Majesty’s reign, the country has undergone a thorough transformation resulting in a modern nation that has preserved its traditional heritage and culture. The democratic consultative bodies, which form an important part of the government, have recently been awarded increased powers, including that of drafting legislation.

All citizens of the Sultanate of Oman enjoy a good basic standard of living. They are given land grants and loans to assist with housing. A social security system is in place, as well as a monthly subsidy for the unemployed. Health care is free in government hospitals and education in government schools and higher education institutions is free for all Omani citizens. Private higher education is subsidized and qualified students from families with limited income or on social security are given scholarships so that there is access for all.