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A Gulf state ready to step from the educational shadows

Dr Abood Al Sawafi

Dr Abood Al Sawafi

Oman is looking outward to fulfil its potential in higher education. Dr Aboud Al Sawafi, vice chancellor of A’ Sharqiyah University, outlines his ambitions for the country and the challenges it faces in an interview with John O’Leary.

Oman does not receive the attention given to some of the richer Gulf states but, as an attractive destination that is increasingly well-known to tourists, it has the potential to be a hub for international education. There is an established public sector and a growing cadre of private universities, a number of which have international ambitions.

Only Sultan Qaboos University, based outside the capital of Muscat, features in the QS World University Rankings, moving up 85 places to 457th in the last edition. But other institutions have their eyes on the QS Arab World ranking as a first step to greater recognition. Three are already in the top 100: the German University of Technology in Oman, the University of Nizwa and the Caledonian College of Engineering. Another candidate will no doubt be Muscat University, which took its first students in business and management, engineering and technology, and transport and logistics in October 2016 and already has affiliation agreements with Crancfield and Aston universities, in the UK.

The drawback for many such institutions, especially in the fledgling private sector, is that expansion has coincided with challenging economic times for Oman. The collapse of oil prices, in particular, has hit graduate employment and damaged confidence among those considering higher education.

One academic with a track record of achieving growth in private universities is Aboud Al Sawafi, vice chancellor and president of A’ Sharqiyah University (ASU), in Ibra, 150 kilometres from Muscat in the centre of Oman. In eight years at Sohar University, in north of the country, he saw student numbers rise from 1,100 to 6,500, and ASU is heading in the same direction.

A’ Sharqiyah took its first students in 2010 and Dr Al Sawafi joined three years later, when the founding president left. Currently, there are three colleges: for business administration, engineering and applied sciences. There are plans for two more: the College of Medicine and Health Sciences and the College of Graduate studies.

Dr Al Sawafi says the prime purpose of the university is not to make profits “in quick time”, although it does now. Having started with 250 students, there are now 2,700 – a good rate of growth with law and arts subjects added in recent years. With a new campus built to accommodate 7,500 students, he is hoping for much more growth in the coming period, but it will not be easy. Although not far from the coast, Ibra is situated in a desert region with a relatively small population and few of the distractions offered in Muscat.

The expansion of the A’Sharqiyah region and improvements to the road infrastructure will make the university more accessible. But Dr Al Sawafi admits: “It is not easy for students to live in such an environment, with few attractions outside the university campus. Local people have become ambassadors for the university, welcoming international students into their homes and showing them their culture.”

The university was established to serve the region of A’ Sharqiyah and specialises in food, nutrition and fisheries and marine science. Most of its students are from Oman, but Dr Al Sawafi is keen to increase the number of international students. He admits that the process was slow to take off – decision-making was slow initially – but there are reasons for optimism now. Growing numbers are coming from outside the country, some taking Arabic for non-Arab students.

“The biggest challenge in Oman is the number of private institutions – supply is more than demand,” he says. “There have been a lot of new universities recently, so the pool of students can be thin. Universities are encouraged to look overseas, starting with other Gulf countries. The word is out that we hope to improve in that area.”

ASU also faces strong competition from public institutions, which charge no fees and give stipends to students. In recent years, the government has increased the number of scholarships available to students at private universities considerably – 90% are now sponsored. But students still prefer the public sector, although graduates from private universities have begun to make an impact. Dr Al Sawafi says that companies now regard their students as equally good as those from the public universities.

There are striking contrasts between the two sectors, however, not least in terms of gender balance. In the 2014–2015 academic year, 45,000 female students were enrolled in the private sector, compared with 23,700 men. In the public universities, by contrast, almost 8,000 male students registered, compared with 6,700 females. Some 738 male students received scholarships to study abroad, compared with 444 females.

Neither has female progress in education continued into the workforce. Although they take almost two-thirds of higher education places, women occupy only a quarter of private sector jobs. About 30% of female graduates do not pursue a career after graduation, many of them opting to marry and become home makers.

Graduates of both sexes have been struggling to find work as the economy has slowed in recent years. Salary levels have suffered and young people have begun to question the value of investing in a degree. The Ministry of Higher Education has reported that openings in the sought-after oil and gas sectors have slumped, to be replaced to some extent by tourism, hospitality and banking.

Graduates in management, commerce, engineering and IT, are the most successful in the employment market. But employers are increasingly hiring non-Omani graduates, claiming that Omanis do not have the right skills, demand unrealistic salaries and do not apply in sufficient numbers. In particular, executives claim that graduates lack the necessary proficiency in English, as well as the interpersonal and communication skills they require. English is the medium of instruction at ASU, which naturally helps both with graduate employment and international recruitment, but Dr Al Sawafi admits that this presents its own problems for Omanis. “The challenge is the same in other Arab countries,” he says. “Students are taught for 12 years in Arabic and then have one year to continue higher education in English. They have to understand concepts in a language they can’t master. Ultimately, they have to try to understand enough to pass their examinations.

“We need a clear language policy in Oman, and that might mean losing our identity to some extent. A lot of countries are learning in their own language up to the bachelor’s degree. My idea has always been to teach English up to IELTS Level 6 but with deep understanding, but it would have to be government policy.

“What experience has shown in Egypt and elsewhere is that we have very good accountants or engineers who don’t speak English well. Imagine if we could have both and be international. There is still too much rote learning in schools. Even those with very high marks do not really understand their subject. They memorise but outside that, they struggle. University is a big shock, not only in terms of language but in dealing with important concepts. This can’t continue if we want to progress as a country.”

He adds: “Oman takes its own stand on issues but the challenges are the same in all Gulf countries, to instil critical thinking skills. Finland is a good example in terms of the status of teachers, and we need to see the return of engineers who not only teach but give an example to young people. We are bringing in consultants who understand how to restructure the system. The government is pushing quite hard and maybe we will make Singapore our model because they are doing well.”

ASU co-operates with Oklahoma State University and Texas Technological University on the design and implementation of academic programmes to best international standards. There is also collaboration on team entrepreneurship in Finland and a similar partnership with Bristol. The university is applying for Australian accreditation and is getting towards the end of the process.

As Oman’s premier university, Sultan Qaboos, is providing support for the regions. Centres of population tend to be far apart in Oman, so blended learning is seen as a strong possibility, with perhaps 70% of tuition online. “Such a system could attract people in remote areas, with small satellite partners,” says Dr Al Sawafi. “Retention in e-learning is very low, so we can’t depend on that alone.”New institutions like his own may have the flexibility to make the new approach work.

Abood Al Sawafi is an Omani who took his first degree in electrical engineering at the Gulf Polytechnic, now part of the University of Bahrain. He went on to be awarded his PhD in telecommunications engineering   at Bradford University, in 1993. By then, he was already chief engineer   at Oman’s Ministry of Information, where he stayed until 1998. Dr Al Sawafi’s move into university administration came with his appointment as Dean at Majan College, the first private college in Oman. He stayed for six years before becoming vice chancellor of Sohar University in 2005. He moved at A’Sharqiyah University as president in September 2013. He is a founding member of the MENA Association of University Presidents, which he hopes will promote student mobility within the Arab region and beyond, as well as sharing best practice in other areas.