Kuwait is a small, wealthy and oil-dependent country. How can it prepare its population to compete in the global economy?
One solution: Privatize education to hasten the transformation of the country into more of a knowledge-based economy.
The oil-rich nation nestled between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf, has a population of just 4.1 million, with expats making up 60% of the population, according to the country’s Public Authority for Civil Information.
But with just one public university, Kuwait University, established 50 years ago, and one technical institute, the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, both offering free tuition to qualified Kuwaiti nationals, competition for a highly coveted spot to either school has become fierce.
There was room in the market for more.
In a bid to fill that gap, Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait (GUST), opened in 2002 as the first private university in Kuwait.
Explosion of private universities
The Arab world has a long history of higher education – dating back to the first madrasas in the 7th century that expanded to more secular subjects like math, science and the humanities. During the colonial period, foreign missionaries began to establish private universities based on Western models like the pioneering American University of Beirut founded 150 years ago in 1866.
But up until 1953 there were only 14 public and private universities across the Arab World, according to the Association of Arab Universities.
In the last 60 years, that number has exploded. There are now more than 900 universities and colleges across the Arab World – and many of them are private.
In the last 25 years alone, the number of private universities in the Middle East has grown to more than 250 making up about 40% of all schools of higher education, according to the Association of Arab Universities.
Many of these schools, like Gulf University, are based on Western – and American – liberal arts curriculums and are even partnered up with American schools. Many are also for-profit and are aimed at making money, in addition to educating the next generation of leaders.
“When [Gulf University] started in 2002, we had 700 students. Today we have around 3,700 students,” said Al-Sharhan, whose position is the equivalent of a provost.
The school offers a 4-year bachelor’s degree program, as well as an MBA program. Its curriculum is based on its American partner, University of Missouri – St. Louis.
The Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Business have all the departments typical of a large school: Humanities and Social Sciences, Math and Science, Computer Science, English and Communications, as well as the College of Business Administration which includes Accounting, Marketing, Finance, MIS and Management Departments.
The student body is made up of 55% women and 45% men. The majority of the students, 80%, are Kuwaitis and the remaining 20% come from elsewhere, mostly the Arab World.
The school is for-profit and it is profitable. Given that Al-Sharhan is an academic, he couldn’t speak to the schools profitability, but he said the university is “doing fine.”
While it is a private university, he explained that the government provided a piece of land to build the campus, based on the “Build-Operate-Transfer” (BOT) system popular in Kuwait, and that it has a “unique ownership model.” The government owns 30% directly, and about 8% indirectly, an educational holding group owns 42%, and 20% is owned by private investors.
Tuition costs starts at $7,700 per semester for full-time students. The two other private universities in Kuwait have similar tuition rates, according to Al-Sharhan, as the tuition rates are governed by the Private Universities Council.
He said what sets GUST apart from the other universities in Kuwait is its various international accreditations, such as AACSB for the College of Business, ABET for the Computer Science, ACA for the communication department and CEA for the foundation program. Further, GUST was ranked by QSnews in 2016 as one of the top 100 universities in the Arab region out of over 900. Another distinction of GUST is its faculty – 90% of the professors either come from the U.S., U.K. or Canada or got their PhD’s there.
“We are based on an American model. We believe this model will allow us to be more dynamic,” said Al-Sharhan. “In the States, it’s a liberal education – the curriculum the students have to study is all the humanities, fine arts, sciences. So, I think the students will gain a lot from these universities. We hope to reach a maturity level where we have to do a good knowledge transfer to the Kuwait nationals in order to be very efficient in the market. “