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Educational System—overview

Since the oil boom that began in the 1950s the social changes in Kuwait have accelerated rapidly. Before the super affluence caused by oil, Kuwait was a poor sheikdom, economically and technologically undeveloped, a state with people eking out a living through fishing, pearling, herding, and trading. The developments of the 1950s and decades following attracted many Arabs from poorer countries of the Middle East, so that by 1970 less than half of the 738,662 residents were national Kuwaitis. Times were changing fast, and Kuwait was moving toward a comfortable, sedentary urban lifestyle, leaving the "grunt" work to the foreign laborers.

Early Educational Foundations: From having only a few Quranic schools providing religious instruction and basic Arabic literacy tutelage at the onset of the twentieth century, Kuwait entered the twenty-first century with one of the most generous, comprehensive, and technologically sophisticated educational infrastructures in the Middle East. In 1912 the Al Mubarakiyya school was founded as Kuwait's first modern educational institution. Al Mubarakiyya was funded by merchants to supply clerks who had a basic foundation in commerce, good arithmetic skills, and letter drafting skills. Later, subjects such as history, geography, and art courses were introduced to the curriculum. The first school in Kuwait to offer English began in 1921, the Al Ahmadia School, and shortly after that the first girls' school was founded, offering instruction in Arabic, home economics, and Islamic studies.

In the 1930s, after the devastation of the pearlingbased Kuwaiti economy, the modern period of education in Kuwait was underway. Education was placed under state control in 1935, marking the beginning of public education. Teachers from Palestine founded an educational mission, students were sent abroad to receive an education, and new schools were founded. Four primary schools opened their doors. Three of these schools had a combined total of some 600 boys, and the other primary school was for girls with 140 pupils. A national education department was instituted in 1936 to oversee the government schools, and teachers from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine initiated the development of a program for secondary education in Kuwait. By 1945 there were 17 schools in the country.

Development continued intermittently until the rapid changes of the 1950s. From then rapid acceleration of educational development ensued with the founding of special education facilities, the founding of the first kindergarten schools, and the opening of the first technical college in academic year 1954-55. There were 80 students enrolled in the first year, and the program grew quickly to accommodate an increasing number of fields of study. In 1956 the Institute for the Blind was inaugurated with the enrollment of 36 children. By 1973 approximately 1,644 special needs students—deaf, blind, or otherwise handicapped—were enrolled in 11 institutes of special education. In 1963 Kuwait started adult education programs for women, following similar programs begun for men in 1958. By 1960, their education system had enrolled 45,000 students, 18,000 of which were girls. The education department officially became the Ministry of Education in 1962, and the ministry was to chart the directions for educational development over the course of the decades ahead.

State Education: Looking back 20 years from the turn of the millennium to analyze the involvement of Kuwaiti nationals in the educational process is a reminder of the progress that has been made, especially in terms of the ratio of national to expatriate teachers. In 1982, there were 24,367 teachers of whom 6,478 were Kuwaiti. By academic year 1997-98 there were a total of 27,359 teachers in state schools (excluding another estimated 10,000 more teaching in private schools), of whom 17,357 were Kuwaiti. From an approximate ratio of 1:3.76 (Kuwaiti to expatriate) in 1982, the ratio changed to approximately 1.7:1. The state succeeded in promoting the Kuwaitization of the educational process in terms of more than doubling the number of Kuwaiti teachers from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. The dependence on foreign professional educators was reduced, but as will be demonstrated shortly, the Kuwaitis' greater involvement in the teaching profession occurred mainly at the lower levels of education, particularly in the primary schools of Kuwait, and the entry of men especially into the teaching profession was strictly at the lower levels of schooling.

The transformation of Kuwait into a modern society replete with a dazzling variety of educational institutions results from the government's early decision to distribute the oil revenues among the citizenry through investments in education as well as healthcare, social welfare, and housing. By the late 1990s there were 300,000 students in state schools in an education system to which the government devoted 5.5 percent of the GNP, 8.9 percent of the total yearly government expenditure.

Education is offered to all Kuwaitis free of charge, and as it has been since 1966, education is compulsory for ages 6-14. Today, educational development represents the foundation of the Kuwaiti government's commitment to utilizing the country's human resource base and meeting the social developmental challenges of the new millennium. The state guarantees an educational slot—at every level of education—for every citizen of Kuwait who wishes to pursue an education. And the number of schools alone testifies to the government's willingness to accommodate the educational needs of its people.

General education in Kuwait comprises elementary, intermediate, and secondary school instruction. In 1995 there were 861 state and private schools and institutions falling into these three categories. Of these schools and institutions, 586 were government schools enrolling 280,709 students (140,979 female, 139,730 male). In the private schools there were 113,857 students (52,991 female, 60,866 male). Beyond the general level of education, institutions such as Kuwait University, applied educational centers, and colleges offer training in fields such as technology, education, commerce, health studies, communications, surveying, electrical and hydroengineering, industry, and nursing. As of academic year 1995-96, 4,355 students were enrolled in these applied educational facilities, 4,248 of whom were Kuwaiti.

At the university level, Kuwait University, established in 1966, has evolved to the point where it offers a range of academic courses. Students can choose from academic courses such as studies in the humanities, scientific and educational specializations, or specializations in the social sciences. In the academic year 1995-96, 16,691 students registered for studies at Kuwait University, and of these students, 15,163 were Kuwaiti while 906 students came from neighboring Gulf countries. The teaching staff comprised 845 educational professionals from various Arab and foreign countries.

Private Education: Private education is an important component of the education system in Kuwait. Private schools are subsidized by the government, and they enroll roughly one third of the school age children in Kuwait at the elementary, intermediate, and secondary levels. The following sampling of the relevant enrollment data with regard to private schooling in Kuwait for the 1998-99 school year was obtained from Kuwait Information Office Education Statistics.

  • Grades N-12 at the Al-Bayan Bilingual School had an enrollment of 1,131 students.
  • Grades pre-K-12 at the Fawzia Sultan International School had an enrollment of 48 students.
  • Grades K-U6 at the New English School had an enrollment of 1,750 students.
  • Grades K-12 at the American International School in Kuwait had an enrollment of 1,155 students.
  • Grades pre K-12 at the American School in Kuwait had an enrollment of 1,270 students.
  • Grades K-A level at the British School in Kuwait had an enrollment of 1,300 students.
  • Grades N-12 at the Universal American School had an enrollment of 1,200 students.

Other private schooling alternatives exist such as the Gulf English School, the American Academy for Girls, and the Kuwait French School. Parents who wish to enroll their children in private schools have the option of choosing from schools using various curricula and languages of instruction.

Outlook for the Twenty-First Century: As much as the prosperity of the Gulf oil states has enabled rapid development and a high level of social services, it has also created a great number of serious challenges to the stability of the Gulf states. The external appearance of wealth and modern development in Gulf states is deceptive in certain respects. While it is true that Kuwait possesses 9.5 percent of the world's proven oil reserves (out of the 64.9 percent of all the Gulf states combined) and many of its residents are fabulously wealthy, the revenues from oil are very modest when compared to the GDPs of the developed world. The fluctuating price of oil inhibits the reliability of long-term planning and development, especially when the price per barrel bottoms out on the world market as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. Gary G. Sick points out that the Gulf states have operated on a deficit budget since the mid-1980s due to low oil prices. He also states that the combined GDP of the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain) is scarcely the size of Switzerland's, a country of just more than 6 million people. What gives the Gulf states their illusion of wealth is the fact that a relatively small number of people control substantial petroleum reserves and easy access to world markets via Gulf shipping. The Gulf states have had to deal with the budgetary uncertainties accompanying the vagaries of the oil market; they have had to grapple with problems created by the dominance of the public sector; the dominance of foreign labor; unemployment both visible and hidden; inadequate revenues for burgeoning populations; and an absence of popular participation in the governing process with the notable exception of Kuwait, which as a constitutional democracy has an elected representative body.

The public sector continues to dominate the job market, stifling productivity and efficiency. With the oil revenues and the influx of foreign workers in the 1970s, government jobs became little more than sinecures: "It was common knowledge that most Kuwaiti civil servants did practically no work in their jobs" (Nath 1978). In the 1970s the Kuwaitis, as other Gulf nationals in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for example, were well on their way to becoming sedentary, content to live off the social welfare provisions of the state, relying overwhelmingly on the labor and services of the highly motivated expatriates who in turn remitted most of their earnings back to their home countries.

The Arab Gulf states' citizens have thus come to a unique and socially troublesome place of becoming minorities in their own countries, depending on imported labor in both the private and public sectors. In 1995, an estimated 82 percent of the Kuwaiti workforce were expatriates, on a par with other Arab Gulf nations (UAE 90 percent; Qatar 83 percent; Saudi Arabia 69 percent; Bahrain 60 percent). Unemployed and nominally employed nationals who have come to depend on the state for easy jobs and comprehensive welfare are a dangerous variable in the social equation, especially when changes could come to force a reduction in benefits. There are also the dangers of the dominant foreign worker population being seen as adversely affecting the Arab Gulf cultures and traditions, and the attraction of the fundamentalist Islamic movements offering an alternative to the perceived Western "evils" which might also be blamed for bringing on social and other problems. There is also the possibility of real employment being desired yet unattainable due to a social system that has not provided nationals with skills to match the actual needs of the labor market, but instead has acclimated them to a comfortable lifestyle with little work required.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Arab Gulf states saw an astounding rise in their populations due to an official policy of promoting population growth through incentives such as marriage funds and stipends for each child. There were also tremendous opportunities for obtaining a high-quality, high-technology education in state-of-the-art facilities, and going abroad for further training was an option for both graduates and undergraduates. But the new waves of graduates, having received from their state schools a nominal college or university education, were unmotivated to enter private sector employment. And just as unmotivated as graduates were to take up private sector jobs, employers were equally unmotivated—if not actually more so—to hire Gulf nationals. They could hire Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and other nationalities for much less cost and hassle. A Gulf national wanted a higher salary, costly benefits, short and flexible work hours, and a "cushy" work atmosphere. For such a dilemma, "[t]he solution was as clear as it was painful: higher standards and more practical educational training for national students to make them more competitive; unrelenting reduction in the number of work visas awarded to foreign laborers; and a leveling of the wage/benefit disparity between nationals and nonnationals... the short-term effects would be sectoral labor shortages, inflation, and outrage from the powerful commercial interests. None of the governments were willing to pay that price" (Sick 1997).

The social unpopularity of such decisions meant that none of the Arab Gulf states were willing to take such measures. Hence, conferences addressing education in GCC countries cite the mismatch between education and training in their countries with the labor force markets. Little correlation existed in the first years of the twenty-first century between the actual needs of the labor market and the preparatory educational and training programs of the state. Calls for reform have resulted in a shift in focus from university education to training in technical colleges and institutions. Technological innovations and stiff competition in the international markets are forcing governments to upgrade the vocational and technical qualifications of the workforce, as is particularly evident in the Gulf.

The upgrading of educational and training systems is a priority at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but the challenges of doing so are enormous. How will traditional attitudes, socioreligious values, and societal norms be accounted for? Despite school enrollment rates being high, and despite a general education being freely available as a basic right of citizens, will the actual quality of that education be improved in the near future? Will students be receptive to the training and education received so as to obtain skills and qualifications rendering them as competitive candidates in an expatriate dominated job market? More importantly, will they want to work in the private sector as opposed to the bureaucratized, state-controlled government sectors? And will schools be able to graduate high-achieving workers who are more than functionally literate, and more than merely nominal college or university graduates? These are some important questions which must be addressed in reforming and upgrading the educational and training systems of the Arab Gulf states.

Privatization of schools is an option for escaping the stifling control of government bureaucracy. In a bureaucratic system, with students who are not concerned about eventually obtaining a job that they will not even really need—and who will be given a job regardless of their educational performance—teachers themselves can lose motivation and the sense of dignity in their profession. Education is more than filling up school buildings with students and teachers, and creating jobs entails much more than filling up large office buildings with workers. But it seems sometimes that this is what is happening when the motivation to work and to learn is absent. Bureaucratic state-control is a great problem when there is little, if any, external accountability and quality assurance. Instead, student results on highly subjective and unreliable national examinations are used to evaluate the quality of educational services. The all encompassing State may be a benevolent provider, but critics have noted what might be called the "spoiled child syndrome" in the demeanor of many Gulf students and citizens at large. When everything is free in an "easy come, easy go" way, and when the amount of work or the efficiency of performance are not correlated with an increase in benefit, then the self-motivation of students and teachers is generally low.

But in a state such as Kuwait, that faces the threat of an aggressive, covetous Iraq, a sort of collective motivation to exist and retain sovereignty seems to have arisen. Sitting back comfortably on the cushion of petrol-wealth ease is no longer an option when serious threats to national sovereignty and regional stability exist. How such motivation will be expressed in the education sector in the early twenty-first century remains to be seen.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceKuwait - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education