Kuwait: Expanded scholarship support helping to drive growth in outbound mobility

An oil-rich country in the Middle East, Kuwait is sending its students abroad in growing numbers following several years of economic growth and expanded government scholarships for overseas study. Immigrants account for roughly 69% of the country’s total population of four million, and the number of young people aged 15-19 is expected to surpass 250,000 by 2016.

The economy is dominated by oil, which makes up around 85-90% of export revenues. Overall GDP growth in Kuwait has slowed in the last few years, decreasing to 1.5% in 2013 due to a reduction in oil output following a period of high growth in 2011 and 2012. Growth is expected to lag behind that of other oil producers in the Middle East in 2015, including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the purchasing power of individual Kuwaiti families has continued to expand over the last several years. World Bank statistics indicate that Kuwait has had impressive growth in GDP per capita for the last five years, increasing from around US$39,000 in 2010 to US$52,000 in 2013. According to investment advisory firm Alpen Capital, the education market in Kuwait has been expanding at a modest pace, but leading especially to opportunities for private-sector providers.

A 2011 analysis by Booz & Company (now “Strategy&“), Kuwait spends approximately US$10,000 per student enrolled at public schools and US$5,600 per student enrolled at private schools, the populations of which are dominated by the children of expatriates. The British Council, meanwhile, estimates that total education expenditures in Kuwait will reach US$8.3 billion by 2016.

Demand for study abroad

Along with other Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait is sending an increasing number of its students abroad for higher education through government scholarship schemes. In addition, many students are self-financed due to the spending power of Kuwaiti families. While Kuwait is a small country, a significant proportion of its students travel abroad for higher education, both because they can afford to do so and because of the prestige of foreign degrees.

UNESCO reports that Kuwait sent 16,799 students abroad in 2012, with the US, Canada, and the UK being the top three receiving countries. Other top destinations for Kuwaitis include Jordan, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and India.

It appears, however, that total outbound may have grown well beyond that 2012 level in the ensuing years. As the leading study choice for Kuwaiti students, the US has seen impressive growth in the last few years alone, especially at the undergraduate level (only 8.3% of Kuwaitis in the US were studying in graduate programmes in 2014).

The Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that, after peaking in the early 2000s, the number of Kuwaiti students in the US declined to a low of nearly 1,600 in 2006/07 and then subsequently rebounded.

Beginning in 2007/08, the number of students from Kuwait has increased at a double-digit rate for the past seven years, increasing most recently by 42.5% from 2012/13 to 2013/14 to reach a record-high of 7,288. Kuwait entered the top 25 sending countries for the first time in 2012/2013 and moved up to 21 for 2013/14, due largely to an expansion of Kuwaiti government scholarships.

The number of students travelling to the UK to study also increased sharply from 2006/07, roughly doubling through 2012 to reach just under 2,000 students in that year.

Increased government support

In 2012, the Kuwaiti government announced a plan to send 4,500 of its nationals abroad for 2013/14 through scholarship programmes administered by Kuwait University and the Ministry of Higher Education. Part of the rationale for expanded government scholarship support is to gain expertise in sectors where Kuwait is currently experiencing a labour shortage. Students studying in the US, for instance, must be in designated majors, mainly in business, engineering, and other sciences. Similarly, students must meet a variety of eligibility and academic requirements, and are supported only for studies at recognised universities and schools.

Government-supported scholarship programmes are now administered by a number of departments and institutions in Kuwait, including the Civil Service Commission, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), the Kuwait Investment Authority, Kuwait University, and, in case of graduate programmes, the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET). Details are readily available for each on official government websites, and annual application cycles and grant amounts – the scholarships are generous and provide for tuition, living expenses, and course materials – are also easily found on the ministry website.

We have previously noted that low levels of English proficiency remain one of the biggest challenges for students in the region. This is true of Kuwaitis as well and most students will require a period of language study prior to beginning their academic programmes abroad. Indeed, government-funded scholarships require a certain level of English proficiency for ongoing support.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Kuwaitis are one of the fastest-growing student populations for Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) in the US, moving up to be the 7th most-represented national group over the last couple of years.

This is in itself a significant predictor of continued enrolment growth for Kuwaitis in the US, as it appears likely that many of these students are preparing for scholarship-supported academic studies in the US as well.

The education system

Alpen Capital reports that public institutions at all levels – including higher education – are government-funded and free for all citizens. The government also heavily subsidises many private institutions, and education is compulsory for ages 6 to 14.

Enrolment at public and private universities in Kuwait increased by an estimated 10% and 9% per year between 2007 and 2011, respectively, and total tertiary enrolment in the country is projected to rise from 131,000 in 2011 to 147,000 by 2017.

Kuwait has only one public university, Kuwait University, which was established in 1966 and enrolled 35,000 students as of 2012/13. The university is seeking to recruit graduate students and faculty in areas such as climate change, environmental science, nanotechnology, information technology, medical science, Islamic law and finance, and enhanced oil recovery.

In response to increased domestic demand for higher education, Kuwait has also seen a rise in the number of private universities. These include the American University of Kuwait (AUK), a liberal arts institution with instruction in English, and the Australian College of Kuwait (ACK), one of the first vocational and technical education institutions in the country.

The Kuwait Times reported this month that private institutions in the country were operating near full capacity and that the system would not be able to keep up with demand unless more universities were opened.

In a further response to this burgeoning demand, several foreign institutions also have a presence in the country. University of Massachusetts Lowell has recently announced its partnership with the Gulf University for Science and Technology, where it is planning to offer both graduate and undergraduate degrees in fields including engineering, business, education, and science. UMass Lowell has sought partnerships in the private sector with defense contractor Raytheon Company to finance the venture, and will be the first institution in Kuwait to offer US-accredited degrees, through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

With a growing college-age population and expanded government support for outward mobility, Kuwait has increasingly become a market to watch and an important complement to other significant education markets in the region.



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