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Promoting universities with different specializations a must Need to end policy of every student passing

“THERE is a belief here that Kuwaitis are not hard working and that attitude has to change about those who worked hard for their degrees, it can’t apply for someone who has a PhD. Those who got their PhD’s are very hard working so attitude towards them needs to change and their hard work should be acknowledged”

“Dr Kamal Naser’s basic teaching philosophy is based on the fact that learning is a natural and continuous process of discovery. He believes that the main role of a teacher is to act as a catalyst for discovery. After his work in the Emirates as Dean and the Vice President of Al Ain University of Science and Technology, and working for a myriad of universities across the globe from the American University of Beirut to Birmingham University, he has culminated an extensive insight into the academic system for higher education.

Question: How does the education system in Kuwait compare to other countries you’ve worked in?
Answer: I think when you compare it with the Gulf, it’s fairly good, but when you compare it with other countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, it’s a little bit behind. The system itself is not the issue; there are programmes that are certified by external bodies that are the equivalent to the standard of any Western university. The problem is more the quality of students. They may have a good education infrastructure in the Gulf countries, but the high schools, until now, have not graduated the quality of students you’d expect. The high school education then affects students at the university level. University life is very short, only 3-4 years depending on the capabilities of the student, so there isn’t time at the university level to teach students the general skills and knowledge required by the time they finish high school. If a student starts university with a weak academic background, they will find it much harder to survive in university.
Q: What do high schools need to do to change this?
A: At schools it’s a combination between the family — the parents mainly —, the school, and the children themselves, because children can often develop bad habits which get transferred into all aspects of their lives, whether it be at home or at school. Considering a child spends only 6-7 hours a day at school 5 days a week, the home environment plays a crucial role in ensuring what is taught in school is perpetuated at home. They may rely on others, they may rely on special tutoring classes, which may be necessary in some cases but it shouldn’t be a requisite of high school.
They should rely on the education received during school time. If the child is not influenced from a young age to take school seriously by his or her parents, and they don’t feel like it is vitally important to pursue education to the best of his or her ability, the results show by the time the child is preparing to enter university, they just aren’t ready for it. Many private high schools have after school activities that cultivate life skills like for example the Model United Nations that some schools participate in. These activities need not only to be implemented in public schools, but also to be mandatory because of how they push kids to learn about politics and the world, and to work in groups and learn to coordinate with one another.
Another issue with the education system is cheating. Many students are cheating and they get high grades, not because they are really good, but because the system is loose. The system needs to make sure that only good students can pass and proceed to the next stage. The cheating isn’t just a student coming into an exam with a cheat sheet hidden somewhere. Students will have their essays written by others and submit them, copy from the Internet without ever reading what they’ve taken and try to pass it off as their own work. Of course students are going to try and get away with this if the system doesn’t stop it from happening. For high quality undergraduates to come out from the universities here, the policy of everyone passing needs to end.
Q: What are other differences between private and public schools?
A: You can’t really say one is better or worse than the other. Both have their advantages and their drawbacks. Private schools, at the end of the day, have to make money; they have to have a certain degree of success, a success rate. Sometimes private schools, and even private universities might reduce the standard to make sure that they are covering their expenses, even if it is private schools or private universities.
Frankly speaking, the public schools have the capacity, and may in actual fact have more and better facilities available than private schools, unlike in other countries, because here the government secures lots of money for public sector schools, so they might have better facilities than private schools, unlike other schools in let’s say Jordan or Egypt because public sector can’t compete with the private sector there. The public sector here has the income and resources to provide the schools with all the supplies they need.
The weakness of the private- when it comes to universities- is that they are duplicates of each other; they offer the same specializations, and this really will affect the quality, because the Kuwaiti market is really narrow. They have a limited number of students so when you have too many universities offering the same courses, this will affect the quality. So in this case I think they should promote universities with different specializations. There’s no harm in having two universities with similar specializations, but not all of them offering the same thing. If they have some specialized courses or programs offered by different universities, this will be helpful and this will encourage competition. This will maintain a standard, but if everyone offering the same program then they have to compete for a limited number of students and this will be at the expense of the quality.
Q: What research have you done regarding Kuwait?
A: We are now actually conducting research — a group of people, myself included — we’re conducting research about the employers opinion about business graduates and what employers expect business graduates to possess in terms of skills and education. This study will really help to identify what sort of skills and abilities graduates should have in order to be employable. From what can be observed currently, it seems to me that there is no correlation between what universities are teaching and what the marketplace requires.
Improving the quality of the graduates by teaching them the right skills and providing the right knowledge required by the market would ensure that students are ultimately going to be able to secure a job at the end of their degree. There is no need to fill a curriculum with too many courses that aren’t actually required by the labour market, so, now we are studying what sort of skills and abilities the employers are looking for when the recruit new graduates.
By skills, we’re talking about ‘soft’ skills, like computing skills, writing skills, presenting skills, and the ability to work with a team. These are what employers value and are not emphasized as much as needed at the university level. Plus, they want students to have some beneficial experience in the field they’re about to work in. I think most curriculums require a certain amount of work experience, but it isn’t always taken seriously, even from the organizations themselves. They’ll have an intern and just put them in a corner office for the duration of their internship and won’t have taught them anything. Again, this stems from a belief that all the interns that come don’t want to learn, that they’re just there because they have to be, and of course the companies or organizations aren’t willing to spoon feed the interns or force them to learn.
It’s worthwhile really, to organize a meeting from time to time between university academics and employers, and to see what sort of things they notice about the graduates. This would help policy makers within the university and education policy makers within the country as a whole, like the ministry of education. They can then develop curriculums that suit the market needs.
We are also currently studying MBA enrollment and why students choose specific MBA’s in Kuwait over others, how they finance their MBA, and what are the motivations behind deciding to pursue an MBA. This will really help academic authorities to think about the programmes in Kuwait.
Q: Can this be applied to graduates from abroad?
A: At the first degree they are actually not too many. Very few are graduating from abroad with Bachelor’s degrees from the UK and the USA, but at the higher levels, at Masters and PhD level, you start find a lot of graduates from the UK and USA. Our study found almost 40 percent of the postgraduate students have graduated from the UK and USA. It’s difficult to tell how many students have undergraduate degrees from abroad. There are policies within the education system where scholarships for degrees within Kuwait are more likely than for abroad because there are universities providing these undergraduate degrees within the country, so there is no need to go outside. When it comes to postgraduate studies, there aren’t many programmes here available so it is encouraged more then to go abroad.
Here, when you recruit new graduates, who have a first degree not Masters or PhD, most have graduated from local universities within Kuwait. These universities need to develop their programmes and to change their teaching techniques, because these are the graduates that employers are initially hiring, and they need to suit the labour market in whichever way it is moving. Now, we are generally moving towards technology. Most of the companies need some kind of technological expertise and unfortunately, many students until now, don’t know how to handle using a PC or Mac at a basic level, let alone with more complex problems. Especially in business studies, when it comes to banks, insurance companies, communications, and so on, graduates need to be well versed and trained in how to use technology. 
Q: What can students do now to make sure they are hirable? 
A: Kuwait is a small country. Most probably they know what companies like to hire from which universities. It’s a given that employers will have a good experience with graduates from a certain university and then find that university preferable over others. It’s all a matter of research then. You have to ask yourself, ‘where do you want to work? What’s your goal once you’re done with university? Do you want this place or that place, and what do those places like more? Which degree is the one they want?’ and from there you can decide where to go. Some employers will pick you because they’re looking for apt English speakers and they’ll know that if you graduated from this university you’re likely to be more proficient than if you had a degree from somewhere else. Other employers might be more concerned with computing skills or creativity or numerical skills or whatever. It all depends on the employer but the important point is that if you research it first, you’ll have a better idea of what they want.
I don’t know if they have a ranking for universities just within Kuwait, but I think in the future it would be good for an external body to set a criteria to rank universities and then everyone can see which fields are best in each university.
Q: What do universities abroad look for in students?
A: First and foremost, the score in your final years, whether it’s A-levels or the local examinations or whatever, it is crucial to have a score that makes you stand out. It’s not the end of the world if your score is average or mediocre, but it’s going to help a lot more if it’s high because universities aren’t looking for average, mediocre students. Another factor is your English; the TOEFL or IELTS are of paramount importance when it comes to applying for universities abroad. 
Beyond the obvious academic criteria, students have to display some form of unique characteristic that makes the university consider them. If you’re passionate about something, expand it and do something with it. Hobbies are not what they’re looking for. Everyone can take photographs, it doesn’t make you a photographer, unless you’ve taken it further.
Finally, you need a very comprehensive personal statement. Let your character shine here and don’t mention anything that’s already covered elsewhere. It is specific to a certain university, so you should make it personal about that particular university, and not just write one statement and send it out. 
I think the main problem high school graduates here face, particularly from the public sector, is the lack of analytical skills, a lack of thinking skills. What’s been observed from public sector graduates is more towards descriptive memorization rather than creative and independent analytical thought. Problem solving isn’t a matter of being told how to find the solution, it’s more important that you are left to figure it out yourself to develop skills in problem solving when someone else can’t give you the solution.
Q: How can the education system be improved?
A: We can improve the education system and have good universities in line with international standards because universities here are already better equipped than other Western universities. There is a good infrastructure in place, all the facilities are available, but the only things missing are good students, and they can have good students simply by partnering with the high schools. They can develop English programmes, provide insight on issues with current students so as to adjust the curriculum to correct those issues for future generations. This would ensure the quality of student entering university is much higher. If the high schools here were to produce these kinds of students, by the time they graduate, they can easily be on par with graduates from any university in the West.
Q: Why don’t more foreign students come to study in Kuwait?
A: I think this should be one of the main strategies of the private universities; to encourage exchange of Western students with local students from time to time for a semester or for a year. This would require signing agreements with different universities, where students can come to Kuwait and this would promote Kuwait to the outside world and vice versa. Some private universities already implement this but it needs to be done on a bigger scale, not with just a few students for a summer semester abroad. This can even be applied to lecturers; bringing in lecturers from top universities, inviting them to teach a course for a semester would be amazing for students here as they could experience lectures from the most prominent figures in their field, and of course it would encourage universities to band together to conduct joint research, improving research capabilities and creating a link between Kuwait and other countries, especially since the facilities here are so well equipped. So, they get a new experience, they can conduct joint research and share research, and promote Kuwait in the long run and also the universities themselves.
Q: What about when the best students study abroad and decide not to come back?
A: Usually those who go outside will leave because they believe the environment outside is better than here but I think in the Gulf countries the quality, or the living standards, is more or less the same as the West. I can’t see any difference, the only thing is the weather, and you can’t do too much about the weather. However, the quality of life in the Gulf countries is the same as in the Western societies, and if there were good universities then they would be more likely to stay here. Now I can’t see any reason for somebody who lives in Kuwait to go work in the UK or USA, because the standard of living in Kuwait is the same, if not better than some western countries, so the motivation [to move] is not there. But for somebody in Jordan, Egypt, or Palestine, yes, because of the economic situation, resources, then they can find better opportunities in the West, but not for somebody from the Gulf.
Q: What do hopeful entrepreneurs need to do who have recently graduated?
A: Once again, I think the Gulf region is one of the best areas to encourage entrepreneurs. You see, they give them facilities and support, and the banking system here is very efficient so they can get loans easily.  Also, here the government supports the youth but maybe they need some ideas, some help in setting up their businesses. Women especially have great potential as entrepreneurs, because if the government provides support for young women graduates they can go and start their own businesses and this would be good for the economy because in Kuwait the economy relies too much on oil.
Oil is relying on international prices, which are fluctuating. If the oil prices are high then the country has no problem regarding its budget, but when the prices go down this will hit the budget hard and the country will suffer. They have to think about having something away from oil. They have to diversify the economy away from oil and this I think can be developed through the education system coupled with a type of support for the graduates, then they can have their own businesses.This will diversify the economy they have to encourage small businesses, industries, manufacturers and so on. 
Another thing, I haven’t seen anything in the universities about tourism. They have to have specializations in tourism and start encouraging tourism. I can’t see any difference between Kuwait and Dubai. Actually, Kuwait is better than Dubai in terms of weather; it’s not humid in Kuwait, it’s very humid in Dubai. So Kuwait can be a better tourist attraction than Dubai, weather wise, and it is less expensive than Dubai overall. But until now, Kuwait is not really prepared for tourism because they have some restrictions about entering and leaving the country-these should be removed in order to encourage tourism. So tourism will be one of the sectors to be developed in order to move away from relying on oil. 
Dr Kamal Naser has had over 30 years of experience as a professor of accounting, banking and finance. Dr Naser has taught and supervised at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels at a number of UK and Middle Eastern Universities. 
He received his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Economics from Birzeit University, Palestine. He also received his Masters in Management and Technology (Accounting & Finance) and his PhD in Finance and Financial accounting from the University of Wales — Cardiff, UK.
Currently a reviewer for a number of international academic journals, Dr Naser was nominated for reviewer of the year for 2013 by Emerald publishing company for the international journal of commerce and management published in the USA. He also serves on the international editorial board of many of the international journals. He has published a book on creative financial accounting and over 60 papers in various journals.

By Dina Naser

Arab Times Staff

By: Dr Kamal Naser

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