Thursday, April 20, 2006

Higher education follow-up post

Some people found my previous post to be confusing. I started to write the following as a reply to the comments but decided to expand it and post it as a topic of its own.

My personal view on higher education is that governments should make it available to all. It doesn't have to be totally free but then again I don't think that a university degree should be privilege only for the best of the best, which unfortunately is the situation in Oman right now. Presently, close to 60,000 students graduate from highschool every year and our one free university has seats for less than 5% of them. The way I see it, that's just elitist. The government does provide 2400 internal scholarships every year mostly to low income students to study in private colleges. They also take in students into vocational colleges, teachers colleges, technical colleges, and so on. All put together that still brings the total at about 10 to 15% of high school grads. Let's face the facts. In some countries you can make an OK living as a brick layer. In Oman even college graduates have it hard. Jobs are scarce and pay is low. A person with nothing but a high school diploma is lucky to find a job and when they do they have to make do with salaries of around RO. 120 to 150 a month.

I think that there should be a two-tier system, maybe similar to the US where they have junior colleges feeding into full four-year colleges, and state colleges and universities. Likewise in the UK they had the top unis and the polytechnics which were later converted into being universities of their own. In Oman we have something slightly similar with the technical colleges now giving bachelor degrees (some not all, I think). It just needs to be expanded. You can have a system of each region having one or two "junior college" style colleges which give associate degrees and the best students from there getting admission to full unis, also regional. Instead of having just SQU in Muscat being a university for the best of the best. You can have a system of 4 to 6 other universities in the regions offering college degrees as well to those not fortunate enough to be admitted to SQU or who can't afford the private colleges.

SQU is an extravagant one-off experiment. 20 years ago when it was built, it cost over 200 million rials. We don't need more state of the art universities. What Oman needs now is efficient universities that deliver a quality education to the maximum number of students at a competitive price. For the price of one SQU, you can now build 4 excellent regional universities or even 10 large campuses all around Oman of a state university-type system. Of course beyond the set-up costs there will be huge overheads for running the universities, staffing the, operating, etc. But if you won't spend on educating future generations, what will you spend on?

The universities don't have to be totally free. Students can be partially subsidized. The availability of choices to students should end up improving the quality. Presently private colleges have no incentive to improve the quality of their education. They operate in a system where students are strapped for choice. If more free colleges are available, private colleges will have to improve the quality of their offerings to justify their 2 to 3000 rial per annum prices. Higher quality of education will lead to better quality graduates and translate into better job prospects for the graduates.


illogicist said...

Empirical data states that for developing countries (and even developed countries) investing in education always yields some of the highest returns for the economy than most other sectors. So economically speaking, its sound. Ive always felt, beyond economics, health and education are two things which are basic human rights and should be invested in heavily by the government.

I dont have new figures, but in the 80s Oman spent about 13 percent of its budget on education and about 6 on health - decent compared to other developing countries, but I dont know if todays figures are similar to that. Im sure the numbers would be fairly easy to find.

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