From where I sit - Sultan in the swing

December 23, 2010

Oman is seeking to upgrade its main university so that it can join the ranks of world-class institutions.

Sultan Qaboos University, with 14,700 students - almost half of them women - and a state-of-the-art campus on the outskirts of the capital, Muscat, has performed remarkably well since it was founded in 1980. Now it is developing a master plan to go to the next level.

Oman, a small country of 3 million at the tip of the Gulf, is a remarkable place. The current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, celebrated his 40th year on the throne in July. He brought the country out of the Middle Ages. When he deposed his father there were three schools in the country, symbolic of the previous ruler's distrust of modernity. Today, Oman has reasonable literacy rates, decent infrastructure, a growing higher education system and enlightened policies towards women.

Sultan Qaboos University is the only public university in Oman: the rest of the sector consists of vocational colleges. The country has chosen to permit the private sector to develop the rest of its academy.

New private universities, which are given significant start-up support from the state - including free land and government scholarships for students - seem to be somewhere between non-profit and for-profit. Most are backed by major businesses, but it is unclear whether they will make money. The country has a few foreign transplants offering specialised degrees in engineering and other fields, but these institutions do not seem to be top-class in their home countries.

Sultan Qaboos faces a difficult path to world-class status. The university has engaged in a fairly successful effort to "Omanise" its faculty. Almost half are locals, most of whom have been educated abroad, largely in the US and the UK. About a quarter are international. Local staff are offered permanent appointments when hired, making it impossible to fire them - problematic in terms of ensuring productivity. Expatriate staff receive renewable three-year contracts but can never achieve permanent status.

Building an academic culture based on research and teaching productivity is never easy, and the combination of permanent appointments, limited accountability and short-term contracts for foreigners will make the job more difficult. Yet this is vital if Sultan Qaboos is to become a research-intensive institution.

Location is also a challenge. While Oman is a stable and peaceful place with well-functioning infrastructure, it is not exactly at the centre of the academic firmament. Further, it faces competition from the glitzier academic enterprises elsewhere in the Gulf region, including Qatar's highly publicised branch campuses.

Among the Gulf's indigenous public universities, and outside Saudi Arabia, Sultan Qaboos may be the best of the lot, but attracting top scholars from abroad will be difficult. To help, the university is starting to build meaningful links with overseas universities - probably a better strategy than subsidising branch campuses that have little impact on local development and may siphon off the best students and faculty.

Sultan Qaboos is in the midst of goal-setting and planning for the coming decade or so. A lack of clarity is apparent in these goals - should it make the major effort required to become a fully fledged research-intensive institution, or should it aim lower? The answers will shape the future of the institution in the next decade or more.

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