A baby boom is putting oil-rich Oman under pressure to upgrade education to guarantee jobs for local people and reduce the burgeoning economy's reliance on foreign workers.
Three, and possibly four, private universities with overseas degree accreditation are to be licensed; research links, particularly in petroleum and fisheries, improved; British-devised vocational qualifications developed; and English and communication technology taught to all Omani primary school children.
The expansion is a tantalising opportunity for the United Kingdom given its historic relationship with the sultanate. The British Council has been active for 28 years and has helped in exam and quality assurance reforms. Baroness Blackstone, Britain's education and employment minister, this month met Sandhurst-educated Sultan Qaboos Bin Said to discuss closer cooperation, including a 25 per cent rise in Chevening scholarships to Omani students.
Since 1970, when the sultan took power, the wealth, size and aspirations of the average Omani family have grown. Education continues to loom large in public spending, but mainly for Omanis, in line with an Omanisation programme to reduce foreign dependency.
Children of the 500,000 expatriates (out of a total population of 2.5 million), many from the Indian subcontinent, either attend private schools run by foreigners or are sent abroad. They cannot attend the one university, Sultan Qaboos, which caters for about 7,500 students.
The private universities will help plug these gaps. Open to fee-payers, they will be drawn from consortia of existing colleges, with degrees accredited by overseas universities. UK universities with links include Glasgow Caledonian, Hull and Westminster.