Education in Kuwait: American University of Kuwait (AUK)

Interview with Dr. Winfred Thompson, President of American University of Kuwait (AUK). Dr. Winfred Thompson is giving a brief overview of the education system in Kuwait and the biggest challenges for the education in Kuwait. As a representative of higher education in Kuwait, the American University of Kuwait (AUK) offers liberal arts education in Kuwait.

Dr. Winfred Thompson, President of American University of Kuwait (AUK)

How is the attitude towards higher education in Kuwait different when compared to the MENA region, and the GCC especially?

I think the importance of higher education was recognized earlier in Kuwait than it may have been in some parts of the region and that came as a result of the relatively early development of the oil industry in Kuwait.

One of the things that Kuwait did was take advantage of that oil revenue to send a very large number of Kuwaitis abroad, not only for undergraduate degrees, but also graduate degrees.

What should the government’s priorities be for domestic reform in education in Kuwait?

That is relatively unique, I think, for Kuwait. There is the one very large public institution that has a well-defined role in society. It was in part, however, because there was the perception that that institution might not be able to serve the needs of the large number of young people in the country that the private universities were established.

education in Kuwait, American University of Kuwait

The country is now looking at and considering how those private institutions should be integrated into the total education system of the state of Kuwait.
In your opinion, as a representative of a private institution (AUK), what are the biggest challenges for Kuwait’s education system?

There’s a fundamental issue in most of the region: most of the students are native Arabic speakers, but today the world of commerce is conducted in English. So, when students come to English language institutions, they frequently do not have the level of English language skill that is necessary for success so that presents an initial challenge.

Perhaps a greater challenge, though, is that the demographics of the region and of Kuwait, in particular, are such that, for the foreseeable future, there will be large numbers of young people coming into an education system that has not yet been geared up to prepare sufficiently for that increase in student population. So, in general, we could say that the biggest challenge for Kuwait is to meet both the quantity demands that will be placed on the higher education system and to have an educational system that has the quality that the public has the right to expect.

Do you think the government of Kuwait has been successful in addressing these issues?

I’m not sure that I’ve been in Kuwait long enough to opine whether or not there has been great success. Certainly, I am aware that there are efforts to expand Kuwait University, and the creation of private institutions in and of themselves is part of the effort that the government has undertaken to meet the demand for higher education in Kuwait.

Obviously, as I am a part of one of those private institutions, I personally happen to support the diversification of education opportunities in the country. That diversification will necessarily create competition to some degree and I think competition is ultimately good.

One of the things that Kuwait did was take advantage of that oil revenue to send a very large number of Kuwaitis abroad, not only for undergraduate degrees, but also graduate degrees.

One way that American University of Kuwait (AUK) differs from many other Kuwaiti schools is in the active encouragement of its graduates to go into the private sector, as well as the public sector. This is difficult because, with the recent spike in wages in the public sector, no one wants to go to the private sector. How do you face this challenge? Also, AUK is offering a unique system of liberal education and critical thinking; can you explain this liberal arts education system of AUK?

There are two aspects to your question; let me take the liberal arts issue first. AUK focuses very strongly on and believes very firmly in the value of a liberal arts education because we believe teaching students how to think, giving them a broad knowledge of the world and how it works is critical to educating people who can be adaptable and grow in their careers as their responsibilities change.

I think the success of that model has been demonstrated many times and in many ways. I don’t profess to say that it’s the only successful model of education, but I think it’s a particularly successful one in educating adaptable leaders who can adjust to changes in the international environment, in the national environment and who can progress throughout a normal career cycle.

The second element of your question – the fact that large numbers of our graduates go into the private sector – may in fact partly be the result of the first factor; that AUK provides that liberal arts education. It is a fact that relatively few of our graduates go into the public sector. We have nothing against the public sector, but I hope that this reflects the fact that private employers who must compete to attract our graduates recognize the value of having the kind of graduates that we produce.

education in Kuwait, American University of Kuwait

Also, of course, AUK is exclusively an English language school and so our students tend to have good communication skills in English, which is important in almost any part of the private sector today.

As a private institution, how difficult is it to attract Kuwaiti students? Are you fully satisfied with your student enrollment numbers?

We’ve done reasonably well on our enrollment. One can never be entirely satisfied because any university would like to have ever more qualified graduates from the high school system competing to get into the institution.

However, we have grown significantly in the past five years and we are beginning a process of increasing our admissions standards with the hope that we will improve on the preparation levels of our students in future years. Also, 75% of our students are Kuwaiti nationals. So, yes, we’ve done well. We compete with the other institutions and we benefit from government scholarship programs that support Kuwaiti nationals that attend American University of Kuwait. We’re reasonably comfortable with and proud of our competitive position in this society.

Of course, as well as national competition, there is competition abroad; Kuwaitis can now choose to study at one of the major universities established in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, etc. What makes you really competitive and able to attract Kuwaiti nationals?

I think convenience is a part of that. Kuwaiti nationals have opportunities supported by the government to study abroad, and that’s a good thing because students should have a variety of alternatives available to them.

Nonetheless, there are many students who may not wish to travel abroad and we aim to provide a local alternative of high quality liberal arts education to students here. Probably because of cultural and other considerations, there is a larger percentage of female students who might not be interested or able to go abroad for study and might find AUK an attractive alternative, and that is one of the reasons why we have more female students than male students.

What are some of the international projects you are currently working on? Are you collaborating with other universities?

We have a relationship with Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the United States. You may be aware that Dartmouth College is one of the Ivy League schools – one of the top ten institutions in the United States. We are very grateful that Dartmouth has worked closely with AUK throughout its history to help it recruit faculty, develop academic systems, assure quality and implement exchange programs that give our students opportunities to participate in Dartmouth programs.

We have summer programs that have enabled some of our students to spend summer internships in Hanover where Dartmouth is located. We’ve had Dartmouth students coming to American University of Kuwait to spend most of a term here. One of the things we’re exploring now is having some of our faculty and students take summer courses in the United States where our faculty would be teaching courses to our students, but on the campus at Dartmouth. We were actually hoping to implement that this summer, but we’re just a little bit late getting started so it will probably start in the summer of 2013.

What are some of the research and development projects currently under way at your university?

Keep in mind that we are exclusively an undergraduate institution and primarily a teaching institution, rather than a research institution. We do, however, try to support scholarship and research efforts of our faculty members and that has been one of the projects where there has been collaboration between Dartmouth and AUK.

There is a center in Dartmouth that focuses on cyber security and one of our exchange programs has involved cooperation with that cyber security institute at Dartmouth; both our students and faculty members participate as fellows there.

What is your ambition and long-term vision for the university?

education in Kuwait, American University of Kuwait

We would like to develop our campus. We have not yet reached a final decision on the location of the campus, but whether we remain in this location or move to another one – which is not a decision that I will make – we would like to improve our facilities with the development of a master plan not only for the academic facilities, but also for recreational and sports facilities for students.

That is one of the really big agenda issues for the university and we hope the basic decisions on that question are made relatively soon. Beyond the physical facilities and the location, my greatest hope and ambition for the institution is to improve the quality of the programs.
Fundamentally, that means two things: to recruit faculty members who have the best possible credentials to the institution and to compete in the market for students attracting the very best students that we can and providing them with a diverse education.

Now a more personal question: you’re an American national living in Kuwait. What are some of the personal challenges you have encountered here in Kuwait that are connected to the university?

Probably the biggest issue in a professional sense is that the faculty members have fewer opportunities for collaboration and professional development than they would have if they were in major metropolitan or academic centers in the West. If, for example, a faculty member is at the University of Virginia, they can attend academic conferences in Washington or Chicago or Dallas, a two or three hour flight away from their home location.

For most of our faculty, the conferences they are interested in attending and the professional development activities they would like to participate in are in the US, the UK or continental Europe, but that means it’s expensive and it’s time-consuming for them to participate in those programs. Also, to be successful in recruiting good faculty members and retaining them, we have to be able to provide the same kind of professional development opportunities and professional experiences that they would hope to have at other institutions.

That’s not a problem that we face alone; as I mentioned, I was at another institution in the region for six years and we dealt with the same issue there. Hopefully, as the economy of the region continues to prosper and institutions develop, there will be more resources available to faculty members and others locally.

You touched a little bit on the subject of financing in your answer. Is it going well? Are you satisfied with the admission fees?

Again, I don’t think any university president is satisfied with the amount of resources that are available, but the institution has done reasonably well.

One of the challenges that all the institutions in Kuwait face is that the tuition levels are not set by the institution, but through the Private Universities Council, so we don’t have the same flexibility that most private institutions in the West would have to set their own tuition based upon competitive factors.

Do you have a final message on the outlook for education in Kuwait?

I personally think that education is extremely important to the growth of any economy. Though it may be true that the tremendous wealth that derives from natural resources will last for many years in this region, at the same time, an even more important resource will be the region’s young people.

Whatever the numbers may be, it should be a high priority of the government and the private sector to develop elementary, secondary and higher education institutions and education systems that will produce students who can be globally competitive and can assure the continued development of the country after the natural resource wealth has disappeared or is at least greatly reduced.

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