International Academic Mobility: Kuwait

In previous editions of Under the Radar, we profiled Iran [1] and Qatar [2] as countries in the Middle East that have strong, but under-appreciated recruiting potential for U.S. institutions of higher education, especially those interested in diversifying their international student bodies. To conclude our regional reporting for this series, we take a look at Kuwait, a country that has seen strong recent growth in international academic mobility and one that we believe will continue to be a fruitful destination for international recruiters.

Compared to many of its regional neighbors – most notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar – the northern Gulf state of Kuwait does not spend extravagantly on higher education. However, it does have institutions of higher education that are well regarded in the region, in addition to plans aimed at developing the education system to better meet the human capital needs of the labor market for the benefit of the country and its economy.

Kuwait’s current strategy for higher education includes strengthening access to both vocational and university higher education, developing world-class universities, encouraging the development of private universities in collaboration with trusted foreign partners, and the continued provision of scholarships for study abroad.

The government also plans to diversify secondary education to include a vocational path that would encourage access to vocational higher training at technical colleges. In 2010, just 4 percent of students at the secondary level (11-17) studied in the vocational stream, despite a high net secondary enrollment rate of 89 percent (versus a regional average of 63 percent).

Currently, there is something of an admissions crunch at Kuwait University, the nation’s only public university. In 2012, Kuwait University’s Governing Council had to delay admissions for 1,540 qualified students to the second semester, with available places able to accommodate just under 8,000 students. For this reason, policymakers are working with the private sector to expand access, in addition to working to create additional places in the public sector.

International Collaboration

Unlike its neighbors in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, Kuwait is not outwardly seeking to establish itself as a regional hub for international education by attracting foreign branch campuses; rather it is seeking to develop a private university sector that works in collaboration with high quality international partners as a means of meeting local demand for university places.

Until 2000, private institutions of higher education were not allowed to operate in the country so all existing institutions are less than a decade old, with a first round of decrees establishing institutions issued in 2003. Enrollment at private universities has expanded significantly in recent years to approximately 15,000.

Currently, there are two public institutions of higher education, Kuwait University [3] and the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training [4] (PAAET), a two-year institution comprised of five colleges and 13 institutes. In addition, there are 14 private colleges and universities approved to operate by the Ministry of Higher Education, nine of which are currently accredited, with a further four recently licensed but yet to start operations.

Kuwaiti citizens that enroll in private tertiary institutions receive government scholarships supporting their studies. Tuition levels are not set by the institution, but by the Private Universities Council [5], the government body responsible for regulating private institutions, based on the facilities and curriculum that an individual institution offers. This has been cited by a number of schools as a limiting factor in the improvement of private instruction.

Established in 2003, the American University of Kuwait [6] (AUK) is well-regarded locally and like all private universities in Kuwait it is required to operate in collaboration with an internationally reputable foreign partner (per standings in national and international rankings); a means the government has sought to guarantee standards and credibility. The undergraduate-level liberal-arts college was developed in partnership with Dartmouth College [7]. The New Hampshire-based Ivy League school has been meaningfully involved from the beginning in establishing curriculum and programs based on the U.S. liberal arts model. All programs are taught in English, as is the norm at most private universities in Kuwait. In addition to help in developing curriculum, the two universities also have exchange and transfer agreements in place.

Other U.S. partnership agreements include the American University [8] (and College) of the Middle East’s affiliation with Purdue University, the Gulf University for Science and Technology [9]’s collaboration with [10] the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and the American University for Medical Sciences [11]’ affiliation with Tufts University, Boston. All arrangements are similar in nature to the AUK agreement with Dartmouth.

Other private institutions have affiliated themselves with European or Australian universities. The University of Maastricht Business School [12], in the Netherlands, and the Box Hill Institute [13], in Australia operate branch campuses of their home institutions in Kuwait, essentially managing all day-to-day operations in cooperation with a silent Kuwaiti partner. The Australian College of Kuwait works with a number of different Australian partners [14] across a number of technical fields. The largest private university in terms of enrollment is the Arab Open University [15], which awards degrees validated by the UK’s Open University.

The Private Universities Council licenses and accredits all institutions, and as such defines the minimum nature of the relationship it expects between domestic and foreign partners. Most graduates from private universities take up employment in the private sector as government jobs are typically reserved for public-university graduates.

Graduate Job Market

As is common among hydrocarbon-rich nations of the Gulf region, there is a sense locally among private-sector employers that the Kuwaiti school system is not preparing graduates for the workforce [16]. According to the UNDP, youth unemployment in Kuwait was at 23 percent in 2006, with half of those unemployed in the country under the age of 30.

Currently, there are about 20,000 university graduates annually trying to enter the Kuwaiti workforce of approximately 150,000, with over 90 percent of jobs in the public sector. Private universities in particular are trying to tailor their programs to be more in tune with the needs of the labor market and as such their graduates are typically sought out by private-sector employers.

Study Abroad

The inclusion of ‘American,’ ‘British,’ or ‘Australian’ in the names of at least four domestically licensed institutions of higher education is an indication of the appeal that an overseas education has for Kuwaiti citizens.

The government’s current higher education strategy calls for increasing the number of scholarships for overseas study, an arena that has traditionally received generous government support through a range of bodies, including the Ministry of Higher Education, [17] the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training [18], the Civil Service Commission [19] and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research [20].

There are already a significant number of Kuwaiti students abroad, pegged as high as 50,000, according to ‘official figures’ cited by a 2012 University World News article [21], but counted at one quarter that number at the tertiary level by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (2010). The main push factor for Kuwaitis studying abroad, according to University World News, is the shortage of domestic university places and the perceived prestige of overseas credentials.

09-2013-feature-2 [22]

Overseas Study Scholarships

The Kuwaiti government will award 4,500 scholarships for Kuwaiti students to study abroad in 2013-14, according to a recent announcement, under an initiative designed to upgrade domestic labor skills in line with the needs of the labor market. According to the announcement, awards will be available for use at universities in 13 as-yet-unannounced countries. Fields already identified as priority areas include physics, chemistry and mathematics.

09-2013-feature-1 [23]

As can be seen in the table above, enrollments among Kuwaiti students in U.S. institutions of higher education have been rebounding since a significant drop in the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In academic year 2012/13 enrollments were at close to all-time highs with a doubling of the Kuwaiti student population in the four years since 2008. Given the Kuwaiti government’s promise of increased funding for overseas study scholarships, and a general preference among Kuwaiti students for U.S. higher education, we believe continued growth can be expected.

Developing New Facilities to Meet Demand

Sabah Al-Salem University City

Kuwait University was founded in 1966, five years after Kuwait’s independence from British rule. The university currently enrolls more than 36,000 students and employs 1,800 faculty members across four campuses: Khaldiya, Adailiah, Keyfan, and Shuwaikh.

Under plans originally initiated in 2004, the four campuses will be consolidated outside Kuwait City on a single campus to be known as Sabah Al-Salem University City [24]. The new campus is being built to accommodate up to 40,000 students with colleges for arts, humanities, sciences, engineering and medical specialties, with separate buildings for male and female students connected by co-educational spaces. The facilities are scheduled for completion by the 2014-15 academic year.

The medical campus will incorporate five medical colleges, in addition to a research center and a 600-bed university teaching hospital. University officials plan to make it a regional hub for medical studies by attracting students from neighboring states.

Jaber University for Applied Sciences

Jaber University for Applied Sciences (JUAS) – or potentially Jaber Al-Ahmed University – was approved this year by Kuwait’s National Assembly. Under the Ministry of Higher Education, JUAS, will focus on advanced, professionally oriented teaching and applied research and development, with the mission of improving technical manpower for the labor market. The new university will reportedly be comprised of the existing applied faculties of the PAAET [4]. According to the legislation approving the establishment of the university, it will be operational within three years.


Kuwait University is already one of the leading institutions among regional institutions of the Gulf Cooperation Council of Universities, and in recent years has developed a focus on nanotechnology research. It recently signed a collaboration agreement for research in silicon solar cell technologies with Belgium’s Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center [25] (IMEC), a world-leading nanotechnology center.

Building on this emerging expertise, the government in 2012 announced that it would establish a dedicated US$47.5 million nanotechnology center, in an effort to begin developing the country as a knowledge economy and diversify away from a dependence on petroleum.

The new center is being funded entirely by the government as part of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, and in collaboration with Japan’s Advanced Institute for Materials Research at Tohoku University. It is designed to improve graduate education, promote advanced research and create an environment for innovation for researchers in Kuwait. The applied scientific research institution already has a long history of cooperation with Japan, with more than 30 research projects conducted with the Japanese Petroleum Institute in oil and environmental fields relevant to the Kuwaiti petroleum industry.


The Kuwaiti government is responding to increased demand at the tertiary level through the expansion of existing public institutions of higher education and by encouraging the development of new private ones in collaboration with international partners.

The international mobility of Kuwaiti students is close to record levels, and the introduction of increased government funding for overseas study scholarships suggests that mobility will continue to increase from Kuwait. This seems especially likely in the short term, with current domestic higher education capacity unable to meet school-leaver demand. However, this picture might change as new private institutions are established and projects to expand public provision are completed.

The government’s mandate that private institutions develop in collaboration with overseas partners means there are also good opportunities for institution-to-institution collaboration in Kuwait as new private institutions of higher education are established.