Arab Open University (AOU)

January 2014

Professor Moudi A. Al-Humoud was named rector of the Arab Open University in January of 2013 after a long career at the most senior level of government and academia. Starting as an assistant professor in the business administration department of the College of Commerce, Economics,and Political Sciences at Kuwait University, Professor Al-Humoud rose to become dean of the college before becoming Kuwait University’s vicepresident for planning.

She served as president of the Arab Open University from 2004 to 2008 before moving into government as minister of state for housing affairs and minister of state for administrative development, and then subsequently minister of education and minister of higher education.

Professor Al-Humoud holds a PhD in business administration from the City of London University (UK), an MBA in business administration and management from North Texas State University (USA) and a bachelor’s degree in business administration with honors from Kuwait University. She has coauthored two textbooks on administration in the public and private spheres and authored or coauthored a dozen papers.

The new development plan for Kuwait’s educational system

No country in the Arabian Gulf has Kuwait’s democratic roots. How important is democracy for Kuwait’s identity?

We have a relatively long history in exercising democracy, marking approximately fifty years of constitutional and democratic practice. Perhaps it is not a complete model of democracy, but we have had a very stable constitution since then. We have elections and we managed to grant women political rights. I think that such an example of women’s empowerment is unique in this part of the Arab region. Moreover, despite the tremendous challenges emerging lately, democracy has proven to be deeply rooted in this country and its path is irreversible. Given all the challenges, the occasional flaws and obstacles, we are proud of our democracy and our constitution. With dialogue, openness, and democracy we can overcome these challenges. I cannot see Kuwait without democracy. We experienced that in the 1980s and we don’t want to repeat that experience. Democracy is the one and only choice.

I would like to ask you to assess the educational system in Kuwait nowadays…

I will focus on the outcome of our educational system and the set goals. Our high school and university graduates should acquire three skills: a free and analytical mind, ethnological skills, and the ability to interact with the outer world both technologically and intellectually. Then, I want to equip them with the necessary skills for self-learning to help them become independent learners.

For the abovementioned elements to be secured, we need to consider the rest of the educational formula; teachers, who need to be retrained through more robust and extensive training and reorientation. In addition, schools should be re empowered. Indeed, we have to give our schools more freedom to create healthy learning environments. Wherever you go, you will find the same routines that hinder motivation and creativity. Another variable is the curriculum, where more enlightened reform is needed and whereby extra emphasis is placed on the sciences, technology, and languages in Kuwait schools. This is crucial to help students keep abreast of the latest developments worldwide.

Needless to say that, in this context, we have to operate within the total educational environment. Here, there are many instances of social interference with the educational system. For example, the parliament has its own say and so does the government, let alone organizations, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], etc. Consequently, we have to provide a sound educational system to ensure better outcomes at the elementary, secondary, and university levels. However, although our system has some serious shortcomings, we have succeeded in certain areas, but more work is still ahead of us. I am not here judging the system, but some figures presented (*) are judging it. When I came to the Ministry of Education, they stopped subjecting our students to international exams since the majority of students didn’t pass them, but I was against it. In order for our students’ performance to improve, we need to know their levels first, and take it from there. Therefore, with the collaboration of the ministry team, we were able to reinstitute that system—and I am hopeful that this practice will continue. We have to know where we stand on the international educational map. Certainly, this gives you the ground to improve. And unless you have benchmarks for quality control, all attempts for reform will be in vain.

* The World Economic Forum ranks Kuwait’s higher education system as 106 out of 144 countries. The Ministry of Education’s goals include an ambitious and highly integrated development plan for the educational sector to produce competitive graduates regionally and internationally according to a five-year plan from 2014 to 2018, focusing on five core pillars: curriculum, standards, leadership, new management systems (which is already being piloted in fifty schools), and evaluation, both in the classroom and of the system itself. Within the next five years, these changes will bring about general improvement, and in the next eight to ten years, a “quantum leap in the quality of overall education which is crucial for the economy and the political maturity will be positively enacted in Kuwait.”

Can you tell us the reason for establishing the Arab Open University (AOU) and what niche it is trying to fill in today’s marketplace.

If we take university-level education in the Arab world as a whole—and if you are talking about the Arab Open University [AOU]—then we are speaking about the Arab region, and not only Kuwait. We have branches in Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and in Kuwait, —eight branches—and hopefully next year Yemen will join, so we will have nine branches.

If you take the region in general, you will find seventeen million students in high schools. That was in 2010; now you will find even more in secondary education. In this case, where would high school graduates go? The answer is, they either opt for higher education or join the labor market directly. So, 50 percent of that 8.5 million figure has to have a seat in one of these higher education institutions in the Arab world. If you take the capacity of all government universities in the Arab world, it will not have enough seats for all their members. Where will the rest end up? As I said, they will go directly to the labor market—and this is a big responsibility. That is why His Royal Highness Prince Talal—the founder of AOU—with his vision and wisdom enabled AOU to reach out to segments of society that other universities have never reached: for example, women—especially in rural areas—and some social classes that cannot afford university education. Therefore, we endeavor to serve segments that are unable to pursue higher education, and this is the philosophy of AOU. It is a nonprofit university and we try to maintain high quality education with affordable cost. Our social responsibility dictates that we must provide education for those who do not have access to it. This is part of our mission and goals. Hence, if you compare the AOU with other private universities in the whole region, you will find our fees very modest. We also have a big grant program for those who cannot afford to pay even these modest fees. We are trying to equip the young population in the Arab world with the right skills for the labor market. In short, AOU is a project of human development.

What are the global aspirations of His Royal Highness Prince Talal for AOU? What is AOU’s vision?

Well, to reach these underprivileged segments of the society, you have to have a different approach than that of conventional universities—the campus, the day-to-day lectures, etc. Here, you have to provide a different model of education. The open learning or distance-learning model is the best method to reach the small centers in rural areas. In Saudi Arabia, we have our biggest branch, Riyadh, but we have six regional centers in different cities and towns. The same model will be applied in Egypt; we have our branch in Egypt, but we are going to spread centers in different areas. His Royal Highness Prince Talal is also the head of the AGFUND [Arab Gulf Program for Development] program, which is the program for development in the Gulf. He believes that education is the best investment to develop human resources in the region and the best way to educate the population is to provide access to university education. To support a large population, you have to opt for an unconventional model of education: open learning.

Why did AOU use a UK institution for accreditation?

We partner with the OU [Open University] in the United Kingdom because we want to maintain world-class standards and quality in our system. As you know, OU is number one in that world-class system right now. There are other universities—the University of South Africa (UNISA); Athabasca in Canada, which I will be visiting next month; Phoenix in the United States. All of them are big universities that follow the open learning system. But the OU is of a different caliber, where the material is number one. Even among the conventional universities in England, the educational material produced by OU is number one. It is certainly of excellent quality, and we chose it for that very reason. Not only that, but our students also get a degree from OU. They get two degrees: one from AOU and another one from OU. The first one opens doors to the Arab world and the second one opens doors to the world at large. Our graduates join master’s and PhD programs in Europe and the United States based on their OU degree. It is a win-win situation, since AOU opened doors for OU in this region. It is a good opportunity for them as well, and, after all, we couldn’t have achieved that quality without this partnership. That is why OU is our strategic partner.

Many academics, regionally and internationally, have stated that online learning is inferior. How do you respond to this claim?

This was not easy—it was a big challenge to convince the average Arab to change his mindset without very solid arguments and concrete evidence. So, this very issue was a big challenge for the university as a whole. Last year we celebrated the AOU’s tenth anniversary. During this period, we have managed to change this misconception completely. Nowadays, governments themselves are establishing open learning universities. For example, Saudi Arabia has an online university that is currently operating. Kuwaitis developing a virtual university, and there are already ones in Egypt, the UAE, and Tunisia, to name a few. If anything, we succeeded in changing the culture of accepting this model of education and this is the only time we have sustainably served the masses in this region. We are proud that we succeeded in changing that perception. We faced a big challenge, but I think we succeeded in creating acceptance between the public and government bodies, and this—in my opinion—is a great achievement. With our partner, OU, we have been able to do it, to give that excellence of high-quality education. The partnership gives us a differentiating extra mile to move forward in the Arab world.

AOU decided to be a pan-Arab institution but some governments’ hesitate to recognize a degree earned in AOU branches outside their jurisdiction. What is your comment on this issue?

That is not because they do not accept the certificate, but because they certify only the universities within their boundaries. Yes, there are some reservations, but we managed to resolve this issue with most of our host countries, and we are still negotiating with the rest. Now, Arab countries accept the degree wherever received. If, for example, you study in Kuwait, you can go to Jordan and they will accept you. This is applicable in Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, and Sudan. Now AOU has reciprocal recognition of its degrees among the rest of the Arab countries.

What are the university’s growth targets?

If we are speaking about the strategic plan we are implementing now, we are hoping to reach fifty thousand students by 2017.We are already at thirty thousand.

Twenty thousand have graduated over the last ten years—or precisely six years—only since the first batch had graduated after four years of study. So, within six years we have graduated twenty thousand. The total student population right now in the university stands at thirty thousand.

We offer courses in IT and computing, language studies, business studies, and educational studies. This week we signed an agreement with some British universities to start new programs in engineering, international law, graphic design, and media.

Is the AOU’s model economically viable or is it more philanthropic?

It is economically viable, because of the different subsidies (e.g., the land subsidies in the different countries, but not all of them; in some countries we have to buy our own land). Some governments help us and they support us with land, like Kuwait. But since we are dealing with a large student population, we benefit from large-scale economies. And because we deal with online learning and depend more on technology than on teaching, we manage to have a very reasonable cost structure. With the grants, the subsidies, and the large number of students, it is economically viable.

AOU is not-for-profit; this does not mean that our operations do not have surplus, which we utilize internally for quality improvements and expansion. We are economically efficient and we finance most of our campuses. We have four completed campuses—in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Kuwait—and now we have nearly completed a campus in Riyadh. We do finance them; we also finance our educational development and our instructional and teaching-support materials. We invest a lot in producing our own materials and technology. Therefore, we are economically viable.

You have to have a supporting body to start this kind of university. That is why governments in Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait are now in the picture. Even if one institution is established in Kuwait, like the Kuwait Virtual University, they are planning to expand regionally. In fact, I support launching these universities in the Arab world. There is a need for that;42 percent of our Arab population is under twenty-four years old and we have to provide high quality education.

What is the AOU’s mission?

At AOU, we have a mission and a message that aims for the betterment of the Arab individual and the Arab societies. To this end, AOU has contributed significantly to creating a better learning and intellectual environment for students. Through our varied and interactive models of learning, we enabled our students to communicate at a global level. Definitely, there are signs of positive change, and we hope we can help our students to take a major role in the building, advancement, and prosperity of the Arab society. As a matter of fact, I am trying my best to be a real proof of our philosophy. I also hope I can empower women in a certain capacity. We are honored to serve our Arab women and Arab youth.

You have always been very vocal in terms of women’s rights, in terms of encouraging female entrepreneurship and greater participation. What role should women play within Kuwait, in pushing the country forward?

Women have great potential to help in the growth and development of their society. But, in general, governments are not taking women empowerment seriously. They will appoint a woman in a position only to adhere to political decorum. Women form 73 to 74 percent of the Kuwait University student population. They have to use these resources more effectively. Now the situation is different. The constitution looks equally at males and females, so there is no excuse; they have to empower women. Empowering here means that women have to be more involved in the decision-making process at the government ministerial level, the undersecretary level, and with the consultation bodies in the country. When you see the map of the higher level or the decision-making level in the country, you will not find the right percentage: women form only 7 percent—and again, there is no sufficient representation for women in most levels. Unless they genuinely believe in women’s empowerment and women’s participation, we will not be developing the way we should as a country.

We are trying to present a real case about women leadership to the Arab governments and to make them realize that women can deliver as affectively as men in certain areas, if not in all. Talking about the university—interestingly enough, Kuwait University was led by a woman in the 1980s. Kuwait is really more progressive in the educational field than most of the Arab world. We are trying to provide a role model; that is, Arab women can be as efficient as men. In this context, what matters are the individual person’s qualifications rather than his or her gender.

Thank you so much, Professor Moudi, for this interview.