Manama: The controversy in Kuwait surrounding the imposition of an English language proficiency test as a requirement to obtain a government overseas scholarship has deepened after 22 lawmakers expressed their opposition amid accusations that it was targeting specific tribes.

Last year, Kuwait introduced the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for those who applied to go to universities abroad, and Education Minister Hamed Al Azemi this year wanted to apply it.

The ministry explained that it made the English language proficiency test for higher education compulsory after some students failed in their first year of university studies due to their linguistic limits.

Two lawmakers Jamaan Al Harbash and Adel Al Damkhi then opposed the application of the new requirement and last week called for dropping it, threatening action against the minister if he did not respond positively.

But various other lawmakers objected and insisted the ministry keep the requirement for the sake of the nation and the students, threatening to question the minister if he gave in.

The standoff is now threatening to blow up in the face of the parliament and the government after 22 lawmakers aligned themselves against the minister, with some of them asserting that it was meant to exclude regular government school students and “the sons of Kuwaiti tribes.”

Lawmakers have argued that private schools, where the teaching medium is often in English, had an edge over public school students, where Arabic language is the medium.

“It is obvious that the objective of the proficiency test decision is to deprive public school graduates from scholarships,” MP Khalid Al Otaibi said. “It lacks the basic sense of justice and equal opportunity and Kuwait will slide into a major political crisis because of it. Everyone needs to be aware that education and the future of our sons and daughters are a red line that cannot be crossed.”

MP Mubarak Al Hajraf said the government was aiming at reducing the number of students who could study abroad.

“Their real aim is to control the elections of the student unions abroad that are dominated by the sons of tribes and to boost the status of private colleges,” he said.

However, MP Raken Al Nusf confronted Al Hajraf’s statement, saying that all students were Kuwaiti nationals.

“The use of loaded words about tribesmen and including them in open debates between lawmakers are detrimental to the work of parliament,” he said, quoted by Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas on Wednesday.

MP Ahmad Al Fadhl was highly critical of those who opposed the proficiency test, saying that they were solely after getting votes in the next elections.

“At a time when we badly need to improve our education standards, enhance our curricula and ensure overseas diplomas are not fake, we have 22 lawmakers, including six with doctorates, who stand against a sensible and rational decision by the education minister to have graduates sit for a proficiency test,” he said. “These people just want the parents of the students to vote for them in the next elections. Thus continues the process to void the brains of Kuwaiti students in a blatant and arrogant manner just for the sake of securing votes in the next elections.”

On Monday, MP Safa Al Hashem, the only woman in the 50-seat parliament, said that she fully supported the minister in imposing proficiency tests such as IELTS or Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

“I tell you, Mr minister: If you give in to their unpatriotic and destructive demands to drop the test requirement, I am ready to grill you on this issue. Our education system has been destroyed by such calls and interferences,” she said.

“In the 1980s, I worked for nine consecutive years in the directorate of overseas scholarships and I witnessed the levels of our students from public and private schools. I have with me all the statistics about the failures of those who were sent on scholarships without sitting for the proficiency test.”