Education: The Pillar of Saudi Arabia
The government understands the importance of education & is focused on promoting the same. 2/3rd of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. Saudi Arabia can successfully implement Vision 2030 by making effective use of the knowledge, skills and capability of this segment of young people. With this realization, Saudi Arabia has taken enabling steps to better the quality of education in the Kingdom. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud sanctioned a five-year plan worth more than 80 billion Riyals (US$21.33 billion) in 2014 to expand & improve Saudi Arabia’s education sector. This was an additional investment to the existing annual allocation of the education ministry. He also started a renovation drive of state schools and universities. In the 2016 Saudi budget, 200 billion Riyals were sanctioned for development and expansion of education – the highest annual allocation after healthcare.
Today, Saudi Arabia’s education system includes more than 30,000 public schools, large number of colleges, 25 public and 27 private universities. The government grants monthly allowance of approximately US$ 200 to all university students as incentive to get their undergraduate degrees. Meanwhile, the emphasis is not just on domestic education. The enrollment of students in overseas universities has also been growing exponentially through initiatives such as the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship program that aims to support over 50,000 graduates from Saudi Arabia to go and study in the world’s top 500 universities by 2020. After China, India, South Korea and Germany, Saudi Arabia is the nation with the fifth highest number of students pursuing their education abroad. They account for 4% of the international student population (Ministry of Education, 2013a, p.69). Furthermore, Saudi Arabia also welcomes and encourages overseas students to study in the Kingdom. A report published in January 2015 by the Saudi Ministry of Education states that the number of non-Saudi students receiving scholarships to study at universities in the Kingdom is currently about 32,000 from around 150 different countries.
As one of the pillars of Vision 2030, education also incorporates the focus on development of “skill”, needed in a knowledge-based economy – where more emphasis is placed on the skills of individuals than on natural resources. Meanwhile, advanced research & innovation are also getting its fair share in Saudi Arabia. The King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have become the go-to universities for applied research activities, spread across a variety of areas like engineering research, environment and water, refining and petrochemicals, communications and IT, and economics and management systems.
A good educational ecosystem needs great teachers. Saudi Arabia is bringing in well-qualified teachers, to add to the growth and development of the education sector. The Ministry of Education of Saudi Arabia is building standard assessment tools to test teachers’ proficiency in different subjects. This will be used to make improved and informed selection of teachers applying for jobs. A National Qualifications Framework (NQF) for Higher Education was started in 2009 for the same purpose, by Saudi Arabia’s National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment (NCAAA), the nation’s main higher education governing body.
A demographic shift has boosted education in the region. Parents are willing to spend substantially towards the education of their children in schools and colleges. This has resulted in the development of private & public schools and colleges, universities, community colleges and other institutions. Various progressive steps have been taken by the government to improve and increase access to education for women. Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, the world’s largest women-only university, offers regular diploma, bachelor and postgraduate courses. It also conducts a host of free online courses making it possible for women to complete certificate courses in a host of subjects. The government, through multiple scholarship and fellowship programs, sends thousands of Saudi women to study abroad every year. As per the data available from 2014, more than 35000 female students from Saudi Arabia went abroad to study. Over the years, dedicated development of women’s education has led to their increased participation in the Saudi workforce – one of the most important goals of Vision 2030.
Special education services too have been the focus of the government. Ministry of Education established the Department of Special Learning in 1962 to improve skills of students with special needs. The early movement to improve special education services led to establishment of regulations that guaranteed rights for people with disabilities, increased the quality of special education services, and educated professionals who became qualified to provide these services. Almost all students with multiple and severe disabilities are currently taught in private special education institutions. Students with mild and moderate cognitive disabilities receive their education in an inclusive setting in public schools in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian universities have also collaborated with various global universities to expand its academic offerings. Under an agreement, signed in 2016 at Riyadh, faculty from the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences will advise the King Fahd Security College on the creation of a new course on security studies.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the largest donors to British universities. The late crown prince HRH Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud donated GBP 2 million to Oxford University for the construction of the Ashmolean Museum, the university’s museum of art and archaeology.
According to a study commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and conducted by Thomson Reuters, India has seen a 10-fold increase in its research association with Saudi Arabia in the last decade. While Indian institutions, such as the IITs, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Delhi University, have been involved with Saudi Arabia, there has been a noticeable increase in collaborations involving researchers at the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia and many Saudi Arabian universities.
Grants have also been provided by Saudi Arabia to establish Chairs in many universities across the world. These include the first and the oldest endowed chair in Islamic studies in the United States King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, King Abdul-Aziz Chair of Islamic studies at University of Bologna in Italy and King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud Chair of Islamic Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.
The Saudi initiated chairs also include King Fahd for Islamic Studies at the College of Oriental and African Studies at SOAS, University of London, Prince Waleed bin Talal at the Harvard University and Muhammad Saeed Farsi Chair at the American University in Washington.
With such a globalized system of education, riding on the back of an increasing population, increasing private sector participation and growing demand for skilled workforce, the education sector in Saudi Arabia is expected to grow exponentially.