Rise of higher education in Saudi Arabia



Rise of higher education in Saudi Arabia

-Dr. Abdul Ruff



Saudi Arabia is the largest country and Arab leader in the Middle East, stretching more than two-million-square kilometers–almost the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula–from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Red Sea in the west.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932. It was poor country, and there was a small educational program comprising 12 schools with 700 students. This situation changed dramatically after 1936, when oil was discovered in huge amounts in Saudi Arabia.

The key Arab country, which is primarily a desert, sits on 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. Revenue from oil and gas has enabled the ruling family, Al Saud, to modernize the country’s infrastructure, but personal and political freedoms have not kept pace. The insular and restrictive country is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (SAS) and home to two of Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.

High tempos in post WW-II industrialization and globalization led Saudi Arabia to think about the role of higher education being a part of globalization. The kingdom used to send their advanced students for higher education to Western capitals.  In 1957, there was a need to open a university to educate Saudi students instead of sending them abroad for education, therefore, King Saud University was established and inaugurated in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Saudi economy is strong and economic recession is not a problem for Saudi Arabia economy. In fact, the budget of the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia has increased significantly.


Of late, the government has been trying to play catch-up. Whereas in 2003 there were eight public universities for every 22 million people, there are now 21.   Spending on higher education has nearly tripled. The king gave $10-billion to create the graduate-level institution, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; the endowment makes it the sixth wealthiest university in the world. It opened in 2009.

At present, Saudi engineering graduates meet only a fifth of the country’s needs and 68% of science jobs are filled by graduates from abroad. Saudi Arabia has a workforce shortage in many areas of science and technology, such as health, agriculture, engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology.  The country needs 60, 0000 pharmacists yet only 100 graduate every year.

To promote a knowledge-based economy and move from oil to a worldwide centre for high-technology research, Saudi Arabia has announced a research initiative called ‘Aafaq’ or Horizons. The 25-year plan is intended to improve higher education opportunities for women, boost scientific research and tackle the country’s shortage of scientists in critical fields. Among the first steps in implementing the plan were the establishment of four new universities in Dammam, Alkharj, Shaqra and Majmaa, spending more than US$2 billion to create 49 technical colleges and 142 vocational centres across the country and the launch of the world’s largest women’s university.

Universities offer diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates. Some colleges provide distance learning. Male and female students are segregated. Five universities accept both male and female students; in 2004 nearly 200 university and other colleges existed exclusively for women.

Postsecondary institutions are oriented less toward foreign students and more toward nationals who otherwise would study abroad. Postgraduate opportunities for foreigners are few.

Bureaucracy is a major obstacle in higher education in Saudi Arabia. Higher education in Saudi Arabia is missing important elements, which depend on either hygiene or motivation factors in motivating the students through the learning process to achieve the objectives of the programs offered in Saudi Arabia. For instance, online education is not supported and it is included minimally in some universities. Lack of research funds is a major obstacle which prevents scholars from conducting research in Saudi Arabia.

Any study about higher education in Saudi Arabia includes discussion of the historical roots of education as based on Islam, Islamic philosophy of education, the aims and objectives of higher education and modern university education. Empirical statistics are given to substantiate the Kingdom’s rapid progress in higher education. Since 1957 when modern university education began with a single institution with twenty-one students and a staff of nine it has grown until twenty-five years later in 1982 higher education had grown to seven institutions with 63,563 students and a teaching staff of 6,906. Then onwards this trend keeps on the rise.

There is job security in Saudi Arabia that allows scholars to strive for their rights and developments of higher education system. The scholars in Saudi Arabia should invest the positive attributes of higher education in Saudi Arabia to develop a system which would help them to contribute the art and science of different disciplines. The Saudi higher education system cannot develop without a schema which focuses on research and provides funds of researchers to conduct their research. Therefore, research funds, scientific conferences, research reporting, etc need to be undertaken for quality research and education..

Indeed,   the education pedagogy, the problem of waste of time and resources, inconsistency in the curriculum, lack of motivational teaching and learning strategies,   absence of clarity of terminal objectives of the programs

Saudi Arabia is projected to need 100,000 university staff by 2030 but only has 40,000 today. Within the last four years, 12 new universities and several colleges have been opened in different parts of the country, increasing the number of state-run universities to 20. Saudi Arabia is planning to implement a five-year, US$30 billion effort to upgrade its science and technology infrastructure. This plan will produce technical human resources that will be the workforce for science-based economic development and will help in turning brain drain that threatens science development into economic gains. In a further effort to solve Saudi Arabia’s scientific workforce shortage, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has given the green light to a law allowing foreign researchers resident in the country to apply for Saudi citizenship.

According to figures released by UNESCO, women make up 58% of the total student population of Saudi universities.

The system of higher education has lagged behind the rate of growth in Saudi Arabia with the discovery of oil in 1936 and it has still to travel a long distance to catch up with global standards in higher education. New king Salman is expected to help Saudi Arabia achieve the required heights in higher education that also promotes Islamic values. ..




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