The Saudi Minister for Labour and Social Development Dr Ali Al-Ghafis made a staggering statement last month that Saudi Arabia is planning to halve its university admissions numbers.
This created shockwaves across the higher education sector, coming at the same time as austerity measures taken by the government to tackle the decrease in oil prices.
Nevertheless, the statement was not a total surprise given that the Ministry of Education had already announced that it was going to cut the numbers of admissions to education and art colleges by 50%.
The minister pointed out that the move would mainly affect the humanities and social sciences in keeping with the 2030 Saudi Vision. Figures show that 94% of high school graduates go on to study at the university level, with many of them majoring in theoretical and social sciences.
However, these statements have created much uncertainty and seemed to indicate a clear change in direction for the country.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed a rapid growth in the establishment of new universities in recent years. Some 17 new national universities were established from 2010 to 2014, bringing the national total to 34 universities. Moreover, student enrolment figures and higher education spending – higher education accounts for almost 25% of the total education budget – shows that the Kingdom has invested heavily in university education over the last decade. So why this change in direction?
The minister told reporters that cutting numbers will meet the needs and requirements of the 2030 Vision. The 2030 Vision is quite an ambitious and bold vision. It aims to replace the oil-based economy with a knowledge and industry-based economy. As a result, it is a “necessity” for universities to halve their capacity so that money can be diverted to technical and vocational training, according to the minister.
Dr Al-Ghafis’ words should be taken seriously because he was the former governor of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation or TVTC. Some 80% of jobs created in the private and labour market require vocational and technical degrees. This creates a mismatch between labour market demands and the number of university graduates.
However, numbers are sometimes misleading. In the last report of TVTC, only 52% of TVTC graduates found a job whereas 48% were struggling to find one. This is contradictory. The numbers do not align with the minister’s conclusion.
Moreover, TVTC is not fully cooperating with industry in developing programmes that meet market demands. It seems the best way forward is to diversify the private labour market and tailor university programmes directly to government departments and policies.
However, it is not only university admissions that are affected by the crash in oil prices; the Saudi scholarship programme is being reduced and selectively tailored.
Elizabeth Redden has observed in Inside Higher Ed that intensive English programmes in the United States are reporting declines in Saudi student enrolments. However, this decline is tailored to match education outputs with the needs of the labour market. The move directly links scholarships to employment opportunities. This move was tagged as “your job, your scholarship”.
This initiative was introduced and announced last year. The ministry of education is working with ministries like health to bridge the gaps in the labour market as well as shifting the focus towards specific degrees in areas where more Saudis are needed. This has in turn resulted in a significant reduction of scholarships granted and a drift from quantity to quality.
The statement made by the Saudi labour minister sparked a lot of controversial responses and was not backed by official figures. A level of uncertainty will surround the future of higher education in Saudi Arabia, but the cuts reveal the government’s ambitions to meet its 2030 Vision demands.
It seems that for the time being the government will attempt to diversify and tailor its university programmes and graduates to the needs of the economy.
Ruwayshid Alruwaili is head of the English and linguistic department at Northern Borders University, Saudi Arabia.
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