SAUDI ARABIA: 25-year plan for higher education

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.

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.

Managed by King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, the Aafaq initiative will conduct studies in various disciplines such as admission and capacity, job market, cost and financing, infrastructure, management and organisation, education and graduate education, scientific research and community services.

Aafaq will also conduct various studies on higher education including female education, health education, engineering and technology, private education and teacher education.

Among the first steps in implementing the plan were the establishment of four new universities in Dammam, Alkharj, Shaqra and Majmaa on 24 August, spending more than US$2 billion to create 49 technical colleges and 142 vocational centres across the country by 2010 and the launch of the world's largest women's university.

Located in area of three million square metres in the eastern suburbs of Riyadh and accommodating 40,000 students, the SR20 billion (US$5.3 billion) Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University for Girls will have 13 colleges. Courses will include subjects such as medicine, pharmacy, and computer sciences, while research will be conducted into nanotechnology, bio-sciences and information technology in collaboration with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

The university aims at providing programmes essential to meet Saudi's job market requirements as well as enabling women to participate in the country's development process efficiently. It will be the world's largest institute for higher studies when the project is completed next year.

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

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.

On 23 September, Saudi Arabia will open the US$2.6 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology which is located 80 kilometres north of Jeddah in the town of Thuwal on the Red Sea coast. KAUST will be one of the best internationally- distinguished centres of scientific research, invention and education.

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.

Mohammed Kuchari, associate professor of microbiology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah welcomes the moves, which he sees as vital steps for ensuring that the mixture of science graduates meets the needs of the labour market.

According to Kuchari, Saudi Arabia is projected to need 100,000 university staff by 2030 but only has 40,000 today.

"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," Kuchari said.