SAUDI ARABIA: Rapid growth for universities

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to continue the rapid expansion of higher education as part of its ninth five-year development plan, for 2010-14. A nearly quarter billion dollar annual investment in science and technology research will help strengthen the country's growing international position in innovation capacity.

University capacity will be increased to 1.7 million students, up from a reported 850,000 in 2009 and 636,000 in 2006.

Postgraduate programmes will be expanded and diversified to meet a goal of ensuring 5% of the student population are postgraduates.

There will be an expansion of facilities including the building of 25 technology colleges, 28 technical institutes and 50 industrial training institutes.

Abdulkader Alfantookh, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, said: "The new development plan focuses on developing the scientific workforce and enabling graduates with the necessary knowledge and education to apply it to entrepreneurship, an area where considerable progress remains to be made for the translation of knowledge into production."

Up to US$240 million a year has been earmarked in grants for science and technology research projects.

In addition, the plan is to establish 10 research centres, 15 university technological innovation centres in association with King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and at least eight technology incubators at KACST and other universities.

The government will also continue to promote university collaboration with international companies.

Under the development plan, the 24 government universities will admit 278,000 secondary school graduates in the new academic year (2010-11) and private universities and colleges will provide an additional 15,000 places.

Hilmi Salem, a consultant in higher education, said Saudi Arabia was experiencing aggressive investment in science and technology as well as in higher education and this was reflected in its growing standing in international rankings.

Based on publication of scientific and technological research in international journals, Saudi Arabia is ranked fourth for science productivity in the Muslim world. In June the London-based Royal Society placed Saudi Arabia top of Gulf countries and second in the Arab world for scientific productivity.

Recent university rankings show universities in Saudi Arabia edging their way up the global charts.

In June, the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities put three Saudi universities in the top 200 globally, and sixth in the top 10 universities in the Arab gulf states, Arab countries and the Islamic world.

From no universities in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2004, this year Saudi Arabia has two in the global top 500 - King Saud University and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals of Saudi Arabia.

John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of the office of research at the US Agency for International Development, said: "The development of a knowledge-based society is a laudable goal. The Saudi government has embarked on a very long-term venture, since a world class university system takes decades to develop under the best of circumstances."

Saudi Arabia has sent more than 88,000 students abroad to study under the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Programme.

The Saudi Council of Ministers approved the new US$385 billion development plan on 10 August.