SAUDI ARABIA: King opens women's university

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (pictured) has officially opened the US $ 5.3 billion Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, which will eventually cater for 50,000 female students, making it the largest women's university in the world.

The university is part of a plan by the Saudi government to improve women's access to higher education, according to Abdulkader Alfantookh, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education.

Saudi Arabia was reaping the rewards of striking a balance between providing opportunities for men and women in higher education through an ambitious policy of reforms, Alfantookh added.

Located in Riyadh, the university includes colleges for medicine, dentistry, nursing, information technology, kindergarten education, languages, instant translation and pharmacy as well as three research centres for nanotechnology, information technology and bioscience, along with a research zone for King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. The university's library has about six million titles including reference books.

At present there are more than 28,000 students and about 3,000 staff on the 8,100 hectare site. It has 32 affiliated colleges in 17 cities and townships in the Riyadh province.

"PNU has become a major symbol of gender equality and women's education in Saudi Arabia," the university's President Huda bint Mohammad Al-Ameel said.

There are more than 300 higher education institutes for women in the country alongside universities, and women represent more than 56.6% of Saudi university students - but only 20% of those benefiting from overseas scholarship programmes, according to a government report titled Women in higher education: Saudi initiatives and achievements.

While women constitute only slightly more than one-quarter of the world's researchers, women represent 17% of all Saudi researchers - higher than Germany (12%), Japan (12%) and Korea (11%), and the same as in Luxembourg, according to a recent UNESCO report, Women in Science: Under-represented and under-measured.

"Even at the employment level, Saudi women university graduates are starting to catch up in many sectors including education and health," Alfantookh told University World News.

For example, 40% of doctors with Saudi citizenship are now women, the Washington-based human rights and democracy group, Freedom House, noted in a February 2010 study titled Women Rights in the Middle East and North Africa....Progress amid resistance.

"With the opening of new universities in major cities in the kingdom including PNU, the substantial increase of spending on research to 1.07% of GDP and the recent approval of the 25-year plan for the development of university education, Saudi women's higher educational and scientific research opportunities as well as employment are expected to be increased in the coming years," Alfantookh said.

The opening of PNU by King Abdullah last week - 32 months after he laid the foundation stone - represents a landmark in Saudi Arabia's efforts to open up higher education for women, 13 years after the first private women's college opened in the kingdom. It has since become Effat University, Jeddah.