Rapid progress in developing higher education

Saudi Arabia is seeing massive development in higher education. This is in line with a plan to achieve goals outlined by Khaled Al-Anqari, the minister of higher education, in a statement released at an international higher education conference held in the capital Riyadh from 16-19 April.

Under the plan, the government has allocated more than US$44 billion of its budget to higher education and workforce training – an increase of 13% over last year.

The number of Saudi universities has quadrupled in recent years. There are now 33 universities and the goal is to have 40 within the next 25 years.

The country has also established an e-university, to provide a modern learning environment and expand university enrolment, as more than half of the country's 27 million people are under 25 years of age.

New universities have greatly enhanced the capacity of universities. Saudi Arabia now has about a million students in universities distributed in all 77 regions and governorates – while in 1969 there was only one university (Riyadh, now called King Saud University) and seven colleges with a total student number of about 5,000.

A national commission of academic accreditation has been established to accredit public and private universities.

The government’s higher education strategy includes the allocation of US$16 million for 439 specialist programmes to develop research skills and proficiency among lecturers, and for a further 35 programmes to be organised in cooperation with major international universities.

Under the plan, about 148,000 scholarships have been provided to Saudi students for postgraduate studies abroad in more than 20 countries, to ensure access to world-class university education and expose them to different cultures.

In addition, there’s a concerted drive to recruit international talent to teach and research in Saudi Arabian higher education institutions. More than 80% of faculty members at local universities have been educated in the world’s best universities.

Saudi HE in the world

International reports have indicated that Saudi Arabia is an academic leader among Arab and Islamic countries and is joining the international scientific and higher education revolution.

A study published in 2010 by the London-based Royal Society placed Saudi Arabia above Gulf countries and in second position in the Arab world in terms of scientific productivity.

COMSTECH, the ministerial standing committee on scientific and technological cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, has ranked Saudi Arabia at number four among the top 10 most scientifically productive countries in the Muslim world.

Women constitute just over a quarter of the world’s researchers, and in Saudi Arabia they comprise 17%, which is higher than Germany (12%), Japan (12%) and Korea (11%), according to the recent UNESCO report Women in Science: Under-represented and under-measured.

Saudi women also outnumber Western women in university enrolments and graduation rates, according to UNESCO’s 2009 Global Education Digest.

Several Saudi Arabia-based universities have recently joined the international league tables of the world’s top universities.

The 2010 Global Innovation Index ranked Saudi Arabia 54 in the world, 17 in Asia and fifth in the Middle East and North Africa, based on investment in education, technology transfer and knowledge applications.

Besides being number 37 out of 133 countries in quality of scientific research institutions, ahead of Spain, Russia and Italy, Saudi Arabia ranked 37 in university-industry collaboration in research and development, ahead of France and Poland, in the 2009 Global Competitiveness Index.

Regarding the availability of research scientists and engineers, Saudi Arabia was ranked 47, ahead of Egypt, Russia and Brazil. And in innovation capacity, Saudi Arabia surpassed advanced economies like Portugal, Spain, France and Russia as well as Brazil.

"Higher education development programmes, quality initiatives and strategic plans, along with progress in performance indicators, make Saudi Arabia an innovative model for reforming universities,” Mohammed Kuchari, associate professor of microbiology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, told University World News.

“After promoting human resource development, enhancing capacity building, establishing a world-class faculty and expanding access to universities, now it is time to focus on enhancing the role of higher education and research in promoting economic growth and sustainable development.”