The effects of Saudisation on universities

Saudi Arabia’s policy of replacing foreign workers with its own citizens is known as Saudisation. Until very recently, the oil-rich Saudi kingdom has depended heavily on expatriates to fill jobs. Currently, however, the country is faced with a burgeoning young population that needs to find gainful employment. Unprecedented numbers of young Saudis are also returning to the country after benefiting from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program overseas.

The Saudi state has been working hard to absorb these qualified citizens into the workforce. As with all economic sectors, this has had an obvious effect on the substantial higher education industry in the country.

The Saudi ministry of labour has in recent years worked quickly to ensure the implementation of new Saudisation laws within higher education and both public and private universities have been quick to comply.

Workforce localisation at such a rapid pace has been unprecedented in this country – however, academia, for various reasons, has been ill prepared to deal with such a sudden paradigm shift.

How university business has been affected

Whereas teaching and research faculty in Saudi universities continue to be a more or less even mix of Saudi and foreign citizens, administrative positions have overwhelmingly been Saudised.

Until recently, the vast majority of university administrators – the departmental administrative assistants, curriculum developers, research centre directors, international engagement managers, quality assurance personnel and so on – have overwhelmingly been foreign citizens.

These have been the people tasked with establishing, developing, running and maintaining, as well as growing, academic departments and administrative units within universities.

In contrast, it has been easier for the human resource divisions of universities to justify the recruitment and retention of non-Saudi teaching faculty as Saudi applicants with the required terminal degrees and higher-level teaching and research credentials have been somewhat more difficult to find. Therefore, as opposed to teaching positions, university administrative positions have been relatively more quickly Saudised.

This has had an immediate effect on university business. For the most part, inevitably, things have slowed down. This is as much a result of Saudi professional culture as of the lack of previous institutional exposure and relevant professional training received by Saudi administrators. The leadership in Saudi universities must be given credit for having moved quickly and earnestly to meet this challenge.

Administrators have been provided with the best available professional development opportunities. Consultants – predominantly from Western, English-speaking countries – have been called in to provide training and development for Saudi professional staff. In addition, many Saudi staff members have been sent to prestigious venues abroad for multiple weeks of residential and immersive training.

However, on the flip side, this has added to the administrative, bureaucratic and financial burden of universities.

Problems with research production and support

According to the country’s changing employment laws, key administrative functions such as human resources and finance have been required to become 100% Saudi-staffed. This has caused a significant cultural change within universities, especially with regard to developing systems supporting the production of scholarly research.

Financial and logistical arrangements for research now have to be handled by administrative offices staffed by Saudis unfamiliar with global norms. For example, conference attendance allowances and research expenditures are, from time to time, curtailed. These are very often understood by Saudi staff to mean special privileges to be bestowed as favours, not standard allowances for research production to be made available to all eligible scholars.

In his 2014 Times Higher Education article, “How Saudi Arabia Can Create an Academic Oasis”, Philip G Altbach points out that Saudi academics are awarded immediate tenure in public universities without preconditions regarding academic and-or research productivity.

On the other hand, foreign faculty, who still make up 42% of the teaching staff in Saudi universities, cannot become eligible for tenured positions, regardless of their performance. These arrangements do not encourage the ideal outcomes of institutional loyalty or top performance in either group.

Quality assurance mechanisms, recently implemented under the guidance of the Saudi National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment, also set a high academic and research standard – but not enough incoming Saudi faculty or staff are yet familiar or comfortable with these expectations.

Inadequate academic preparation of university students

Universities in Saudi Arabia are continuously urged to focus on quality assurance and improvement, with global standards in mind. This is commendable. However, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the academic preparation of incoming Saudi university students and the curricular requirements of university degree programmes – most often developed in consultation with non-Saudi advisers.

Students are simply not well enough prepared in fundamental areas like writing, quantitative and analytical skills to be able to succeed in an undergraduate course.

This lack of preparation is simply the result of a disconnect between the very locally oriented public educational system up until high school and the vastly different, heavily Western-influenced curricula at the university level.

To make up for this, all public and some private universities offer foundation programmes to incoming students. Saudi teaching and administrative staff have quickly pointed out that their national universities are simply not ready for the international standards they have been setting for themselves – that quality improvement mechanisms applied to the universities are out of sync with the rest of their national educational system.

There is increased pressure on faculty and staff in Saudi universities to facilitate student success, very often at the cost of integrity in teaching or grading challenging coursework. Dumbing down courses and inflating grades helps institutions graduate more students, but it is not a sustainable practice.

Replacing non-Saudi teaching and administrative staff with Saudis has prodded these institutions to begin to find a way to create curricula, teaching and assessment methods and research expectations that are more in line with their students’ and teachers’ capabilities.

Possible solutions

Employment nationalisation of the Saudi academy has provided jobs for many qualified young citizens.

Graduates of both national and foreign universities, with bachelor, masters and even doctoral degrees in hand, have had a challenging time finding suitable employment in various sectors because the economy was not adequately prepared to replace the existing – overwhelmingly foreign – workforce and receive a sudden onslaught of newly minted Saudi human resource.

In such a situation, academia has been able to absorb substantial numbers of citizens, mainly into administrative positions, but also as part-time lecturers, lab technicians, research assistants and other support functions. As an ongoing phenomenon, Saudisation within universities is bound to evolve.

The Kingdom continues to devote substantial resources toward the development of a world-class higher education system. However, labour market pressures to urgently localise the workforce must be handled thoughtfully.

The ministry of education should formulate its own recommendations for Saudisation. One could be a more gradual Saudisation of administrative positions in higher education and, accompanying this, thorough training and exposure to international norms of teaching and research for Saudi administrative staff.

More locally suited quality assurance mechanisms for faculty members and senior staff with regard to teaching, research and service – the three essential aspects of the academic experience – should be introduced.

Finally, academic preparation at all levels – from college preparatory years to university curricula themselves – must be made more rigorous. This is essential in order for Saudi universities to be able to do their job well: that of educating the country’s young citizens to a relevant and employable standard.

Manail Anis Ahmed was head of global resource development at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. E-mail: This is an edited version of his article in the current edition of International Higher Education.