The new generation of indigenous private universities

Higher education has made quantum leaps across the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, in recent years. The emergence of medium-sized, comprehensive private colleges and universities is one area of interest. Expansion has come as a result of issues ranging from widening access to the range of degrees offered.

One of the problems associated with massification is that it leads to an increase in the number of institutions of higher learning, funding issues, standardisation challenges and demands for reforms from stakeholders, that is, private and public employers.

It is generally acknowledged that running public universities is a capital-intensive enterprise. Shifting the financial burden to other entities to free up money for other competing sectors has become the logical solution.


The emergence of private universities in the region is predicated on various factors, from religious and educational factors to scientific and political ones.

The pioneering private universities set up in the region – the American University of Beirut, Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth and the American University in Cairo – were essentially rooted in their 19th-century founders’ desire to spread Christian values. Profit-making was not their primary goal.

There was a kind of hiatus of a complete century between those first-generation private universities and the recently established ones in the Arab region. It was only in the mid-1990s that the need for indigenous private universities arose, given the inability of public universities to keep up with demand.

Demographic changes experienced in the region resulted in a large number of secondary school leavers having difficulty securing admission to public universities. This development prompted policy-makers to involve the private sector in higher education.

As reported in a 2006 study by Dr Salma Al Lamki, Oman moved to address the glut of secondary school leavers by establishing a two-year private college in 1995. In the same year, the American University in Dubai was founded, although one cannot wholly consider it as an indigenous institution given its nomenclature.

Between 1995 and 2005, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain fostered the establishment of private higher institutions to boost higher education capacity, strengthen their countries’ skills base and facilitate the emergence of a knowledge-based economy.

Why do students choose private institutions?

Professor Daniel C Levy from the Program for Research on Private Higher Education contends that one of the reasons private universities thrive is their patronage by the wealthy, who are keen to maintain their exclusive class status.

Their flexibility and the number of international faculty they attract are some of the positive reasons people choose private institutions.

Other factors that influence their success include government patronage in terms of scholarships, supportive grants, land donations and the government taking substantial equity in the ownership of institutions, as happens in Kuwait.

Another spur to the expansion of private higher education came with the introduction of university rankings. The first edition of the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2003 marked a watershed in transforming higher education in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.

The dismal performance of most universities in the region prompted governments to swing into action by deploying vast amounts of financial support to higher education and introducing policy reforms aimed at transforming public universities.

Those reforms have also enhanced the performance of private colleges and paved the way for the establishment of additional public and private colleges.

From just seven universities in 1997, there are currently 28 government universities in Saudi Arabia and, while there was only one private university in 1999, there are now 41 operational private colleges and universities.

Increasing influence in higher education policy

One of these institutions is the AlMaarefa University in Riyadh. The institution, set up in 2009, is a vibrant medium-sized, comprehensive university that has developed its own institutional governance principles and fosters financial resourcefulness and qualitative teaching and research.

AlMaarefa University offers several undergraduate programmes in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, respiratory care, emergency medical services, anaesthesia, information systems, computer science and industrial engineering. Such courses reflect the skills requirements of the country.

We should note that the private sector has gradually emerged as a major stakeholder in higher education and now plays a role in dictating the kind of disciplines that are studied. In some cases, universities formulate or restructure courses to suit what the ‘market needs’.

In line with the Humboldtian principle of self-governance, most of AlMaarefa University’s decisions are taken through various committees. The adoption of this approach has brought a sense of togetherness and engendered harmony and self-actualisation among the various segments of the university community.


The founders of the first generation of private universities were mindful about deploying experienced statesmen and accomplished technocrats to run their institutions. As the institutions were basically non-profit organisations with their home bases outside the region, their governing boards had the enormous task of mobilising donations and attracting an endowment to sustain qualitative teaching and research.

However, most of the nascent second generation of private universities in the region are yet to generate the kind of revenue they could from donations, endowment and support from their alumni. For the time being, they rely heavily on students’ tuition fees to pay for their operations. In most cases the tuition fees are prohibitive.

For-profit institutions have also traditionally been criticised for compromising on certain issues linked with academic integrity. Given the nature of their ownership structure and their mission, there are also misgivings with regard to the quality and competencies of their graduates in the region. However, there are robust regulatory bodies that strive to regulate the sector.

Nevertheless, there is cause to be optimistic if we examine both the research and pedagogical pursuits of private institutions.

For example, AlMaarefa University’s medical degree programme puts an emphasis on competency-based medical education rather than memorising vast amounts of clinical knowledge or information. The aim is to meet the needs of patients. Courses that are just based on classroom teaching or experience in the laboratory do not produce excellent doctors in the current era of smart technology.

The way forward

Generally speaking, there are considerable improvements to be made in both public and private universities in the Middle East with regard to the quality of instruction and research excellence.

Positive moves forward can be attributed to certain measures proposed by regulatory bodies that promote the embedding of internationally recognised best practice in higher education. Local regulatory bodies have drawn up guidelines that focus on improving learning outcomes and giving students the innovative skills they need.

Private universities in the Arab region can boost their national economies through invention and innovation, creating tangible solutions to some of their developmental challenges. This in turn could lead to new knowledge and discoveries that could accelerate the transformation of the region and serve as reservoirs of knowledge and cradles of creative ideas.

Given the vicissitudes and uncertainty that beset commodity-based economies like those in the Middle East, there is a great need for the kind of smart, efficient and competitive skills that a knowledge economy fosters.

Dr Adamu A Ahmed was formerly the research chairs coordinator at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.