A careful approach to allowing foreign branch campuses

A long history of generous government-funded study abroad scholarship policies, dating back to the very early years of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, testifies to the commitment of Saudi rulers when it comes to supporting the development of higher education as an essential factor in the human, social and economic progress of the country.

Their vision of higher education has always been one of reconciling progress and modernity with traditional values and their current discussions on opening the way to foreign branch campuses should be viewed as part of that careful approach.

Vision 2030

At present, the country’s extensive and expensive scholarship programme – known since 2015 as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ External Scholarship Programme – is seen primarily as a means of enhancing the performance of the Saudi economy and in 2020 it entered its fourth phase, which sees the adoption of quality-oriented criteria for the selection both of applicants and of foreign host universities.

This approach is clearly intended to implement one of the key aspects of Saudi Vision 2030 – the ambitious and widely-announced roadmap launched in April 2016 to introduce the Saudi government’s long-term goals for economic diversification and social development – ie, the need to make substantial investments in education and training, especially at the tertiary level (“scholarship opportunities will be steered towards prestigious international universities and be awarded in the fields that serve our national priorities”), to the end of equipping young people with the skills needed by the labour market (“closing the gap between the outputs of higher education and the requirements of the job market”), and creating new and diverse employment opportunities in the public and private sectors.

The triple mantra of Vision 2030 – vibrancy, prosperity and ambition – reflects a strong focus of Saudi policies on innovation in advanced technologies and entrepreneurship.

The giga-projects in progress (most notably Neom – The Line), the Saudi Green Initiative (including the launch of Sakaka Solar Power Plant and Dumat Al Jandal Wind Farm) and the transformation of AlUla – the AlUla Masterplan aspires to become a global model for responsible development – which includes the creation of the Sharaan Nature Reserve, are examples of how Saudi Arabia aims to achieve a harmonious coexistence between nature and humankind, preservation of its cultural legacy, including its pre-Islamic heritage, sustainable economic diversification and growth.

Recently rebranded a Sustainable Saudi Vision, it puts sustainability “at the heart of everything the Kingdom does”, from policy development and investment to planning and infrastructure.

In 2019 the new Universities Bylaw granted disciplined autonomy to Saudi universities in framing their academic, financial and administrative regulations. The bylaw enables universities to set out their financial resources, thus encouraging creative financial and revenue models and reducing dependence on the state budget.

In addition, the bylaw permits universities to expand regionally and internationally through setting up branches outside the Kingdom.

It is in this context that King Saud University, the oldest university in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula (1957), has been able to readily implement the new university regulations on financial sustainability, thanks especially to its consulting and entrepreneurial arm, the King Abdullah Institute for Research and Consulting Studies (KAI), established in March 1997 to carry out Crown Prince Abdullah’s Royal Endorsement issued a few months earlier.

Versatile consulting services

As part of the premier Saudi university, KAI can rely on the wide range of academic expertise offered by an establishment with 41 colleges that have 200 departments serving all specialties, 21 research centres, 19 specialised centres and six centres of excellence.

KAI can provide paid consulting services, from design and assessment of academic courses to academic training at different levels, and the related knowledge products, technical services (from e-learning to automation of work procedures), regulatory and administrative services, research studies covering the full spectrum of links between academia and the labour market and more focused work-related consulting studies (processes engineering, data governance, organisational performance and upskilling and reskilling of the workforce, among others).

Chaired by King Saud University (KSU) Rector Professor Badran Al Omar, and with Dr Al Thabit currently serving as dean, the KAI Board – which is able to count the minister of education among its former deans – includes a body of KSU academics representing the scientific, legal and business expertise of the university.

In accordance with the KSU vision for the role of the university in the 21st century – to be an agent of knowledge acquisition, creation and transfer, while fostering a strong culture of innovation – KAI’s versatile consulting services work in partnership with top international consulting firms, government entities and other public and private Saudi universities. At present, KAI’s customers include public, private and non-profit organisations.

And from the very outset, KAI consulting services have aimed consistently at enhancing the connection between higher education and a knowledge-based, innovation-led and competitive economy. At present, they work to secure a vision for Saudi society as promoted by the country’s leadership in the Saudi Vision 2030’s perspective: a vibrant society with strong roots.

While striving to continuously improve its consulting services, KAI pursues its stated mission to build human and institutional capabilities across all sectors of Saudi society, with the aim of preparing and maximising the potential of Saudi Arabia’s real wealth, namely, in the words of Saudi Vision 2030, its people.

The work of the institute focuses strategically on fostering entrepreneurship and creativity, and incubating national talent, thus contributing to the expansion of employment opportunities.

Moreover, KAI has positioned itself at the forefront of specifically educational consulting services able to further the ambitions of the vision for the higher education sector: tracking progress in education outcomes, ensuring that higher education outcomes are in line with the requirements of the job market, developing the job specifications of every education field and improving education planning, monitoring and evaluation, among other things.

With the achievement of sustainable development as a core value of its society-oriented mission, KAI is firmly in alignment with the vision, which has sustainability as its guiding principle for the economic, social and human progress of Saudi Arabia.

Foreign branch campuses

In 2021 news emerged of ongoing plans at the Ministry of Education to attract prestigious foreign universities interested in opening a Saudi Arabian branch and in early August 2022 the ministry announced that it is seeking the views and opinions of the public on the establishment of foreign university branches on Saudi soil.

The ministry underlined that foreign universities will have to fulfil the regulatory requirements of the Universities Bylaw that govern the opening of foreign university campuses in Saudi Arabia.

Alongside the various existing internal and external scholarship programmes, foreign universities operating on Saudi soil would need to offer world-class courses to build skills in line with the needs of the labour market, besides making a substantial contribution to the financial sustainability of the Saudi university system.

Annalisa Pavan is professor of education at the University of Padova, Italy, where her research interests include the human right to education in an international perspective; EU policies on lifelong learning; EU cooperation programmes in the field of education; international policies on education; and the recent developments of higher education policies in the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.