Draft law for foreign campuses ‘constrains autonomy’

The Saudi University Affairs Council has unveiled draft regulations that will open doors to the establishment of branches of foreign universities in Saudi Arabia offering high-quality and reliable private higher education in order to train a qualified workforce and make available new and innovative fields of specialisation.

However, an international education expert says the requirement that branch campuses be supervised by the Ministry of Education is “so potentially constraining” that it would deter universities from the United Kingdom and the United States from setting up branch campuses.

The Ministry of Education presented the draft regulations via the ‘Istitlaa’ platform for public comment from 8 August to 5 September.

The regulations are aimed at further developing the Saudi university education and scientific research systems, as well as diversifying the options for university education while preserving the national identity of Saudi students.

The regulations also aim at providing educational programmes that meet the requirements of development and community service within the framework of university education policies and strategies.

Potential stumbling block

One of the 24 draft articles that govern the opening of foreign university branches in Saudi Arabia could be a significant stumbling block to attracting top foreign universities to establish campuses.

It says that the Ministry of Education will supervise the university branch and approve the appointment and change of university branch leaders.

It also recommends the need for approval of requests to amend statutes and the establishment, cancellation or merging of faculties, as well as the addition of academic programmes for licensing, and the holding of scientific events.

Nigel Healey, professor of international higher education and vice-president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick in Ireland, told University World News there is a conflict between another requirement – that the foreign university be “one of the scientifically distinguished universities” – and this level of constraint on the autonomy of the branch campus.

Healey said: “If Saudi Arabia only allows ‘scientifically distinguished universities’ to set up international branch campuses (IBCs), this may have the advantage of increasing the number of high-quality universities in the Kingdom.

“However, the reference to the draft regulations of IBCs, notably that the Ministry of Education would ‘supervise the university branch’ is potentially so constraining that it is unlikely to be acceptable to universities from countries like the US and UK.

“One of the key characteristics of a world-class university is autonomy and, by such tight control, the regulatory environment is likely to militate against leading universities setting up an international branch campus in the Kingdom.”

Another requirement of the draft regulations is that the language of education in the university branch will be the first language approved in the foreign university unless the recommendation to approve the establishment of the university branch includes providing education in another language.

Under the draft regulations, a permanent committee is to carry out studies on the requests for the establishment of branches of foreign universities.

The results of the public consultation process are to be published in early October, before the ministry prepares the final regulations for approval by the Council of Ministers.

Saudi motives

Healey told University World News it is unclear why Saudi Arabia is opening up its market to international branch campuses.

“Some countries in the region have done so to absorb demand. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, has encouraged foreign universities to set up campuses to serve its large expatriate population, who are not entitled to study in Emirati universities,” said Healey who is the author of a recent study entitled “Transnational Education: The importance of aligning stakeholders’ motivations with the form of cross-border educational service delivery”.

“However, the proportion of expatriates in Saudi Arabia is much lower than the UAE and the gross tertiary participation is very high at 61%, suggesting there is little unmet demand for higher education,” Healey said.

“Other countries like Qatar have heavily subsidised foreign branch campuses to allow them to create education hubs of elite universities and project soft power. But there is no suggestion that IBCs in Saudi Arabia will be subsidised by the Kingdom.

“If IBCs are not publicly subsidised, they are likely to charge very high tuition fees and only be accessible to wealthy students, exacerbating inequality,” Healey said.

Professor Sami Hammami, former vice-president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News that “encouraging foreign campuses means obeying the law of the market and globalisation”.

He said foreign campuses would help Saudi Arabia to “bring prestigious academic institutions closer to Saudi students and boost existing Saudi institutions as well as creating an education hub that concentrates best institutions in particular fields, which will contribute to better visibility of Saudi universities and raise the level of scientific research”.

A 2022 study entitled “Saudi Universities’ Rapid Escalation in Academic Ranking Systems: Implications and challenges” indicates that despite the high scientific output of some Saudi universities, the role of Saudi universities in industrial collaboration, technology advancement and economic prosperity is low because of their weak performance in entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialisation.

“Therefore, foreign universities must be anchored in the economic and social reality of Saudi Arabia. Openness to the environment and territorial anchoring are the keys to the success of these institutions,” Hammami said.

Key draft regulations

Some of the other key articles in the draft regulations that govern the opening of foreign university branches in Saudi Arabia are as follows:

• The establishment of a university branch can only take place with the approval of the Council of Ministers based on a recommendation from the University Affairs Council.

• The university branch must submit an application which includes the name and location of the branch; the legal entity of the branch; the councils that will manage the branch and how they will be formed; the organisational structure; the internal rules regulating academic and administrative affairs; the academic system and financial resources along with its faculties, departments or institutes, research units and scientific specialisations; and the proposed date of commencing.

• The university branch should submit a certificate from an accredited engineering body in Saudi Arabia stating that the installations and facilities of the university branch shall be in compliance with the standards and requirements approved in Saudi Arabia for similar facilities.

• The university branch must obtain institutional accreditation from the Education and Training Evaluation Commission in Saudi Arabia.

• The university branch should also fully adhere to the purpose for which it was established as well as to the regulations that are in force in Saudi Arabia.

• The academic certificates granted by the university branch to its graduates must be issued and authenticated by the foreign university in the name of its branch.

• The university branch should have an annual budget, and the branch should have regular financial registries, in accordance with the accounting standards approved in Saudi Arabia. The annual financial statements of the university branch shall be audited by an external auditor licensed to operate in Saudi Arabia.

• The University Affairs Council, by a decision, determines the fee (financial compensation) for issuing, renewing and amending the licence for the university branch, as well as for adding academic programmes and other services provided to it. The council determines the executive rules of the university regulations and the necessary procedures and controls in this regard.

• The university branch is not allowed to stop its activity, or to amend the statutes, except after the approval of the University Affairs Council, and when the activity falters, the council has the right to take all the necessary decisions and measures to ensure that students complete their studies.

• Where there is no provision in the regulations, the laws, regulations and decisions in force in Saudi Arabia shall apply.

• The courts in Saudi Arabia are the only courts competent to settle any dispute in which the university branch or one of its employees is a party, with all university branch employees subject to the Saudi work system.