BROAD AND DEEP

Saudi Arabia 2017 | EDUCATION | FOCUS: UNIVERSITIES

As part of the continuing decentralization of higher education in Saudi Arabia, individual universities are pursuing their own paths to grow their faculties, engage with various international stakeholders, and ultimately move toward a more privatized future.

Education, though crucial to investment in a knowledge-based economy, is also proving to be the biggest strain on public spending—over SAR200 billion (USD53.3 billion) in 2017—and, naturally, is in line for a major restructure.

Yet, far from ceding to budgetary pressures, the Kingdom's ambitions for higher education are bold, as outlined by Vision 2030. With a notable target to have at least five universities among the top-200 international universities, Saudi Arabia looks to bring international-standard universities to the heart of each major city and town across the Kingdom.

Ahmad Bin Hamid Nuqadi, the President of the University of Bisha, located in the town of Bisha in the southwest of Saudi Arabia, stressed the pace of restructuring required for such universities to keep in-line with the government's vision and develop in a sustainable way. “The most important part of my job has been to restructure the university's colleges. For example, I found we had three colleges in one with humanities, sciences, and IT disciplines all together. Therefore, the colleges all needed to be restructured and reorganized to put various disciplines in the right place. In 2017, we got approval for the restructuring of the university's colleges. Today, we have 15 colleges, including applied medicine, science, business, humanities, and more. Currently, we have 17,000 students at Bisha University, 80% of whom are female.”

The historic town of Taif, just east of Mecca, originally hosted a branch of Mecca's Umm Al Qura University. In 2003, the government approved the decision for the town to develop its own independent university—a challenge Taif has relished. Taif University is now a multi-discipline, internationalized institution with 19 separate colleges and three smaller branches in nearby districts. Speaking on the importance of Taif University in developing its communities, University President Hussam Zaman said, “We consider ourselves as a center of civilization and modernization of this city and the surrounding districts. It is about education, introducing new ideas and arts, and presenting new ways of doing business and economics.”

“In 2005, the late King Abdullah took the initiative to expand higher education. Five universities were established in one decree, one of them being Ha'il,” explains the university's president, Khaleel Al-Ibrahim. Having seen rapid expansion over the past 12 years, accommodating over 42,000 students across 14 different colleges, Ha'il University has taken great leaps to develop its medical research capabilities, partnering with renowned international leaders. According to Al-Ibrahim, “We have research connections with the likes of Cambridge and Nottingham University, running programs in different tracks of cancer research including working on breast cancer research.”

In the Kingdom's eastern province is the urban area of Hofuf, with a population of just over 1.5 million. In 1975, the city saw the founding of King Faisal University as a means to develop the area's vast natural and agricultural resources. According to the university's president, Mohammed Alohali, “King Faisal University is trying to capitalize on its geographic location and its proximity to big farms and food industries that are located in this region. We are also focusing on water processes as Saudi Arabia depends heavily on desalination, and we have a college at King Faisal University that examines this practice and also studies groundwater. As for agriculture, we are educating our students on diseases and insects that can affect crops and, thus, the food production chain. Additionally, we have a research center for palm trees, which is specialized in the production of palm oil.”

The expansion of public higher education providers in the Kingdom has been rapid. From just seven universities in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia today boasts 28 independent, public universities, situated in each of its key towns and cities. In turn, these institutions have created eco-systems of their own, engaging, employing, and developing their local communities, while also attracting the finest Saudi and foreign minds to their doors.