SHIFTING PRIORITIES

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | EDUCATION | FOCUS

Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is the driving force behind a number of education reforms aimed at producing critical, independent thinkers.

While complaints regarding the lack of funds for the education sector are widespread across the globe and budget cuts in this vital field have become the norm, even in developed countries like the US, Saudi Arabia is setting the bar high by rigorously pursuing several higher education reforms in line with the objectives of Vision 2030.

In its 2017 budget, the Kingdom allocated SAR192 billion (USD53 billion) for education and human resources development, making the 22.5% share the second-largest allocation of budgeted expenditures after military and security services. The allocation for education has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, growing from SAR105 billion in 2008 to SAR192 billion in 2018.

The rise in the budget allocation is backed by formidable policies and achievable targets. The Kingdom's Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program (NTP) are aimed at diversifying the economy and reducing Saudi's dependence on oil. And the Ministry of Education has a pivotal role in realizing those objectives; a key pillar of the NTP is developing human resources through improved education and training and by creating well-paying jobs in the private sector. To this end, the government has set plans to create 450,000 of these jobs by 2020. Equally important, the NTP seeks to repair an outdated education system—one that has consistently placed Saudi students near the bottom of international assessment rankings and failed to prepare them for a post-oil economy.

One of the primary roles of the Ministry of Education is to reduce the gap between the potential of fresh graduates and job market requirements. In order to achieve that, Saudi Arabia is aiming to build the research capacity of its public universities to place five Saudi higher education institutions amongst the top-100 rankings by 2030. At present, no Saudi university has managed to achieve that feat, with Academic Ranking of World Universities placing King Abdulaziz University and King Saud University amongst the top-150 universities worldwide.

Despite all the efforts, there is one striking issue at hand: the high investment in education has not necessarily translated to high quality. As Saudi Arabia's Minister of Education, Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Issa said at the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong in December 2017, “Our current education system is a product of the past, not an enabler of the future."

In order to reverse past trends, Saudi Arabia is taking solid measures: revamping its education curriculum, signing an agreement with the OECD to further deepen cooperation on the design and implementation of education reform, offering the subjects of health and physical education for female students, and commissioning a six-month professional development program for Saudi teachers in Finland. Similarly, the Ministry of Education is working with the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the US to acquire additional expertise in early childhood development, curriculum design, and new standards.
Another significant challenge that the government is hellbent to overcome is improving the quality of teaching. At present, there is an oversupply of local graduates with teaching degrees, with a high number of graduates waiting to get a job in the education sector. To fix this, the government is considering changing the criteria for new hires. Moreover, existing teachers are being offered additional training and professional development through short courses led by international experts. More importantly, under the international teacher training program set to continue until at least 2030, 1,000 teachers are selected every year to gain international training and experience in the US, the UK, Canada, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand.

By allocating almost one-fourth of the national budget, implementing systemwide policies, and undertaking initiatives that underscore modern learning, Saudi Arabia is asserting that education is a vital and strategic area for a nation with 50% of its population below the age of 25.