NEW CAMPUS IN DEVELOPMENT

Saudi Arabia 2020 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mohanad A. Dahlan, CEO of UBT Company, on “Quswa," regulatory challenges, and education opportunities in Saudi Arabia.

How does UBT regard technological advancements in its work?

Technology in education is essential; it has basically created efficiency on a large scale. We introduce technology at all level, from curriculum to operations, and the next international advisory board we are having in November 2019 is discussing the so-called “technolution," or technology evolution. The technolution of education is about how technology will take the level of education from where we are today into tomorrow. We have around 20 chairmen, chancellors, directors, and global experts coming to discuss the role of technology and how we can move from beyond standard, classic, instructional-type education to a new way and how that will look in 2030; what do we need to start now to be able to lead tomorrow. The international advisory board is dedicated to UBT, though at every session we have a different topic that UBT seeks answers to. The question on technology is an answer that will be dealt with in November in the framework of technolution. Technology is no longer a tool; it is the infrastructure of new buildings of the future. If we do not base everything on technology, we will be out of the prevailing context.

UBT designed an activity-based costing module called Quswa to measure its performance. How has that product influenced your work?

The word Quswa means “maximization," and we maximize the output of the five pillars: the book, the classroom, the students, teachers, and the curriculum. This process of internal standards is significantly more difficult than accreditation. Every program at UBT is reviewed on a semesrterly basis, and we track those five factors. We track the evaluations of students against the faculty and faculty against senior faculty. We also track the relevance of the curriculum against local needs. Projects that are related to 2030, for example, are being introduced. That is to provide greater relevance, to come even closer, and to bridge the gap between theory and what actual job requirements require one to understand in the market. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has said he wants to focus on local content and increase it, and we take that to mean local military manufacturing, local plastic manufacturing, and also not to exclude local case studies for the academic sector to use. In many universities, data like those we have from Quswa are only compiled for accreditation purposes, not actually taken into consideration. They do not drive a strategy or create a vision. We are keen to develop, and because one cannot develop something without measuring it, we had to come up with Quswa academics, Quswa operations and Quswa manpower. Everything must be challenged, and qualification is only data; it drives everything. We have followed our market practice and intuition more than data in the past, though that is no longer the case for UBT since 2015.

What model would attract you as a private player to invest in future privatization programs?

Today, the government has only offered investors, for the K12 education sector, a role effectively as real estate developers. The investor would effectively have a maintenance contract and would have little control over the actual educational process and no ability to hire and fire teachers and no control over the core business. In the case of the Higher Education sector for instance, If a faculty member is hired to teach five courses but only teaches three and still gets full pay, is it only because of job security? If job security is the goal, there is no need for Vision 2030; that also applies in the case for researchers. If productivity, efficiency and effectiveness are the goals, we should restructure the way job security works and link it directly with performance and productivity, that would definitely create a more competitive market place and drive job creation at satisfactory levels. Opening the doors for the private sector to manage public universities against agreed-upon KPIs in areas such as academia, operations, development, and strategy. This is the model I see as optimal for the privatization initiatives for this sector.

How does Vision 2030 inform your viewpoint and approach in the sector?

I see Vision 2030 as shifting the weight from the public to the private sector, enabling the private sector to become a giant by 2030, introducing many new industries including sports and entertainment for both men and women to boost the economy, and creating holdings that fund other projects that the private sector can contribute to. Personally, I have never been more optimistic in my life. The solutions may not be there yet, and it could take a long time, though the decisions will be made quickly. The higher education sector needs drastic change, and we truly need the Crown Prince's intervention, especially when it comes to educational loans. We don't need open ended scholarship programs for majority of high school graduates; they help the business model but have a long term negative impact on student quality. I am calling for students loans; those who are serious will come to UBT and create a more serious UBT after they graduate. Our reputation will improve more as the students pay back the loans. We could have more industry-driven universities with a love for knowledge and research. I am sure the Crown Prince could take this decision immediately. Universities, UBT specifically, is willing to subsidize and pay the interest on behalf of the student for the duration of their studies. We are very flexible for as long as we can continue to develop. Other universities would be willing to accept this model, especially non-profit universities that have more to gain than to lose from this model.

Looking to the future, are there any challenges you want to highlight?

Despite the appreciated efforts and attempts made by concerned ministries and government bodies to enhance the quality of private education and training institutions; private education still faces challenges and is burdened by bureaucratic procedures, overlapping regulations and duplications in authority from and between different regulation bodies related to private education and training. One challenge is that of leasing land to private colleges and universities. Our main campus is based on government-owned land, which has been the case for 20 years. The contract will end in four years, and we have been calling for a renewal. There has been a decree to lease land to universities at a subsidized or supportive rate so that we can create more universities and enable private investments. Now that we are ending our contract, that decree is no longer applicable, although its not been officially reversed. We have invested over SAR500 million on buildings and infrastructure on a piece of land owned by the government, and now for renewal we fear it will reclaim those buildings and land without taking into consideration that we initiated the building of this whole town. There were no roads, electricity, or water. We built kilometers of roads at our own expense and we powered the whole campus on power generators for over nine years. We need to have clearer legislation allowing for a subsidized lending scheme for universities, local or international; while preserving more benifit for local content (Local Universities). We have a contingency plan already been approved and granted a license from the municipality. For the new project on Medina Road, we have purchased the land in a prime location. If the Ministry of Municipality does renew the contract, we will build these extended campuses because we have reached the maximum on this leased land. We can no longer build new colleges, so the new project is happening no matter what. The female college is also happening on a new privately owned land, and it will change the way people see girls' education. We have a 550-seat auditorium, state of the art sports facilities, views of the Red Sea, and the best technology available. Challenges on the private education and training sector call for an Independent commission on Higher Education & Training. With a focus on enabling private education and private training centers. That commission should have the flexiability needed to support and enable the already operational entities today, to safely and promptly land regional and international investments waiting to be part of the K12, Higher Education, and Training Institutions of tomorrow and help grow the private sector's contribution from the total education sectorto anticipated levels and beyond at the year 2030.