From Where I Sit: Emerging signs of maturity

June 24, 2010

Saudi Arabia's higher education leaders are obsessed with world rankings, but are aware that their universities do not compete well, and that rankings have not effectively measured much of what goes on in their institutions.

The country has invested heavily in higher education and is engaged in a massive expansion and upgrade programme - 28 per cent of the Saudi budget is now devoted to education.

Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh is the country's first women's university. Serving 52,000 students, it is the largest of its kind in the world. Its state-of-the-art campus, now under construction at lightning speed, will be internally connected by the country's first elevated railway, as women are not permitted to drive cars. Strict gender segregation exists in the academy as in all areas of public life.

The city's two major public institutions, King Saud University and Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, are also upgrading their already impressive campuses. Each serves more than 35,000 students, with a full array of master's and doctoral courses. Many of the faculties function entirely in English.

But expansion has created serious problems for the system.

It faces a severe shortage of qualified professors. The Saudi government, through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, provides 100,000 scholarships for overseas study, mainly at the master's and doctoral levels. Almost all Saudi students return home. Many scholarships are given to able graduate students who are promised academic jobs, but it will take time to fill staff shortages. Incentives have been provided for professors at urban universities to take jobs in the provinces - including significant salary increases - but there are not many takers.

The academic career structure creates additional problems. Most scholars are given permanent appointments upon being hired, and salary increases are largely unrelated to productivity, leaving few incentives for high performance. Teaching loads are heavy, even in universities seeking to improve their research profiles, leaving little time for research. There is considerable "inbreeding", too, with many universities hiring their own brightest graduates, offering them overseas scholarships and then promoting them up the ranks.

Saudi rectors and other policymakers recently met in Riyadh to consider these issues in the context of the desire to become "world class".

Saudis are not pleased with their lack of visibility in the international rankings, but understand that their universities are mostly new and serve many national needs. They are grappling with the idea that not all of the country's public universities can aspire to be research institutions, and that the development of ways to recognise teaching, social involvement and other functions are central to universities' missions. The idea that they can be world class in areas other than research is attractive.

The rectors discussed the idea of a "world-class university system" in which institutions would have differentiated missions that would be respected and rewarded. Not all would be expected to be research-intensive, and there would be less emphasis on the international rankings - probably a good thing given the complex needs of Saudi society.

Universities could define for themselves what is most needed for their regions, and the all-powerful Ministry of Higher Education could help to ensure a rational mission for each.

The fact that consideration is being given to how Saudi universities can compete globally while serving national and regional needs is an indication of a maturing system.

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