From where I sit - Money is the least of their worries

May 19, 2011

Saudi Arabia has big plans for higher education. The kingdom is trying to build an academic system that recognises excellence at all levels, from research universities to vocational institutions.

Universities that focus mainly on teaching and provide wide access to first-generation students need support appropriate to their mission, and this issue is of special salience in Saudi Arabia, where the higher education system is expanding rapidly. Some of its newer institutions aspire to be research focused, but this is impractical, and probably not appropriate for Saudi needs.

The Saudi Arabian higher education sector faces substantial challenges, although its problems do not include funding. The kingdom now spends 12 per cent of the total government budget on higher education - perhaps the highest level of funding in the world. Although there are a small number of private higher education institutions, most students attend public institutions, which are subject to tight bureaucratic control. Public higher education is free, and the government wants to know how its money is being spent.

Rectors are appointed by the government, and all faculty members are government employees. Academic staff are given tenure upon appointment, making it almost impossible to fire ineffective lecturers or lacklustre researchers. More than half the system's academics are expatriates, many of them from the region, including large numbers from Egypt, where academic standards are generally low. The newer universities located away from the main Saudi cities have especially high numbers of poorly trained expatriate academics - likely providing a poor-quality education for their students.

Most observers agree that improvement is needed, but Saudi Arabia is struggling to develop an academic culture of high standards of teaching, research and service. The majority of senior academics and administrators were educated in the US or other Western countries, and they understand the challenges involved. But a key problem faced by universities - one common to many other institutions in the kingdom - is that while the top levels of leadership have the necessary knowledge and expertise, those below them often do not.

Furthermore, even the most motivated and able academics can be stymied by a culture that resists change. Building an effective academic culture and enforcing high standards is difficult in the face of an entrenched bureaucracy and in the context of a lacklustre school system. Many students need a year of preparatory work before starting university.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, near Jeddah on the Red Sea, has received much international attention. Focusing exclusively on postgraduate study and emphasising research, it is determined to join the ranks of top global universities. Its recently completed campus is without doubt world class, and it has impressive partnerships with leading universities worldwide. Yet it is far from certain that it can attract top students and staff to the kingdom - or, indeed, whether it can serve the country's needs.

Saudi Arabia's situation suggests that money is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient in building a world-class higher education system. Fortunately, Saudi leaders recognise that there are other essential ingredients in creating academic excellence. But whether the country's universities can build on a solid financial base to create a world-class system is an open question.

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