How Saudi Arabia can create an academic oasis

Philip Altbach on three problems hindering the kingdom’s institutions in their pursuit of world-class status

May 22, 2014

Saudi Arabia has placed considerable emphasis on ensuring that at least some of its universities achieve world-class status. A few Saudi post-secondary institutions are emerging as research universities, but if they are to be successful and if Saudi institutions are to achieve world-class status, careful attention must be paid to the academic profession. While Saudi Arabia provides adequate salaries, there are at least three basic structural and organisational problems that make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the academic profession to fulfil its potential.

The first problem is rigid Civil Service arrangements governing academic appointments. These grant every Saudi citizen who is appointed immediate tenure – with little possibility of losing the post for poor performance. Further, there are few ways to reward highly productive staff because salary increases are generally tied to length of service and rank rather than to performance.

There are also issues around foreign academics, who make up 42 per cent of the total workforce in Saudi Arabian public universities. All are appointed on renewable term contracts, and none can aspire to tenured posts or even long-term contracts. Nor can they hope to obtain Saudi citizenship. Many spend their careers in the kingdom. The incentives for non-Saudi professors to perform adequately are high, because they want to have their contracts renewed. But there is little incentive for them to build institutional loyalty or to perform at their top levels.

Last, there is confusion about the publishing of doctoral dissertations. Counter-intuitively, some universities discourage young faculty members from publishing research based on their dissertations. They permit publication but do not “count” such articles for promotion from assistant to associate professor. Other institutions, however, offer incentives for publications in high-impact journals even if they are based on dissertations. Things are clearer everywhere else in the world, where young PhDs are encouraged to publish research from their theses and, in the humanities and social sciences, to turn dissertations into books.

This last challenge is easy to solve. Saudi higher education authorities could encourage young scientists and scholars to publish in reputable refereed journals, regardless of whether the work comes from a dissertation or not, and count these publications towards promotion.

The other two challenges require more serious consideration of long-standing policy. Saudi Arabia could, as many other countries have done, decouple faculty appointments from the Civil Service and give universities autonomy in making appointments, evaluating academic staff and, within guidelines, setting terms of promotions and perhaps dismissal, and salaries as well.

Reforming the terms of appointment, contracts and evaluation of non-Saudi faculty, while requiring changes in current regulations, would not be difficult. It would be easy to extend the length of contracts for non-Saudi faculty who look to spend their careers in Saudi universities, provided that they perform well.

The academic profession in Saudi Arabia has considerable potential for excellence and productivity. Many have earned doctorates from top universities abroad. Salaries, benefits and academic facilities are in general reasonably good. Yet bureaucratic and administrative structures stand in the way of world-class performance.

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