KAUST resets top 10 ambitions

Head of fledgling Saudi institution restates pursuit of global excellence. David Matthews reports

June 14, 2012

Source: Getty

Displays of ambition: KAUST aims to join the global university elite, but it does not intend to pursue that goal ‘at all costs’. It also means to give more focus to helping young Saudis find meaningful employment

Is it possible to turn $10 billion of oil money into one of the top 10 science and technology universities in the world - in Saudi Arabia, and in just 11 years?

The answer is now “hopefully” rather than “definitely”, according to the president of the Gulf state’s flagship institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is approaching its third anniversary.

In May, Choon Fong Shih promoted and defended KAUST’s record and vision in the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual lecture in London, a week before he announced that he would be stepping down in 2013.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after the lecture, Shih affirmed the institution’s position in the global scientific community, despite downplaying some of its quantitative targets.

Located near Jeddah and looking out across the Red Sea, KAUST is a graduate institution that has enrolled nearly 1,200 master’s and PhD students so far. King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, founded it with a $10 billion (£6.4 billion) endowment in a bid to rekindle science in the Islamic world, and the campus was constructed in just two years.

In contrast to the rest of the kingdom, where restrictive laws hold sway, on the KAUST campus women are allowed to drive, are not required to wear a veil and are free to mix with men in class.

Top ranking ‘not an end in itself’

One of KAUST’s stated aims by 2020 is to be “comparable to…the world’s top 10 science and technology universities” in terms of publications in prestigious journals, average faculty citations and discoveries.

Shih, a former president of the National University of Singapore, says the institution is still pursuing this goal, “but not at all costs”.

“If along the way, by 2020, we are in the top 10, then fine. But that’s not an end in itself. We hope we get there, but the priority at this time is to recruit the very best talent,” he explains.

KAUST has been working hard to entice top academics from across the world with generous salaries and tailor-made labs.

To date it has attracted 102 faculty members, and this number will grow to a maximum of 220. However, it can offer only fixed-term contracts rather than tenure owing to the country’s employment laws.

But the institution will not “borrow” scholars to boost its publication rates and then “ship them back”, Shih says.

“The mission of KAUST is so important that we will not game the system” - unlike some UK universities that hire star scholars to boost their research evaluation scores, he mischievously points out.

According to Thomson Reuters, KAUST’s publication count almost doubled between 2010 (214 papers), its first fully operational year, and 2011 (412 papers). It would have to hit roughly 5,000 to be on a par with research powerhouses such as University College London, but KAUST’s mission statement says the institution focuses on “impact rather than quantity”.

In a region where young and often unemployed graduates have swollen the ranks of the protesters and rebels who have toppled four autocrats since the beginning of 2011, KAUST’s role in creating meaningful jobs for Saudi Arabia’s ballooning young population is more important than ever, Shih emphasises.

“Youth is both a liability and an opportunity,” he argues. “Job creation…was something that was always there [as an aim]. It’s just that the Arab Spring highlighted that situation.”

There and back again

Shih repeatedly refers to KAUST as a meeting point of cultures and a United Nations in miniature - an allusion to the student body’s international composition, in which Saudi students constitute a minority of 30 per cent. About the same proportion come from the Americas and Europe, another 30 per cent from Asia and the Middle East, and 10 per cent from Africa.

But with a new emphasis on training the native workforce, Shih wants 50 per cent of the student body to be Saudi. The country hopes to achieve this goal by sending locals to Europe and North America as undergraduates and then bringing them back to do postgraduate study at KAUST.

“It will take time for this to bear fruit. In a few years they [Saudi students] will be coming to KAUST, so that’s when the enrolment will go up” and there will be a “much better balance”, Shih says.

To qualify for admission to KAUST, Saudi students must study abroad because the university “will not lower standards just to increase numbers”.

It is not yet ready to offer its own undergraduate courses, Shih adds.

The number of enrolments on master’s courses has dropped from 336 in KAUST’s first year to 6 in 2010-11 and 197 in the most recent intake. Last year, 1 students enrolled on PhD courses, a fall from the previous year but more than double the number accepted in 2009. To date, the overall dropout rate for both degree levels is 10.7 per cent.

The drop in master’s numbers is attributable to the fact that it was “more straightforward for a brand-new university” to recruit that type of student, but now the focus is switching to doctorates, a spokesman for KAUST explains.

Shih will be creating at least one new job opportunity in another way: on 19 May, just over a week after his lecture and the interview with THE, he announced that he will step down as president in November 2013 when his contract expires.

The other succession hurdle KAUST faces is that of its patron, King Abdullah, who is in his late eighties and has been in poor health for the past two years (according to media reports).

The monarch has irked conservatives by personally backing and endowing the institution. In 2009, he dismissed Sheikh Saad al-Shithri, a member of the country’s highest clerical body, who publicly objected to KAUST’s mixing of the sexes and said that its curriculum should be vetted by Islamic scholars.

King’s heir may ring changes

Abdullah’s successor is Crown Prince Nayef, who is widely perceived to be more conservative and much closer to the kingdom’s orthodox clerics. Asked if he had received assurances from Nayef that KAUST and its coeducational policies would continue, Shih reels off a list of other Saudi universities named after royals.

“You have to understand there is a deep respect for traditions, for royal decree and royal charter in the kingdom,” he says, implying that what has been started by Abdullah will not be undone by Nayef.

Born in Singapore, Shih was an engineering researcher first at Harvard University and then Brown University until 1996. From 2000 to 2008, he served as president of the National University of Singapore. He is used to bracing changes in culture. Before joining KAUST, he was warned by friends that Saudi Arabia might be a culture shock too far - he would be unable to indulge his love for a glass of Bordeaux, for example.

But the role is “so much more rewarding than a Bordeaux”, Shih observes. It has been a joy to watch KAUST’s campus grow, he says, and he speaks of being engaged in a “personal quest” to build up the institution.

His global experience has left him with an appetite for cultural relativism that may concern some. Although there is gender equality on campus, KAUST’s students and faculty must follow the “law of the land” when debating religion and politics, he says.

Those laws permit the detention and lengthy imprisonment of anyone calling for political change, according to Amnesty International.

“Culture is necessarily local. And so there’s no right or wrong when it comes to culture,” says Shih, whose experience at KAUST is perhaps the most audacious chapter in a career than has crossed three continents and three very different academies.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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