Our plan for an elite institution is 'audacious but achievable'

Official says Saudis will have an independent, world-class university by next year. John Gill reports

July 24, 2008

A £5 billion university being set up from scratch in Saudi Arabia will be the "most independent in the world", one of its founders has claimed.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) has struck deals in recent months with some of the best universities in the world, including the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, Imperial College London and, in the US, Harvard, Stanford and California, Berkeley.

The connection has been lucrative for the institutions involved, and in return they have helped Kaust set up a curriculum and select faculty.

However, questions have been raised about whether academic freedom will be respected in the kingdom and if it is right for institutions to align themselves with Saudi Arabia, given its human rights record.

In his first UK interview, Ahmad O. Al Khowaiter, vice-president for economic development at Kaust, moved to quell such fears.

"(Kaust) was chartered by the King to be an independent university, both administratively and financially, and it reports to an independent and self-perpetuating board of trustees," he said.

"In fact, it is more independent probably than any institution in the world because it will fund its own research through its endowment, which means it is independent not only in terms of its administration and selection of its people, but also in its research agenda."

Today, Kaust is a 36 million square metre building site 80km north of Jeddah, but by September 2009 it must be ready to open, barely three years after it was conceived. For some, the idea of creating a research-intensive university from scratch, with no research core to build on, sounds overly ambitious.

But Mr Al Khowaiter said the project was based on a strong strategy, although he admitted that it was something of an experiment.

"It is a big, hairy, audacious goal, but we feel that it is achievable. We knew it would be a huge challenge, but success in the academic world depends on collaboration, and our goal from Day 1 was to create a virtual network of research," he said.

Kaust's mission is to contribute to the world's scientific output, but also to transform the Saudi economy from one based on natural resources to one built on knowledge.

As a graduate university, Kaust will be structured around four academic divisions - physical and chemical sciences and engineering; life sciences; earth and environmental sciences and engineering; and mathematical engineering and computer science - to enable faculty to work together under one umbrella.

From the outset, a major challenge has been the recruitment of top-level faculty, which is where the deals with Cambridge, Imperial, Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin come in.

Mr Al Khowaiter said: "The problem we had was that you have to have a faculty to hire a faculty, and that first faculty sets the quality for the university for ever.

"We chose those universities because of their expertise and asked them to propose a curriculum and nominate faculty of the same standard they would recruit themselves."

The targets are "rising stars" and academics at the peak of their game, he said. Kaust will not grant tenure, but recruits are being offered five-year rolling contracts. "(For) the kind of faculty we're trying to attract ... tenure is not that important. Far more important is getting the resources they need," he said.

The university's founders say there will be no discrimination against women or people of different faiths. Asked recently what role Saudi women would have at the university, Nadhmi A. Al-Nasr, the interim president, said: "Exactly the same as a Saudi man."

Mr Al Khowaiter said the start-up strategy had developed a research platform to draw in recruits.

"Our first priority was to create research activity through the Global Research Partnership, a competitive, peer-reviewed process where we fund research centres for five years.

"We went to 60 of the top research universities in the world and we invited them to propose centres, investigators and fellows, and from those we selected the best.

"This network creates interactions with Kaust, the researchers will all be coming to Kaust for weeks at a time each year, giving courses, presenting results, taking postdocs from Kaust to work elsewhere. This is a way of seeding Kaust with talent, and it creates advocates around the world."

One of four global research centres, focusing on applied mathematics, will be at Oxford, while the other three will be in the US.

Although no more major deals were planned, Mr Al Khowaiter said that the 2009 deadline was tight. "The human side of putting together an organisation like Kaust out of nothing in two years is a tremendous challenge. It's been an experiment, and there's a risk involved, but you take the risk to get the reward.

"We could have done this over 30 years or we could do it in two years, and the kingdom sees an urgent need for this university.

"We hope it will succeed and becomes a model for other universities in the region and the world."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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