Saudi Arabia has the largest education sector of all Arab Gulf states, boasting many of the best universities in the region, and even the world. Its institutions always perform well in a ranking of Arab universities produced by Times Higher Education.
While many Saudis have traditionally gone abroad to study in Europe or America, some have returned with top-notch degrees to go into academic teaching. The number of universities has rocketed upwards in recent years to accommodate the huge numbers of students. Today, the Kingdom has about 30 public universities, with two more currently in construction, and many other private institutions. In 2013 there were 1.67 million students enrolled in public universities, 1.06 million of those at undergraduate level.
Most courses in Saudi have two semesters from September to June, with an optional summer session, though technical and vocational courses mostly have three semesters.
The country’s strong focus on science and technology has brought many Arab international students: there were more than 71,500 enrolled in 2013, mostly from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. Though some institutions have restrictions on accepting international students, they are generally welcomed into the leading universities.
There are higher numbers of female students than male students in Saudi; in 2015 the student population was 51.8 per cent female. However, admission for women is restricted to select institutions or girls’ colleges, and those institutions which are co-educational have segregated classes.
University funding and salaries in Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has dedicated large sums of money to the university sector, meaning it is able to attract foreign academics by its excellent research opportunities. Academics in Saudi Arabia are some of the best paid in the world; the overall average academic salary in 2008 was more than £5,100 per month. The country is projected to need 100,000 university staff by 2030, but today has about 50,000.
Wealth invested in Saudi Arabia’s higher education comes mostly from the country’s vast oil reserves. In 2014, the government approved a five-year plan worth over £16.64 billion to develop the whole education sector. In addition, education is the largest item on the national budget, clocking in at almost £44 billion (24 per cent of the total) in 2014.
International staff and students in Saudi universities
Scholarships are available for international students, as part of the application process. The main language of instruction is Arabic, but medical instruction is in English and some private institutions also teach in English. Saudi Arabia has also proved a popular destination for many overseas staff because of the salaries and facilities on offer.
As an example, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has an endowment of about US$10 billion despite only being set up in 2009. Universities in the country actively attempted to attract highly cited foreign researchers in particular, in order to boost their performance in research metrics. Alfaisal University, for example, achieves among the highest scores for THE’s internationalisation metrics, which look at the proportion of international students, staff and research.
“Vision 2030”, the government’s plan to diversify the country away from its reliance on fossil fuel revenues, includes a desire to have at least five Saudi universities among the top 200 universities in the world based on international rankings.
In 2009, the government also announced “Afaq”, or Horizons, a 25-year plan to improve higher education opportunities for women, boost scientific research, and tackle the country’s shortage of scientists in critical fields. Among other measures, it will create new universities, allow foreign researchers resident in the country to apply for Saudi citizenship, and has promised a huge amount of investment to the sector.
Academic careers in Saudi Arabia
The head of a university is known as the president. There are typically a number of vice-presidents, who look after areas such as graduate studies, scientific research, academic affairs, business and so on. Academics have a range of job titles depending on their seniority, from research associates to more senior roles such as professors and assistant professors.
The typical career journey for academics in Saudi Arabia starts at the bachelor degree, followed by a master’s and then a PhD. A bachelor’s normally lasts four years, and follows the US system with a wide range of general education and elective courses, culminating in specialisation. A master’s typically involve one year of coursework and up to three years of study, though this varies. Doctorates vary, and some programmes give greater emphasis to independent research with a more extensive dissertation.
Saudi universities also offer career opportunities beyond teaching and academic research, including roles for English language speakers, particularly at medical institutions. Laboratory technicians and other technical specialists work to maintain equipment and assist science students. Librarians disseminate information and provide support to students, researchers and lecturing staff. The admissions team manages the enrolment process, and may include a team to co-ordinate alumni association activities. Finance officers safeguard a university’s assets, creating financial plans and implementing financial regulations and procedures. Mechanics are required to work on campus maintenance.
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