"An Oasis of Research and Knowledge"

The vision of King Abdulaziz University is to be “a leading contributor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through a world-renowned, innovative, socially relevant and comprehensive university with sustainable global excellence providing a distinctive Saudi contribution to the globalisation of higher education”.

Named after the founder of Saudi Arabia, KAU was established in Jeddah in 1967 with the aim of spreading higher education to the western part of the kingdom. Just 68 male and 30 female students were admitted in its inaugural year, and in its second year KAU opened the Faculty of Economics and Administration.

Today, the student body has grown to about 55,000 full- and part-time undergraduates as well as 93,000 studying through traditional asynchronous distance learning and 6,628 involved in a new e-learning programme. Additionally, there are 7,256 postgraduates. The university has 24 faculties and institutes ranging from medicine to maritime studies.

Abdulrahman Al Youbi, president of KAU, says: “More than four decades of hard work have turned the university into a unique oasis of scientific knowledge and research, with comprehensive theoretical and scientific fields of specialisation, unmatched colleges and research centres, and unparalleled academic achievement. Students can study at KAU knowing that they are getting a world-class education, being taught by world-class researchers and have at their disposal the very best facilities and equipment.”

However, it is not just those who work at the university who recognise its outstanding qualities. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16, KAU is the highest-ranking university in the Arab region. It appears in the 251-300 group – up from 351-400 in 2014-15 – scoring in the top 10 per cent for “international outlook”. Of its 4,328 academic faculty staff, 1,925 are from outside Saudi Arabia and 21 per cent of students are international.

“KAU has made remarkable progress in improving its international academic reputation,” says Larry Smith, emeritus professor in higher education management and leadership at the University of New England, Australia, and co-editor of the book Higher Education in Saudi Arabia: Achievements, Challenges and Opportunities(2013). “Ten years ago [in 2006] it did not even make the top 3,000 universities in the Webometrics rankings.” Abdulfattah Mashat, KAU’s vice-president for development, acknowledges that this rankings leap is significant: “This is very important to the university in particular and to Saudi Arabia in general as it reflects the hard work being invested in education.”

Smith says that in recent years KAU has made structural improvements: “[It] has modified its management structures to place a major emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning for its students, and on the strong leadership of academic staff to enhance their role as facilitators of quality learning.” For example, he says, the university has established teaching- and learning based deanships, “as opposed to traditional discipline-based deanships”, in areas such as postgraduate studies and distance learning. “By putting a strong focus on the quality of teaching and student learning, KAU has improved the quality of students’ outcomes,” Smith adds.

Focus on collaboration

Additionally, he says, a significant factor in its development as a university of international standing has been KAU’s “overt focus on collaboration on major research projects with staff of leading international universities. This is not just a matter of the status that is brought to KAU through the reputation of its collaborators, KAU academic staff greatly enhance their knowledge and skills through the mentoring that occurs through the collaborative projects, and so are able to provide greatly enhanced standards of teaching and research supervision at KAU, as well as developing the capacity to lead major research projects themselves.”

Despite its clear progress, KAU is far from resting on its laurels. Mashat sets out some of the university’s ambitions listed in its strategic plan: developing standards of assessment for student performance; working through research and innovation to create solutions to problems that will improve lives, communities and the world; providing high-quality research and development programmes; integrating students’ learning with experiences in the world beyond the classroom; cultural contributions; garnering the trust of society and the corporate world; through strategic partnerships, engaging locally, nationally and internationally to heighten

KAU’s global impact for the greater good; and optimal investment of university resources and capabilities. Mashat says that these goals will be achieved “by unlimited hard work, commitment and substantial investment in infrastructure”.

But he also adds modestly that the university believes it has “a long way to go to be positioned among the best universities in the world”. KAU is clearly making great strides in the right direction.This is due in part to what Smith describes as “major strategies for benchmarking its teaching and learning processes and outcomes against leading international universities in their major discipline areas.This means that the benchmarking process is continually stretching the university and its staff to think outside the region and to compete on the international stage.”

Of course it also helps that KAU, he says, is “very well financed in comparison with most other universities in the region [with an estimated endowment fund of $1 billion (£690 million)] and thus has the money to ensure high-quality resources and to attract leading academics and research staff”.

To learn more about research at KAU, click here