Saudi Arabia Reaches Out to Foreign Colleges at Conference

April 21, 2011

Tens of thousands of young Saudis mill around in the halls of the Riyadh International Convention & Exhibition Center, where the country's second International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education took place this week.

The exhibition is part of the kingdom's efforts to improve, expand, and internationalize its universities—and thereby, it is hoped, diversify its oil-based economy and fight the unemployment that affects as much as 30 percent of its youthful population.

The country's education officials are increasingly looking abroad, sending tens of thousands of students to study at universities around the world and encouraging universities to hire foreign institutions as consultants or develop research ties.

The exhibition hall hosts 375 universities from 35 countries (including, Saudi officials note, 62 of the top 100 institutions in the rankings done by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University).

At the Oklahoma State University booth, Atef al-Rashidi, an alumnus, extols the advantages of his alma mater to an 18-year-old compatriot, Khaled al-Malik. He says life in Stillwater, Okla., the university's home, is calm, safe, inexpensive, and friendly.

Mr. al-Malik nods approvingly, then asks: "It isn't boring, though, is it?"

Mr. al-Malik hopes to study engineering, and is looking at programs abroad on his father's recommendation.

"He says that I will learn more, that it will give me experience and self-reliance. My father says he would have gone abroad if he had had the opportunity," the young man explains.

Mr. al-Malik's opportunity comes courtesy of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Program, which now finances about 120,000 Saudi students abroad. The program has been extended for the next five years.

The scholarship program "is the biggest reform program of the century," says Saud Humaid Assubayii, a member of the Saudi Shura Council, a consultative assembly to the Saudi king. "It will open the minds of many young Saudis. It will have an impact on the future." Mr. Assubayii is at the exhibition with his daughters, Sara and Maha, who would like to study psychological counseling and media in the United States.

The Challenges of Choice

The exhibition is "a chance to show programs to Saudi students," says Mohammad Al-Ohali, deputy minister for higher education. "And for them to do some smart shopping." Mr. Al-Ohali notes that when he was accepted to several university programs in the United States and Britain, back in 1985, he traveled at his own expense to visit the universities before making a choice. (He ended up at Duke University.)

For many Saudis, choosing from so many international options is a novel and daunting experience. At local universities, majors are determined largely by high-school examinations scores. The transition to a foreign academic system can be difficult, too. Many Saudis do not speak a foreign language well, and graduate from high school without fundamental analytical and communication skills, education experts say.

Oklahoma State recruited 65 Saudi students last year, says Craig Satterfield, an assistant dean. The intake doubled its Saudi student population and "quadrupled our English-language program." (Many Saudi student take a year or more of English-language classes before starting their coursework.) The university was so pleasantly surprised by the level of interest, says Mr. Satterfield, that this year they sent an expanded delegation.

The Ministry of Higher Education maintains a list of 3,000 or so approved universities around the world that scholarship students can attend. (To be added to the list, institutions must contact Saudi cultural missions in their country.)

"In the past, Saudi students used to go only to the U.S. and the U.K.," says the Saudi minister of higher education, Khalid Al Anqari. "Today we have students everywhere. We will benefit from experiences around the world, and it will help facilitate a lot of relationships." To make sure Saudi students are studying worldwide, the ministry sets a limit on how many can attend given institutions and countries.

John Horn, senior project officer at the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, says his faculty has long trained students from Africa and the Middle East in advanced cartographic methods. "Hardly any development process can take place unless you have accurate maps," he notes. Today, he says, "European universities are keen to attract students who can pay the full fees," adding that "Dutch government fellowships are not as plentiful as they used to be." Saudi students who pay full tuition, he says, allow his faculty to go on offering scholarships to other, less privileged international students.

The 650-year-old Italian University of Pavia came to last year's exhibition after a meeting between a Saudi cultural attaché and the university's president. In January, the university, which awards medical, engineering, and business degrees, received its first 20 Saudi students. It created a foundation program with intensive English, Italian, and science classes specifically for them. Recruiting foreign students is a "new phenomenon" for Italian universities, says Michela Cobelli, who works in the university's international-relations division and answers some prospective students' questions with the help of an Arabic-Italian interpreter.

And the University of Pavia is looking to forge further institutional relationships. "We'd like to create a student-exchange program. Our engineering and architecture students are interested" in coming to Saudi Arabia, says Ms. Cobelli.

Growth in Partnerships

The Italian university may well gets its wish. The scholarships to encourage Saudi students to study abroad are just one facet of the kingdom's recent ambitious higher-education plan. The kingdom had also dedicated 10 percent of its budget to higher education and is building and expanding universities at a breakneck pace. In many cases, Saudi university administrators are looking to foreign counterparts to provide expertise.

Every afternoon during the conference, Saudi and foreign university delegations meet on a platform at the end of the hall and, to the flash of cameras, sign dozens of new agreements. These are service contracts between local and foreign universities to establish joint research programs and student and faculty exchanges, set up new academic programs, and provide teacher training and curriculum development.

Umm Al-Qura University, located in the holy city of Mecca, signed three new agreements—with Purdue University, Tufts University's school of dentistry, and King's College London. It already has over a dozen other service contracts.

"Each college is encouraged to find universities to partner with, that can help it," says Saleh Basalamah, the dean of Umm Al-Qura's college of computer and information systems, which has hired Purdue University to help with curriculum development.

Mr. Horn, of the University of Twente, says his university is also interested in pairing with a Saudi institution. But even with Saudi Arabia's significant financial resources, he cautions that it is not alway easy to devise ways to transfer specialized skills, and that universities have to ensure that new programs meet academic standards and are sustainable.

"There must be substance rather than show," he says.


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