Saudi Arabia's Education Reforms Emphasize Training for Jobs

Plans include expanded enrollments and vocational and technical degree programs, but societal challenges loom

Markus Kirchgessner, Laif, Redux Pictures

At a vocational institute in Saudi Arabia, managed by a German development agency, students are trained to be teachers in technical schools.
October 03, 2010

At the end of August, about 200 unemployed Saudi university graduates congregated in front of the Education Ministry, in Riyadh. The young men were there to demand government jobs; they held a banner calling for an end to their "oppression." The rare public protest highlighted the tensions and expectations that make higher-education reform in this kingdom a daunting prospect, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the government is dedicating to the endeavor.

Saudi Arabia's oil wealth may be enormous, but it has created an economy with very little diversification and a bloated, underproductive public sector. The reformist King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and others know that even with its sizable resources, the kingdom can no longer offer cushy administrative jobs to a majority of its booming population, and that to prosper the country needs educated young Saudis with marketable skills and a capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship. That's not generally what Saudi Arabia's educational system delivers, steeped as it is in rote learning and religious instruction.

A few weeks before the protest, the Saudi Council of Ministers, which sets national policies, passed the country's latest five-year development plan. It calls for spending about $200-billion on expanding access to schools and universities, and for substantially increasing vocational training by 2014.

In the past seven years, under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has spent lavishly on higher education. About a quarter of each yearly budget goes toward education and vocational training; this year's allocations, amounting to $36.5-billion, represent a 12.4-percent increase over those of 2009. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has sent more than 90,000 Saudis to pursue graduate studies abroad. The number of public universities in the country has risen from eight to 24; a few of them now appear in world university rankings.

The development plan calls for nearly doubling the number of university students, from 860,000 to 1.7 million, by 2014. The king and his allies are serious about the need to improve and expand higher education, says John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, who helped draft the plan. "They understand there is a problem that has to be fixed."

Many Saudi university students continue to pursue degrees in fields such as social studies, religious studies, history, and literature, despite the labor market's being saturated with social-science and humanities majors.

Mohammad Al-Ohali, deputy minister of educational affairs, says that is why the Ministry of Higher Education has placed "more emphasis in the last three or four years on technical, engineering, science and medical programs," as well as "fields of study related to the job market," such as administration and computer science. "These are the main focus of the new universities we have established," he says.

It may take a while, however, for students' expectations to line up with the new educational policies. The protest in front of the Education Ministry was organized by graduates of Arabic-language programs to demand teaching jobs in government schools. "Anyone who has a degree from a Saudi university aspires to a government job," says Mr. Sfakianakis. Government clerks earn around $1,500 a month, have job security, and, with the public sector's "relaxed working hours," can often take a second job, he adds.

While a job in public administration remains most Saudis' ideal, the country's private sector is overwhelmingly powered by the foreign workers who make up about a third of the country's 28 million residents. The government is imposing minimum quotas of Saudi employees on companies and decreeing that certain businesses, like gold shops, travel firms, and car dealerships, be staffed by Saudis. It considers this "Saudization" of the private sector necessary to limit dependence on foreign labor, create a more dynamic economy, and stanch rising unemployment.

But "one of the main issues that the private sector faces," says Mr. Sfakianakis, "is the fact that there aren't enough well-trained Saudis in the kind of jobs that are needed."

That holds true both for high-skilled jobs in finance, engineering, and medicine and for the service sector, where many Saudis are reluctant to take jobs as, say, taxi drivers or hotel receptionists, and expect higher salaries than those paid to expatriate workers.

"It is not the scarcity of jobs that is the biggest problem," says Mr. Al-Ohali. "It's a very complex problem related to people's habits, to people's culture."

Official unemployment in Saudi Arabia stands at almost 11 percent. Unofficial estimates place it as high as 35 percent among men in their early 20s with high-school diplomas. In addition to university graduates who must accept that there are no government positions for them, the relatively new category of young, urbanized job seekers of modest means and limited skills is what worries Saudi authorities. That jobless cohort is destined to swell as the 40 percent of the population that is currently under 15, along with more women, enters the labor force.

Accordingly, the government plans to finance a major expansion in vocational training as part of its development plan. It calls for the construction of 25 technology schools, 28 technical institutes, and 50 industrial-training institutes.

Relying on Research

The plan also suggests spending $240-million in grants for research projects each year, and calls for the establishment of dozens of research centers and technology incubators at universities.

The Ministry of Higher Education has already overseen the establishment of 14 university research centers specializing in such areas as chemical engineering, energy research, and nanotechnology, says Mr. Al-Ohali. The centers, evaluated by international advisory boards, are supported by government funds for their first five years. The ministry hopes to increase their number to 25, he says.

Saudi education officials regularly invoke their determination to turn the kingdom into a "knowledge economy." In 2009, the king created the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, as it's known, and personally donated its $10-billion endowment, saying he hoped it would "become one of the world's great institutions of research."

The university, Saudi Arabia's only co-educational institution, offers doctoral degrees in chemical and biological engineering, applied mathematics and computational science, and environmental, chemical and computer science, among other fields. Its nonacademic operations are managed by the oil company Saudi Aramco.

But Kaust is an elite, and largely foreign, institution. Neil Partrick, a lecturer at the University of Westminster, in England, and a consultant on Middle Eastern politics and economics, estimates that only 8 percent of Kaust's students are Saudis.

The university is "a platform for foreign-company-assisted R&D," he says. "If it goes hand in hand with foreign companies setting up shop in the kingdom, then indirectly that might benefit Saudi nationals." But even if cutting-edge research takes place on the campus, he says, the question is, "Does that permeate out to the wider economy and society?"

Although King Abdullah and his appointees in the Ministries of Education and Higher Education may feel that changes are necessary, Mr. Partrick says, they face "enormous constraints" imposed by entrenched bureaucracy and religious conservatism. In addition, among members of the ruling family are "tension about the direction of the country and politicking around these issues. There's a problem in joining up [government] departments and following up on plans."

How Fast? How Much?

Another hurdle is "the nature of the education that's being received at an early age and the pressure against changing it," says Mr. Partrick. At least a third of Saudi primary and secondary education is taken up by religious studies.

In the 2007 "Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study," produced by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, Saudi schoolchildren ranked near the bottom of the 48 countries surveyed. Mr. Sfakianakis, of the Saudi bank, says government officials are well aware of the need to improve mathematics and science proficiency, and that about 30 percent of the Education Ministry's budget is going toward retraining teachers in primary and secondary schools with that in mind.

But how fast to move to reform the educational system, and how much to rely on foreign expertise and the private sector, are complicated questions for the kingdom's rulers.

In recent years the government has encouraged the private sector to enter the higher-education market, and dozens of private universities and colleges have been established. The pan-Arab newspaper Dar Al Hayat recently reported that the Higher Education Ministry is studying 120 more requests to establish private institutions.

"One of the major objectives is to create competition to improve the quality of higher education" and eventually to reduce the tremendous cost of free public higher education, says Mr. Al-Ohali, the deputy minister of educational affairs. With that in mind, Saudi authorities support the establishment of private universities through loans and land grants, he says. A recent royal decree stipulated that the government would pay half the tuition costs of all students pursuing private higher education.

Saudi universities have also signed more than 300 agreements with counterparts in the United States, Europe, and China, Mr. Al-Ohali says, under which foreign faculty members teach at the Saudi institutions, which design and evaluate the curriculum together with their foreign partners and engage jointly in research.

Even so, the kingdom's leadership has "decided not to push ahead the model of Qatar and the model of the United Arab Emirates," says Mr. Sfakianakis, referring to Persian Gulf emirates that have opened their doors to foreign branch campuses. In Saudi Arabia, "They want to have higher education in the hands of the state, and the curriculum to be controlled by the state."

That state faces a gargantuan task. Creating better-skilled, employable Saudi university graduates, says Mr. Partrick, involves reforming the entire educational system, restructuring the country's labor market, and encouraging a "cultural shift in terms of attitudes toward work—what Saudis will do—and education—what it's appropriate to teach to Saudi children."

All that will have to take place at the same time that increasing numbers of young Saudis pursue higher education. "As we are expanding access," says Mr. Al-Ohali, "there is a lot of emphasis not to lose quality."