At a conference in Riyadh last month we were privileged to meet senior officials at the Ministry of Higher Education and hear and witness the extraordinary advances underway. It is difficult not to be dazzled by Saudi Arabia’s current investment in higher education.
Princess Noura University, an institution dedicated to the education of women, will soon move to a stunning modern campus. The university campus will extend over 8 million square meters north of Riyadh. A $5 billion dollar investment facilitated the construction of administration buildings, 13 faculties, a 700-bed student hospital, laboratories, research centers, and residential area to accommodate students and staff on the Kingdom’s first green campus. Enrollment is expected to top 50,000, making this institution the largest women’s university in the world.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), an international graduate research university opened outside of Jeddah in 2009 with a small initial enrollment. KAUST is Saudi Arabia’s first coeducational university, allowing men and women to pursue graduate degrees and collaborate on research together. The operating expenses for the first three years are covered by ARAMCO; the university opened with a $10 billion endowment and financial commitments from most major Saudi corporations. With ample resources, KAUST has set out to attract an international community of top researchers to Jeddah where they will have the luxury of state-of-the-art laboratories for their work and individual research budgets that range from $3-5 million.
The government’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Program has announced funding for 120,000 Saudi students abroad in programs that range from intensive English to PhDs. Students will be distributed carefully throughout the world to maximize exposure to different cultures and to avoid high concentrations of Saudi students in a single institution or single country. Not surprisingly, the Education Fair in Riyadh last month attracted more than 300 universities from the US, Europe, Asia, Australia as well as from within the Kingdom in pursuit of a share of this well-funded student market.
King Abdullah is building a knowledge society—increasing access to a university education, exposing young Saudis to education and cultures abroad and aggressively recruiting international talent to come to the Kingdom to teach and conduct research. One has to admire the King for the boldness and breadth of his initiatives and for his recognition of the importance of a highly educated people for a modern Saudi Arabia. Allocating 12% of the national budget to higher education underscores the seriousness of his commitment.
It is hard for most of us to imagine the possibilities that open up when there are virtually no budgetary restrictions hampering the development of higher education. But we must also wonder where all this leads in Saudi Arabia. Education cannot be separated from the larger socio-political context in which it takes place. Education, when successful, encourages new ideas and new thinking. Saudi Arabia remains a very conservative society that will not accommodate new ideas easily or quickly.
What happens when Princess Noura University’s 50,000 women begin to graduate and find themselves in a country where women do not have the independence necessary to pursue a professional career? Few Saudi women have the independence today to leave their home without a male escort from their immediate family. Will all of the university’s graduates be content with limited opportunities? How will Saudi Arabia benefit then from this important and well-prepared human capital?
Can an institution designed to bring together top international scientists to collaborate on research thrive within a walled-off campus in the desert? How long will international scientists be willing to remain in a society that places unaccustomed limitations on their personal lives? How easily will foreign women forgo their right to drive a car or adapt to the gender segregation that defines the society beyond the KAUST campus? Is it possible to create the relaxed collegial camaraderie that often generates new ideas over a glass of apple juice? It is easier to believe that Saudi students will adapt to the customs of the world outside where they can choose to maintain their customs or adapt to new ones than it is to expect international faculty and students to accept the limitations that come with moving into the Kingdom.
And what will the future be for the 120,000 scholarship students when they return from abroad? After being exposed to so many different cultures and ideas, will women easily re-integrate into a more conservative and restrictive society? Will young adults be content to relinquish the freedoms and opportunities that they enjoyed while abroad? What kind of future will a new generation of well-educated Saudis expect? What kinds of limitations will they accept?
One of the biggest challenges is certainly how to open opportunities to educated women, but this is not the only challenge. In other words, can modern education be separated from a modern culture and still accomplish important results? This is the question that looms ahead for a country where goals are not restrained by budget but where there are many obstacles to overcome nonetheless.