LONDON — Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University has risen six places on the list of world’s best young universities, according to an annual ranking released by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), global higher education think tank.
Every year QS releases a ranking of the world’s best universities under 50 years of age. It is designed to emphasize the potential and excellence of universities without decades or centuries of established reputation, and to identify which of them might disrupt, or indeed have already disrupted, the global elite.
This year’s ranking indicates that Asia and Australia are home to the world’s strongest recently-formed institutions. King Abdul Aziz University is ranked 23rd.
King Khalid University has also risen in QS’s ‘Next 50 Under 50’ ranking. It jumps from the 91-100 band to the 71-80 category this year.
Asian institutions take all of the top six places, while six of the top-10 places are taken by universities with a heavy STEM focus.
Australia is the most-featured nation on the ranking, with its young universities taking 10 of the 50 available places.
Sixteen of the 50 available places go to Asian institutions. Europe is the most-featured continent, with 18 universities.
QS’s Head of Research, Ben Sowter, said: “The rankings suggest that young universities focused on strong STEM-based research programs stand the best chance of disrupting any established global elite.”
The Saudi education system has many problems, some of them endemic. Whenever issues such as unemployment or terrorism are examined, Saudi education and its future becomes the focus for observers. And yet education is a key area of concern for the kingdom, even if we were only to go by the size of the ministry of education. With more than 500,000 teachers, it is the country’s third largest employer after the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior. It oversees a sprawling network of 25 public and 27 private universities and about 30,000 schools. Clearly, this ministry is central to the kingdom’s future. But its report card leaves much room for improvement.
The focus has long been on the curriculum, right from 1954, when the education ministry was established. There is a continuing debate about the emphasis on religion and languages at the expense of science and mathematics. Many Saudis see their education system as affected by political currents, with senior scholars fiercely shielding the curriculum from those who want to bring about change. There is a particular watchfulness towards a colloquial term “awakening” in reference to political Islam because this is seen as the cause of extremist tendencies. Unfortunately, this never-ending cycle of debate delays progress on the necessary curriculum changes. Until this matter is resolved, there will be discontent within the education system.
But the curriculum is not the only issue. Dilapidated school buildings, inadequate teachers’ salaries and long school holidays are problems too.
There is a perception that the lack of good teachers will result in students failing to get even a basic education, but who will still go on to university. This, many Saudis fear, will perpetuate the problem because these university students will get hired to work in the education sector and so the cycle will continue.
The education system is stagnating, producing graduates who do not meet international standards of excellence. This is why the kingdom’s teachers are required to take proficiency tests and complete training courses although there is no set schedule for these exercises. But it may take a generation at the very least to rectify the situation.
Another problem is the number of places in higher education, especially in the natural sciences. Students are usually poorly qualified on entry despite a high grade point average. They are competent up to a point but they are not used to questioning, show a preference for rote learning, take longer than they should to complete a task and can cope with specific numerical routines but not problem solving. These factors illustrate a gap between two cultures: the school versus university ethos.
Some factors that feed into this include studying in English, a lack of personal commitment to college education and inadequate study skills. The issue of studying in English is significant because physics, chemistry and biology traditionally use English as the basic language that directs approach, methodology and analysis. Although Saudi students may receive Arabic versions of the English text, some concepts do not translate well and the student can fall behind quite quickly.
Add to this the lack of commitment to a college education and it becomes clear that even the minimal time invested by a young person in their studies may go to waste. Often, this is because of the pull of traditional family values, which mean the student is obliged to put family before higher education.
The 2011 Nitaqat Law making Saudisation of the workplace mandatory is greatly affected by the human capital “output” from the kingdom’s education system. The fact that Nitaqat requirements need to be met means that employers will hire not who they need but those who will enable them to fill quotas to receive the maximum benefits allowed by the system. But for anything to change, it is Saudi employers who need to recognise that they are jeopardising the kingdom’s future by hiring employees who cannot do their job.
It seems that Saudi students are also frustrated by the current system. The common reasons cited by students who drop out of their first year in a Saudi university are the lack of information about what the degree programme involves, opportunities available for training in the relevant sector and typical employment opportunities.
Hundreds of thousands of Saudis have gone to universities in the United States and Europe to avoid the frustrations of the system in the kingdom. Abroad, they actually learn to analyse using rigorous methods and are able to play important parts in a knowledge-based society. However, overseas study may cause many of them to develop lives away from the kingdom, a phenomenon that the late King Abdullah referred to as “the Saudi brain drain”.
He called for their return to help fix the country’s troubles across many sectors of the economy but this did not produce many results.
Overall, the Saudi education system needs to be overhauled urgently. There are internal pressures and the urgent requirement to produce the best and brightest at home. Time is not on Saudi Arabia’s side.
Dr Theodore Karasik is an analyst on the Gulf, specifically the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is based in Dubai. Article first appeared in the National
Saudi Arabia – Princess Nourah University (PNU) achieved a bronze medal in the Wharton-QS Stars Reimagine Education Award 2015 for its academic partnership with Dublin City University. The partnership excelled among 500 participating projects competing for the prize during a celebration at the Wharton Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The Wharton prize is an international prize concerned with creative educational methods that promote learning. The prize was developed through a partnership between QS for university ranking and the Wharton Center at the University of Pennsylvania, to promote innovative projects in higher education. The partnership project between PNU and Dublin City University includes three academic programs: Marketing Technology and Innovation; International Finance; Master of Science in Business Administration.
The three programs with Dublin City University are directly under the supervision of the College of Business and Administration at Princess Nourah University. These successful programs are unique for their interactive and versatile teaching methodologies. They utilize traditional classroom instruction as well as online and distant learning with the help of faculty and staff from both universities. The Technology and Innovation as well as the International Finance programs are offered to highly quali ed undergraduate students who are very well capable of completing the programs. The Master of Science in Business Administration, one the rst graduate level programs at the university to be launched in partnership with an international university, exposes enrolled students to the best practices in the world of business with the help of faculty and staff from both Princess Nourah University and Dublin City University.
A proposal to establish sports education colleges for Saudi women failed to win enough votes in the kingdom’s top advisory body, a council member who drafted the plan said Wednesday.
The proposal needed 76 out of 150 votes in the Shura Council, but fell three votes short. It called for the establishment of colleges that would train Saudi women in how to teach fitness and well-being.
Lina Almaeena, who is one of three council members that submitted the proposal, said 57 members voted against the measure, with the rest abstaining.
Some of the kingdom’s ultraconservatives shun the concept of women’s exercise as “immodest” and say it blurs gender lines.
“Obviously there are people who have different schools of thoughts. I don’t know what the rationale exactly is,” Almaeena told The Associated Press a day after the proposal failed to pass.
She has long been an advocate for women’s access to sports and founded Jeddah United in 2006, the first sports club in Saudi Arabia to include women.
Physical education is still not on the curriculum for Saudi girls in public schools, though some private schools offer physical education classes and sports to female students. There are also plans to license dozens of female-only gyms.
The kingdom discourages unrelated men and women from mixing and women cannot openly exercise in public.
Despite lingering attitudes against women’s participation in sports, the kingdom sent women to participate in the Olympic Games twice, doubling its female contingency to four in the 2016 Rio games.
Almaeena said she expected the proposal to have greater backing by Shura Council members because it supports the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan, which is a blueprint for a wide-reaching government overhaul to develop the society and the economy. It was introduced under King Salman by his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Vision 2030 specifically calls for encouraging the participation of all citizens in sports and athletic activities. It says currently 13 percent of the Saudi population exercises once a week. The government aims to bump that up to 40 percent and raise life expectancy from 74 years to 80 years.
Almaeena said that in order to improve women’s health and participation in sports, there have to be women who can teach young girls about fitness and well-being.
Saudi women who want to study sports medicine or physical education at the university level have to study abroad. The country’s General Sports Authority offers certificates in some courses.
Though the college proposal failed to garner enough votes in the Shura Council, Almaeena said strides have been made in recent years. Women were first appointed to the Shura Council in 2013 by the late King Abdullah as part of a wider effort to gradually improve women’s rights.
The Shura Council does not have authority to pass legislation, but its proposals can become law with the backing of the Cabinet and the monarch. Almaeena said the Ministry of Education can still choose to adopt the proposal.
“I’m very optimistic because there is a new vision … but of course I would have wished it would have passed,” she said.
With the drop in oil prices compelling the Saudi Arabian government to make steep spending cuts, U.S. colleges and universities are closely watching what will happen with the government's foreign university scholarship program, which has sponsored tens of thousands of students to study overseas since 2005 and has stimulated a more than seventeenfold increase in the number of Saudi students at U.S. universities in that time. The nearly 60,000 Saudi students studying at U.S. universities in 2014-15 represent the fourth-largest group of international students by country of origin at U.S. universities, after students from China, India and South Korea.
The scholarship program is popular with Saudi youth and with U.S. universities, which have grown to depend on an increasing flow of Saudi students to meet their enrollment targets. A recent analysis from Moody’s Investors Service on the impact of reduced funding and stricter eligibility requirements for the scholarship program noted that “even modest enrollment fluctuations could have a meaningful effect on some universities.”
But is the program shrinking, and if so, by how much? Intensive English-language programs -- the front line for many students coming to the U.S. -- are reporting declines in Saudi student enrollments, and the Saudi government has sent signs that it wishes to make its scholarship program more academically selective and tie it more closely to the country's labor needs. How those changes will play out, however, remains an open question. Officials at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, the government entity that administers the scholarships in the U.S., have not responded to numerous interview requests.
In absence of official confirmation or clarification, the question some university officials have is whether they should expect a modest tightening of a scholarship program that has in the past been massive rather than selective in scale, or whether stricter academic requirements are being used as a way to make major cuts to the program, limiting it to only the most academically prepared students attending a relatively elite class of universities. Some are bracing for the latter; others think it is unlikely there will be dramatic cuts in a program that is popular and has come to be viewed as an entitlement by many young Saudis.
Here's what is clear. The number of Saudis coming to intensive English programs, a first indicator of changes in enrollment patterns, is declining. Cheryl Delk-Le Good, the executive director of EnglishUSA, the American Association of Intensive English Programs, did a flash survey of members on this question last week. Of the 119 institutions that responded (about a quarter of EnglishUSA's total membership), about 80 percent said they experienced declines in Saudi enrollments from the previous session -- the one ending in December -- to the current session. Those declines ranged from 11-50 percent, though most were in the 11-20 percent range, said Delk-Le Good (who emphasized that the survey is not scientific, but was intended to get a pulse on what's happening in the field).
The survey also asked whether members had seen evidence -- in the form of fewer applications, for example -- of declines in Saudi student enrollments for the upcoming session. About 85 percent of respondents had. What's also clear are some changes in the vision of the scholarship, which started with aims of improving relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and which is now being refashioned in an attempt to help meet the kingdom's economic needs. In 2015 the Saudi government rolled out a new slogan, “Your Job and Your Scholarship,” to reflect a new strategy of tying scholarship awards to employment offers in the kingdom after graduation. For example, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage announced agreements to provide 421 jobs in the tourism sector for students who study abroad with specializations in these fields. Medicine is a major focus: in June the Ministries of Education and Health entered into an agreement to provide 20,000 overseas scholarships to students in medicine or health-related fields.
The Saudi government also seems to be making a push to place students at top-ranked universities. A Feb. 1 article published in the state-run Saudi Press Agency (in Arabic), first reported internationally by Reuters, outlined changes to the application process for the subset of scholarship recipients who apply for government funding after enrolling in universities overseas. To gain a scholarship, students would need to be in one of the top 100 universities, or 50 programs, globally, according to lists developed by the Saudi Ministry of Education (the ministry just published lists to such effect). Undergraduate students would need to have finished at least 30 credit hours with a minimum 3.0 grade point average while graduate students would need a 3.3 GPA. Things get fuzzy around this issue of lists -- what lists the Saudi government is using in placing scholarship students and what those lists mean exactly. In December, CBC News quoted Peter Halpin, the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities, discussing a change in the next cycle of the scholarship to limit funding only to those students who are attending top 200 institutions worldwide, as measured by the global ranking produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
"That affects all the future Saudi Arabian students who may choose to apply to our universities because none of our universities are currently in the top 200 list," Halpin, whose association represents universities in Canada's maritime provinces, told Inside Higher Ed.
The Ministry of Education's Arabic-language website for the scholarship program includes links to multiple national and global rankings (Shanghai, QS and U.S. News). It also includes the ministry's own list of outstanding universities by field and country --108 U.S. universities are listed for life science, for example, and 134 U.S. universities for engineering.
SACM's website, meanwhile, links to a much longer list of recommended universities. Regardless of how these various lists are used, it does seem clear that the Saudi government wants to strengthen academic eligibility requirements for the scholarship.
“Our most recent meeting [with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission] was at the end of the summer,” said Juan Tavares, the director of international admissions and services at Western Michigan University, which enrolls about 450 students from Saudi Arabia, a number that Tavares said has been growing every year. “What we learned at that time -- oil prices were not as low as they are now -- but they were going to make some changes, they were going to make selection processes more strict.”
Tavares said that as of Feb. 9, Western Michigan’s applications from Saudi Arabia were down by 43 compared to the same time the year before. “All indications that I’m looking at -- the drop of applications, the changes they’re making, the more selective they’re becoming, clearly we’re expecting to see a drop in the growth at least,” he said.
“My impression is that they’re trying to be very calculated in scaling the program back without cutting it off, and still having a flow,” said Sara Kurtz Allaei, the assistant vice president for international services for Indiana University and executive director for international affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
“I would not predict precipitous decline, at least not at IUPUI, given that our range of programs appears to be very well aligned with the goals that we have seen of the new program,” specifically the focus on health-related majors, Allaei added.
The Saudi government scholarship program was created by the late King Abdullah in 2005 and is scheduled to continue through 2020. Regardless of what ends up happening, the uncertainty and speculation regarding the impact of policy changes made in Riyadh has underscored just how much U.S. universities have grown to rely on a large supply of fully-funded students from the kingdom.
“One of the things that we’ll struggle with, that other schools will struggle with as well, is you have a few countries that have these large scholarship programs, with Saudi Arabia being the primary country in that regard,” said Scott Scholes, the associate vice president of enrollment management at Idaho State University, which last fall enrolled 542 students from Saudi Arabia. “These sponsored students come in paying the full out-of-state tuition rates. It’s not like oh, OK, well, we’ll make inroads with this other country that is looking to sponsor all their students to study abroad.” In other words, he said, “there’s not a replacement for the niche that Saudi Arabia was holding.”