THE FIGHT FOR AN INTERNATIONAL-STANDARD EDUCATION
"Knowledge is the main source of power. It's the driving force for the society's sustainable development. It is high time we focus our attention on quality education." This was the message King Abdullah sent at a conference at the beginning of 2011 just at the same time of releasing this year’s budget with some SR 150 billion allocated for education and training programs, a 26 percent of the total budget and an 8 percent increase from the already high allocation of 2010. The largest amount ever invested in the Kingdom history.
Since his ascension to power the education reform has been at the forefront of the King’s agenda with the start of a program of controversial reforms to overhaul the state universities and schools in a rather epic effort to confront the wahabbi clerics, whose conservative side has traditionally been against any type of reforms especially those in education, their main area of influence since they helped King Abdullaziz unified the Kingdom in 1932.
EDUCATION AS THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
The main criticism to the Saudi education system has remained the same since the establishment of King Saud University in 1957 the first university in Saudi and in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf: the focus on religion and Arabic studies rather than science, physics or mathematics and the emphasis on rote memorisation rather than on the modern education techniques focused on practice, analysis and problem solving.
The program of reforms started by King Abdullah is an effort to add more science, biology or physics classes and aims to complement the larger vision of His government to diversify the kingdom from an oil dependant economy to a knowledge-based economy and create the much-needed jobs for the youth. But changes are far too slow given the pace of development of the Arabic peninsula.
To counter arrest the slow pace of changes in the real education system of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah started some six years ago the foreign scholarship program as the main pillar of a more rapid change in both, mentality and workforce qualifications to match the requirements of a modern kingdom. Only last year some SR12 billions were invested in sending Saudi students to Universities around the globe. So far nearly 1 million Saudi students have been sent abroad. The problem is that the brightest minds sometimes do not come back.
In the meantime, billions are invested locally in the construction of education facilities all around the kingdom, including remote areas; vocational and training centres grow in the peninsula at the same pace that technology expands and more teachers are being prepared and updated to confront the modern society with better teaching techniques.
New universities are born and the ones that were already there have been expanded. So are the institutions dedicated to women education and more lately science centres of excellence with King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) at the forefront of all of them.
RAMPANT YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT
For decades the government of Saudi Arabia has focused its attention in improving its education system as the Saudi population keeps on growing at the second higher rate in the entire world and it has become a challenge to employ the Saudi youth, especially in the private sector where only one out of every 10 employees is a Saudi citizen, according to a recent report released by John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh.
There are 27 million Saudi citizens of which over 60 percent are below the age of 30, many of them unemployed. Although the unemployment rate in Saudi stands at around 10 percent according to the Labour Ministry, youth unemployment more than double that number and within that, women unemployment is much higher.
One of the main reasons for the high unemployment rate is logically the birth rate compare to that of the country’s economy growth rate, but especially it falls on the reluctance of the private sector to employ Saudi citizens against foreign labour.
There are three main reasons for this. Firstly the outdated education system in Saudi Arabia that obliged the private sector to look for their researchers, scientists, engineers, lawyers or mathematicians overseas as the graduates produced at most of Saudi Universities were poorly prepared for the modern world.
The second reason is the relatively easy way of hiring expats especially from South East Asia that are better educated and accept a lower payment from those claimed by Saudis
And the third is the strict governmental laws regarding firing schemes for Saudi citizens and the preference of Saudi citizens to work for the better paid and more secure government jobs. Indeed the creation of a bigger governmental job-base could ease the youth unemployment rate but it will only promote the bureaucracy that already characterise the Kingdom and it is no longer an option with such a fast growing population. It is virtually impossible to employ all of young jobless Saudis without incurring in a much higher government deficit which current public expenditure almost doubled since the dawn of the new millennium. Without a profounder reform, the new economic cities launched by SAGIA to meet the transformation into a knowledge-economy set by the Government will also suffer from a lack of prepared workforce.
According to SAGIA, there is a real investment opportunity in the private sector education with over 90% of Saudi students educated in public schools and only the wealthiest Saudi and expatriate children attending some 840 private schools. “In the past – it states - foreign organizations have not been permitted to directly educate Saudi students. Now, for the first time, the Economic Cities are allowing students to benefit from outside skills and knowledge. In addition to traditional educational institutions, there is a clear need for a full range of educational and training services, including vocational programs, e-learning, content development, seminars, etc.”
To overcome the private sector local employment, the government launched years ago the
Saudisation program that sets quotes for hiring indigenous workforce that vary depending on the different activities of the companies. But it is failing. To keep their productivity and turnover high private companies have found ways to beat this lock and bring the international expertise they need to compete in a global world.
Sfakianakis points out that only 9.9 percent of the private sector employees were Saudi nationals in 2009, down from 13.3 percent in 2008. To put the number in perspective, according to the Ministry of Labour in 2009 of the 6.89 million private sector jobs, 6.21 employees were non-Saudis. In that same year, the ministry of Labour extended 982,420 work visas for foreigners a 50 percent increase since in four years.
Unlike ten years ago, Saudis now work in supermarkets or as taxi drivers while women education only started recently moving from the teaching world to a broader number of careers. However, many job opportunities are design only for men leaving half of the kingdom’s minds spared consciously. Although prepared they are not allowed to work. According to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Labour 80 percent of unemployed women in the kingdom are university graduates.
Without a change in the roots of the Saudi education system and the government will to establish a minimum wage and ease the hiring regulations, the local young population will lack the kind of skills that the private sector seeks for its employees and the unemployment on the private sector will remain at the same unsustainable levels it is today.
Quoting the Minister of Labour, Sfakianakis writes in his analysis that “the kingdom must create five million jobs by 2030 to meet the demands of the young, male-dominated workforce. The minister spoke of the private sector generating three million, or 60 percent, of these jobs.”
BUILDING THE WORKFORCE OF TOMORROW
The Kingdom started increasing its expenditure in education with the launch the Fourth Development Plan (1985-90) when some SR 135 billion was dedicated to improve the human resources and with the Fifth Development Plan (1990-95) with a total expenditure of about US$140 billion. Actually, since 2005 the yearly expenditure in education has doubled.
However, although Saudi stands as the 8th highest education spender worldwidemost of the money dedicated recently to education has been used to fund the erection of new universities, colleges and schools while only a low percentage of the total spending was actually allocated to education and training programs.
One of the most obvious examples of the universities and colleges construction fever has been, though, Prince Noorah University (PNU), entirely dedicated to female education and the largest university built from scratch in history. Covering almost 3 million square metres it was for a while the largest construction site of the world with some 800 cranes working 24/7 to accommodate around 40,000 students and 12,000 employees.
The PNU comes to cover a sharp gap of higher studies availability for women since 1995 when 45,000 female graduated from secondary school while only 38,000 male students did but to absorb this new female workforce will be almost a mission impossible in the current employment schemes of the kingdom that promote male hiring rather than women.
Gender segregation has been the common rule at all levels of public education. This rule is also applied to working offices in both private business and public institutions where women are allowed to work. But companies willing to employ women have to start by spending some good money to build a completely separate space for them, which discourage the female hiring from the very beginning.
The construction of new facilities will probably help to increase the availability of education to a broader base, but to change the education system itself is the main challenge that the Custodian of the Two Holly Mosques, King Abdullah, faces. And it is also the harder to overcome despite the rush imposed by the high unemployment rate of the young Saudi population that keeps on raising and constitutes a time bomb.
The unemployment rate of Saudis holding university degrees is only 7 percent, considerably lower than the 36 percent of those that only hold high schools diplomas. The dropout numbers of Saudi students, especially men, is also alarming and remains one of the Government main concerns. One of the solutions has come through the spread of more technical and vocational training centres.
FROM ROOTS TO MODERNITY
The education system in Saudi Arabia is set in accordance with Islamic educational systems, traditions and customs and has been traditionally overseen by the Ministry of Education until 1975 when the Ministry of Higher Education was created to be in charge universities, higher education institutions and the like. It also represents the government abroad in all educational and cultural affairs, through offices distributed over 32 countries.The Higher Education Council is the supreme authority for post-secondary education affairs and supervised and coordinates its institutions, with the exception of the military.
Public education in Saudi Arabia has always been intrinsically linked to religious education that promotes the "belief in the One God, Islam as the way of life, and Muhammad as God's Messenger" and has traditionally dedicated almost the same time to religious studies than to the other subjects such as mathematics, history or science together.
The Wahhabi movement in the late 18th century encouraged the spread of Islamic education in the kuttab through the memorisation of the Quran along with selections from the hadith. Only in the 19th Century some other subjects as arithmetic or Arabic reading were included in the curriculum but the illiteracy rate of Saudi Arabia remained over 75 percent for man and almost 100 percent on women in as late as the 1970´s. By 1990, however, the peninsula managed a radical turn of the rate and only 25 percent of men and half of the female population remained illiterate. The studies beyond elementary level started to spread through an informal network of scholarly lectures (halaqat) still linked to Islamic studies but in the 1920s, a small number of private institutions started offering limited secular education for boys and in 1951 an extensive program of publicly funded secondary schools was initiated. Although there were universities dedicated to religious education from an early stage, the first non-religious university was established in 1957 with the name of Riyadh University, subsequently renamed as King Saud University.
However linked to memorising the Quran verses, since 1985 the government efforts have been focused on designing more practical and attractive programs to the students own interests in both secondary and higher education.
In 1960 while 22 percent of boys attended school only and 2 percent of girls did. In 1989, from the 2.6 million students enrolled in the public school system of Saudi Arabia, almost half of them were women. There were more than 14,000 education institutions, including seven universities and eleven teacher-training colleges, in addition to schools there were vocational and technical training, special needs, and adult literacy. The system was expanding so rapidly that in 1988-89 alone, 950 new schools were opened to accommodate 400,000 new students.
Since the Fourth Development Plan the government has put its stress in addressing the technological changes and rapid developments in social and economic fields; reduce the dropout rate of students in secondary schools and prepare the population to replace Saudi Arabia's huge foreign labour with indigenous workers (saudisation). In the 1990´s the foreign workforce amounted for over 70 percent of the total. In addition, since the 1980´s the substitution of foreign teachers for locals with the creation of training institutes for teachers has also been addressed reducing the percentage successfully.
Today, according to the ministry of Higher Education there are 21 Government Universities, 18 Primary Teacher's Colleges for men; 80 Primary Teacher's Colleges for women; 37 Colleges and Institutes for health; 12 Technical Colleges and 24 Private Universities and Colleges. In the current development plan (2009-2014) the government aspires to enrol almost 400,000 new university students, up 4,5 percent while university graduates are projected to rise by 7,2 percent to a bit more than 300,000. Under this plan, the government is placing the strength on improving the technical and scientific skills of the students.
According to UNESCO, 85,5 percent of adults and 97,5 percent of youth are literate in Saudi Arabia today. However, following the in-depth analysis of Sfakianakis mentioning the World Economic Forum studies, “while Saudi Arabia moved up seven places to 21st overall in terms on competitiveness, it ranked a low 74th in health and primary education and the 51st for higher education and training.”
There is no doubt then that the government is moving in the right direction to meet the demands of the future development of the country. But it is only doing so at a much slower pace than needed.
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