Interview: Khaleel Alibrahim

With innovation central to the Kingdom’s growth strategy, what advances are being made in research and development (R&D)?

KHALEEL ALIBRAHIM: R&D programmes are still a work in progress in Saudi Arabia. Universities want to do more but still suffer from the lack of involvement of the private sector. We need to show that we can be competent and reliable partners in this field so that private companies can safely invest with us and finance important programmes. The Council of Ministers has just set up a research fund with contributions from both the public and private sectors that will enable our researchers to take on new projects.

The key to international academic partnerships is to focus on specific research areas. We want to avoid projects which fail to deliver measurable results in well-defined areas of knowledge. We need to clearly identify the needs of industry in order to select the most relevant R&D projects for our country’s development. For example, research in solar and renewable energy and petrochemicals needs to be dramatically increased. We need to focus on strategic areas. In other words, if R&D is to play a more quantifiable role in the Kingdom’s economic development, we need to pay more attention to applied research rather than fundamental research. At the University of Hail, we have already signed agreements with four major industrial players in the region – Ma’aden, Tasnee, AJA Pharma and Al Marai. These programmes will be part of the National Transformation Programme and will serve as a pilot for other smaller regions.

What kinds of partnerships exist between the private sector and Saudi Arabia’s public universities to ease students’ transition into the workplace?

ALIBRAHIM: With the challenge of Saudiisation, we are working hard at equipping our students with all the tools to adapt to the demands of the private sector. It is mainly a question of helping them become responsible citizens able to set up their own career paths in an environment where the government will no longer be the automatic provider of employment.

One failure of the Saudi system is that students have a habit of seeking jobs almost exclusively in the public sector, instead of trying to work in the private sector where they are more likely to find a position better suited to their own capabilities and wishes. We want our students to have an entrepreneurial mindset that will make it possible for them to fill the gaps in the current job market. We have already launched our own entrepreneurship programme, which takes care of students from their first academic year onwards. We believe that by beginning early, they will be more apt to anticipate and identify areas in need of talent.

How are the Ministry of Education (MoE) and universities working together to improve teaching?

ALIBRAHIM: The need to improve the system has been identified, and we are working with the MoE to improve the quality of teaching. Students need to be taught differently and we need to look into new pedagogical approaches. Teachers must rethink their methodology. If we want to become a knowledge-driven society, education has to become a pillar of our economic development. We need to set up training programmes for teachers designed to help them fulfil their pivotal role in our modernisation project. This will also reduce their resistance to change.

We are also aiming to better incorporate IT to help us transition from teaching to learning. This is necessary if we want to improve educational outcomes. We already encourage our faculty to use all new relevant technologies in the classroom. Teachers already use various smart boards. We are also starting a distance learning programme aimed at students from various remote geographic areas and socio-economic backgrounds. In short, we want to give all our youth a chance to participate in our main strategic objective.