Education has long been a key sector in Saudi Arabia and a major recipient of government funding. Recently, focus has shifted to boosting the efficiency and quality of services, while also integrating technology in order to achieve the government’s ambitious goals for the sector as part of Saudi Vision 2030, the country’s economic diversification plan. To this end, the authorities are increasingly turning to the private sector for support, creating new opportunities for foreign investors. The year 2019 saw various international players enter Saudi Arabia’s private general education segment, which is still largely underdeveloped.
Structure & Oversight
The education sector is developed and regulated by the Ministry of Education (MoE). Having absorbed the former Ministry of Higher Education in 2015 to better align the policies and curricula of the general education and higher education segments, the MoE is the country’s largest employer, with a combined workforce of around 800,000, including teachers, management and administrative personnel.
Under Vision 2030, the MoE is tasked with educating Saudi Arabia’s youth and preparing them for the jobs of the future. With these objectives in mind, the MoE has set about overhauling curricula and raising education standards nationwide. The government is also looking to increase private sector involvement to support the sector’s ongoing expansion.
Expanding technical and vocational training colleges is another important priority under Vision 2030. The Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) is the body responsible for overseeing the Kingdom’s technical colleges, secondary institutions and vocational training centres. In 2013 the TVTC created the Colleges of Excellence programme, which aims to increase the performance of technical and vocational training through the establishment of partnerships with international institutions.
The MoE and TVTC are in turn monitored by the Education and Training Evaluation Commission (ETEC), an independent body that reports directly to the prime minister. The ETEC works alongside the National Centre for Assessment in Higher Education, an independent authority that administers standardised tests for university entry.
Saudi Arabia’s education system is divided into four levels: pre-primary (ages 3 to 5); primary (ages 6 to 11); secondary (ages 12 to 17); and tertiary (ages 18 to 22). Compulsory education lasts nine years, from the ages of six to 14. According to the most recent data from UNESCO, gross enrolment rates – which refer to the number of students enrolled expressed as a percentage of the corresponding population – were 21.2% in pre-primary, 99.8% in primary, 110.1% in secondary and 68% in tertiary education in 2018.
That year there were 6.3m students enrolled in primary and secondary education in the Kingdom. Of this total, 659,504 students, or 10.1%, were privately educated. The remaining 5.6m students attended public institutions. That year there were 32,027 government-run primary and secondary schools with 434,593 members of teaching staff, and 4666 private schools with 67,457 teachers.
In the tertiary segment there were roughly 2m students enrolled in 2018, 91,863 of which attended private higher education establishments. The remainder were enrolled in public institutions, including 224,275 students undertaking technical and vocational studies. King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah and King Faisal University in Hofuf were the largest institutions, with 186,078 and 173,680 students, respectively.
Reforms & Investment
When Vision 2030 was announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2016, the long-term goals for the sector included raising standards, shifting education spending to the private sector and helping at least five Saudi institutions break into the top-100 universities in the world. The $72bn National Transformation Programme (NTP), which runs from 2016 to 2020 and is the first phase of Vision 2030, has also set targets for the education sector. These cover a range of areas, such as raising attainment levels in maths and English by 15%, increasing pre-primary enrolment rates from 13% to 27.2%, achieving an adult literacy rate of 97.5% and increasing private school enrolment rates from 6% to 15%.
In recent years the education sector has consistently received the largest share of public spending. In 2020 the government allocated SR193bn ($51.5bn), or 18.9% of the total budget, to education. This figure remains unchanged from 2019, although that year it represented 17.5% of the budget. In 2019 education spending equalled 6.2% of GDP. Although this is a decline from roughly 10% in 2013, as the government has increasingly sought to boost private sector involvement in recent years, it is still in line with the OECD average of 6.3%.
Roughly 87% of schools in Saudi Arabia are operated by the government. Although the private segment is rapidly expanding, public school enrolment rates continue to rise. According to the “GCC Education Industry” report published by regional investment bank Alpen Capital in 2018, enrolment rates in the public segment increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.7% between 2011 and 2016, and are predicted to rise by 3.5% per year between 2016 and 2020. The pre-primary segment was the fastest growing, with a CAGR of 15.8% between 2011 and 2016. The report noted that, while there is growing awareness of the importance of pre-primary education in Saudi Arabia, enrolment rates are still the lowest in the GCC.
In 2019 brokerage firm Colliers predicted that Saudi Arabia’s education sector would have to absorb an additional 800,000 students by 2030, which prompted the MoE to invest heavily in the construction of new schools, opening 719 institutions in 2018 and a further 500 in 2019. With an average of 13 pupils per teacher at the primary level and 11 at the secondary level, it will also be important to recruit teaching staff to support rising student numbers. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia compares favourably to other countries such as the US and the UK, which had around 14 and 15 pupils per teacher, respectively, at primary schools, and 15 and 17 at secondary schools.
While there is a focus to increase capacity to keep up with a growing number of students, improving the quality of education at state-run schools is also a priority for the MoE. Like other countries in the region, despite a high level of funding, Saudi Arabia performs relatively poorly in global assessments. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial survey administered by the OECD, which is taken by 15-year-old students and measures proficiency in maths, science and reading. The Kingdom was in the bottom third out of 79 countries in the most recent PISA, conducted in 2018, scoring below the OECD average in all three subjects, indicating significant room for improvement.
The government has been taking steps to improve the country’s educational outcomes. The ETEC was created in 2017 to address concerns about the quality of public and private education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. It is responsible for developing new systems for the evaluation and accreditation of institutions, teachers and programmes. The ETEC also sets standards and requirements for educational institutions to be awarded accreditation from international bodies.
The work of the ETEC complements ongoing reforms to the public school curriculum aimed at encouraging critical thinking and creativity. In January 2019 the MoE announced that, beginning in the 2019/20 academic year, public schools would run classes in critical thinking, philosophy, financial literacy and law. This forms part of the Kingdom’s attempt to move away from an emphasis on rote learning and broaden students’ skillsets.
As another sign of reform and modernisation, in August 2019 the MoE appointed Ibtisam Al Shehri as the first female spokesperson for public education in Saudi Arabia. Al Shehri, an English-language teacher with more than 17 years of experience in public education, brings a new approach and perspective to the sector, which is increasingly looking to engage with and empower women.
The MoE is also recruiting female teachers to improve efficiency and increase the quality of teaching in the pre-primary and primary segments. In September 2019 the ministry announced that, for the first time, female teachers would be permitted to teach male pupils across 1460 government-run schools. This reform is expected to save the public education segment around $533m, as teaching spaces for young learners are desegregated.
While Saudi Arabia’s education sector is the largest in the GCC in terms of the number of students and schools, the private segment is one of the least developed. As of 2018, 10.1% of students in Saudi Arabia attended private education institutions, compared to 90.5% in Dubai, 74% in the UAE and 40.9% in Kuwait. The number of students in internationally accredited schools is even lower, with only 378,000 of the 659,504 privately educated students attending these establishments.
Although the share of students attending private institutions has seen a marked increase from 6% in 2016, there is still considerable progress to be made in order to reach the government’s target of 25% by 2020. Private school enrolment rates among locals in Saudi Arabia remain low compared to Abu Dhabi (57%), Dubai (37%), Kuwait (21%) and Oman (14%), suggesting there is significant room for growth.
With a per capita income of around $20,000, affordability and effective price strategies are essential to increasing private enrolment in Saudi Arabia. According to Colliers, the optimal price range for international private schools in the Kingdom is between $9500 and $16,000. This falls in line with new tuition fee regulations introduced in June 2019, which set limitations on the cost of private and international schools. The maximum fees are now SR45,000 ($12,000) for pre-primary instruction, SR40,000 ($10,700) for private schools and SR60,000 ($16,000) for international ones. “Private and international schools require permission from the MoE to increase fees, and are only able to do so every two years,” Ibraheem Al Turki, CEO of Ataa Educational Company, which operates 13 schools in and around Riyadh, told OBG. The regulations came into effect after concerns were raised that private and international schools had become unaffordable for the expatriate community.
Enrolment rates for tertiary education institutions have seen strong growth in recent years, increasing at a CAGR of 8.4% between 2011 and 2018. In 2018 there were 1.8m students enrolled in university or college, compared to approximately 1m in 2011. That year there were 28 public universities and colleges, and 34 private establishments in the Kingdom, according to the General Authority for Statistics. Although the number of private universities has risen steadily, the segment only accounted for around 5.2% of intakes in 2018. Nevertheless, enrolment in private higher education institutions increased at a CAGR of 15% between 2016 and 2020, outpacing the public sector, which grew at an average of 0.4% per year.
Under Vision 2030 the government aims to have at least five Saudi institutions ranked among the top-100 universities in the world. It has already made significant headway in achieving this goal: in the 2020 QS World University Rankings, two Saudi Arabian universities – KAU and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals – featured in the top 200, at 186th and 200th place, respectively. King Saud University in Riyadh was not far behind, at 281st.
Although university enrolment is steadily increasing, there is consensus that tertiary education programmes need to be more aligned with skills gaps and the needs of the labour market. Regional media reported that an estimated 63% of Saudi universities only offered programmes and courses focused on human sciences or Islamic studies. This is set to change as employers increasingly look for technology-based skills. “Automation is becoming increasingly important globally. Higher education in Saudi Arabia should prepare young people for this reality by developing skills centred around new technologies,” Mohanad Dahlan, CEO of the University of Business and Technology, told OBG.
Despite this, enrolment rates for professional and vocational training colleges have remained low. While higher education enrolment stood at around 61.1% in 2016, according to the most recent MoE figures, enrolment in vocational education was just 5.1%. In comparison, the OECD average enrolment rate for vocational education was 41%. Though there is still progress to be made, the TVTC has already succeeded in raising the Kingdom’s enrolment rates. In 2018 there were 104,525 new students attending technical and vocational colleges, representing a 21.4% increase on 86,108 the previous year.
As of 2018 there were 124 public technical colleges, 99 public vocational institutes and 897 private training colleges accredited by the TVTC. In recent years the TVTC has sought to expand the number of technical and vocational colleges in Saudi Arabia, with the goal of opening 100 new institutions between 2014 and 2020. The MoE has also converted existing higher education institutions into vocational colleges. In December 2019 the ministry announced that several community colleges would be converted to provide vocational training linked to the requirements of employers, as part of the government’s plan to realign the tertiary education system away from academic study and towards the demands of the labour market. At the same time, the MoE plans to reduce the number of admissions to theory-based higher education programmes.
This comes alongside the TVTC’s renewed focus on the quality of training to ensure that colleges and programmes are able to meet the requirements of its growing number of strategic partners. The TVTC has approximately 30 strategic partnerships with domestic businesses, including the national oil company Saudi Aramco, petrochemicals manufacturer SABIC, the Saudi Electricity Company and the Saudi Arabian Mining Company.
Education technology (edtech) is playing an increasingly important role in Saudi Arabia as a teaching and learning tool, as well as a way to improve the quality and accessibility of education. In late 2017 the MoE launched the Future Gate initiative to promote the use of digital learning tools in the classroom. The countrywide programme aims to roll out edtech infrastructure across all schools in both the public and private sectors.
Future Gate is being implemented by Tatweer Educational Technologies Company (TETCO), the technology arm of the MoE. The initiative, which has a scheduled completion date of 2021, is divided into three phases: an initial phase working with 150 schools; a scaling-up phase covering 1500 schools; and a final phase to reach remaining schools. Within a year of its launch the initiative had engaged 310 schools, 7273 teachers and 104,000 students.
One of the projects rolled out as part of Future Gate is the National Education Portal (iEN), a virtual classroom platform that uses video and interactive technology to connect teachers and students from across the country. Equipped with projectors, smart cameras, interactive whiteboards, and digital educational materials and activities, iEN has particularly helped to improve education access among disadvantaged groups. In December 2018 the MoE opened the Kingdom’s first virtual school for students with special educational needs and disabilities, in the city of Jazan. The introduction of virtual schools is complemented by training courses for teaching staff. The MoE aims to train 1000 teachers in digital technology skills by 2022.
The Future Gate initiative presents numerous opportunities for private sector involvement, particularly from technology companies. In 2019 TETCO signed agreements with Microsoft and Japan-based multinational cybersecurity company Trend Micro to provide services for the programme. As the country continues to implement new technologies across all sectors, these partnerships are likely to continue. “As part of the nationwide digitalisation strategy, Vision 2030 is pushing the development of e-learning, online courses and digital educational content, including platforms in the Arabic language,” Ibraheem Almuaqel, rector of Saudi Electronic University, which provides a combination of classroom-based and online education, told OBG.
Although there are encouraging developments, many of the reforms being introduced by the MoE to modernise Saudi Arabia’s education system and better prepare the country’s youth for the workforce of the future are likely to take years to bear fruit. Nevertheless, the Kingdom remains one of the largest and most attractive markets in the region for investment, given the considerable room for growth in the private segment and the need to construct new schools as enrolment rates continue to rise. With strong government support for privatisation as part of Vision 2030, foreign investment is set to grow in the coming years. Moreover, the opportunities for private sector involvement are not limited to traditional education providers, with the rollout of edtech initiatives opening the door for technology companies to develop innovative new systems to modernise teaching and learning.
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