As Saudi Arabia seeks to modernise and diversify its economy by moving away from a reliance on hydrocarbons and identifying opportunities created by rapid technological change, the education sector is increasingly being called upon to reinvent itself.
Structure & Oversight
The Ministry of Education (MoE) is the key government agency with overall responsibility for the sector. Over the years, separate departments for higher education and education for women have been merged into the MoE.
There is also a range of separate bodies responsible for training, including the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC). The Education Evaluation Commission monitors the performance of both the MoE and the TVTC. A programme called Colleges of Excellence operates under the TVTC and is set to deliver a range of technical and vocational partnerships with international institutions.
Other important ongoing initiatives include the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme launched in 2005, which funds Saudi citizens to study at international universities, and the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Public Education Development Project, launched in 2006, which is designed to modernise the curriculum by incorporating scientific and technological developments, improving teacher training and applying the highest international education practices. The state-owned Tatweer Education Holding Company implements this programme.
By the Numbers
According to General Authority for Statistics data in 2018, of a population of 33.41m, 8.22m or 24.6% are aged 14 years and younger. Those in the 15-24 year-old group amount to 4.89m and make up 14.6% of the total. These figures suggest that almost 40% of the total population are of school or university age. The education system has four main levels: pre-primary (ages 3 to 5 years); primary (aged 6 to 11); secondary (aged 12 to 17); and tertiary (aged 18-22). Compulsory education lasts nine years, from the ages of six to 14. According to UNESCO, the literacy rate among 15- to 24-year-olds was 99.2% in 2013. The school-age population consists of 1.75m students in pre-primary, 3.26m in primary and 2.85m in secondary, making for a total of 7.86m. A further 2.44m students are receiving tertiary level education. The number of out-of-school students has also been trending down, as the latest comparable figures from 2013 show that 68,358 children and 49,179 adolescents are out of school, indicating reductions of 75% and 64%, respectively, since 2009. As of 2017 gross enrolment ratios, which refer to the number of students enrolled expressed as a percentage of the corresponding population, were close to 22% in pre-primary, over 100% in primary and secondary, and 69% in tertiary education. Of the approximately 7.7m school students, 6.7m (87%) are in public schools and 1m (13%) are in private schools. There are over 30,000 schools in the Kingdom, of which 86% are public and 14% are private. In the 2013-17 period the number of public schools grew by 1%, and the number of private schools by 13%.
Expanding the education sector is one of the main priorities of Saudi Vision 2030, a national plan launched in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with the overall goal to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy and develop key sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. Under Vision 2030 the emphasis on improving access to quality education will enable the population to meet rising labour market demands and contribute to a thriving economy. To move towards these Vision 2030 objectives, the government also launched the National Transformation Programme 2020, which identifies some key mid-term objectives to be pursued by the MoE. One goal is to upgrade curricula with the aim of driving up maths and science scores by 21% and reading scores by 7% by 2020. Of concern to the authorities is the fact that Saudi students have performed relatively weakly in globally-applied assessments, such as the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMMS). Saudi Arabian TIMMS scores dropped between 2011 and 2015 by 7% in maths and by 10% in science at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. In both maths and science Saudi Arabian students also scored below the international and regional benchmark.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which measures the reading proficiencies of 10-year-olds across 50 countries, ranked Saudi Arabia in 44th place. Saudi fourth graders scored 430, below the PIRLS Scale Centerpoint score of 500. At an international education conference in Hong Kong in December 2017, Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Eissa, former minister of education, said that, “Education is key to the success of Vision 2030. Our current education system is a product of the past, not an enabler of the future. A tradition of simply transmitting existing knowledge is no longer adequate. We need to rethink education from preschool through to graduate schools.”
Officials noted that in 2018 Saudi Arabia would for the first time participate in the OECD’s education test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment. The MoE announced that the agreement had been signed with the OECD to “explore opportunities to further deepen cooperation in the design and implementation of education reform in Saudi Arabia”. The ministry was also reported to be working on a project with the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the US, focusing on early childhood development and curriculum design.
An important element of the new approach is a greater emphasis on critical thinking, believed to be an essential skill for future economic and social development. Regarding this new style of curriculum, Al Eissa told local media that, “It is giving the students a chance to participate, to question, to open their eyes to different ideas. This is the way that students will engage and... develop their own critical thinking skills and communication skills.”
The authorities have also set a target of achieving 100% literacy by 2024. Although literacy is already at 94.4%, high by historical and regional standards, the MoE is aiming to completely eradicate illiteracy by increasing enrolment, opening adult education centres across the Kingdom, and introducing neighbourhood learning programmes and educational and literacy campaigns in remote parts of the country, in addition to offering financial incentives to encourage adults to enrol in courses.
Another objective formalised in the National Transformation Programme 2020 is to improve the recruitment, training and development of teachers by increasing the time spent on continuous professional training every year. The number of students participating in extracurricular activities is to be increased from 15% in 2016 to 55% by 2020, and enrolment in kindergartens is to be brought up from 13% to 27%. While the authorities are seeking to increase the skills of local teachers, they are also working to boost the number of Saudi nationals employed in the education sector, thereby reducing the reliance on expatriate teachers.
In November 2018 the Council of Ministers announced the government would be not renewing employment contracts for approximately 71% of the expatriates working in the education and health sectors, and instead hire qualified nationals to replace them. According to estimates by the authorities, there were around 1.23m public sector employees in the Kingdom, of whom 95% were Saudi citizens. These figures indicate that there were approximately 60,000 foreign nationals working in the public sector, a number which is set to be reduced as existing contracts expire.
At a time of some fiscal pressure caused by several years of low oil prices, the announcement of the Kingdom’s education budget for 2018 was taken as an indication that the sector continues to be seen as a high priority. In fact, education spending has grown at notably rapid rates in recent years. In the last decade it has almost doubled from SR105bn ($28bn) in 2008 to the budget of SR192bn ($51.2bn) set for 2018. The 2018 total included SR14.7bn ($3.9bn) for the Two Holy Mosques’ Overseas scholarship Programme, which supports Saudi students who attend prestigious overseas universities.
Also in the total was a SR9bn ($2.4bn) allocation for Tatweer Education Holding, which is tasked with delivering the education component of Vision 2030. Additionally, SR1.4bn ($373.2m) was allocated for women’s colleges. According the World Bank, education spending was 5.14% of GDP, and constituted 19.3% of the total government budget in 2008. However, as of 2017, education accounts for 25% of the Kingdom’s overall budget.
Saudi Arabia is the largest education market in the GCC region. According to Riyadh-based consulting company Strategic Gears, the K-12 private sector market was valued at $5bn in 2017 in terms of annual sales, while the UAE’s market is valued at $4.3bn, Kuwait at $1.2bn and Oman at $1bn. Despite the size of the market in Saudi Arabia, private institutions make up a relatively small proportion of it, with approximately 87% of students attending public schools.
As the Kingdom seeks to shift the balance between public and private education, the volume of the expansion in terms of student numbers, schools and fee revenue is likely to be significant. This is exemplified by Vision 2030 and the MoE’s overarching goal of raising education quality, as the private education sector is expected to grow to $12bn by 2023. Meanwhile, according to a report by Research and Markets, the higher education sector grew at a single-digit percentage compound annual growth rate during the 2012-17 period, largely driven by the establishment of new universities. The report notes that private sector investment in education is greatly encouraged in the Kingdom.
In the international schools category, mainly in relation to expatriate children, Saudi Arabia has seven international schools per 1m inhabitants, compared to the GCC average of 31 per 1m. Dubai has a total of 281 international schools, while Abu Dhabi has 151, Riyadh has 83 and Jeddah has 82.
The London-based Times Higher Education (THE) University Rankings, which are published annually and cover over 1000 universities around the world, ranked Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University (KAU) as the GCC’s best university in 2018. KAU was also positioned in the second tier of global rankings, which includes those placed 201st to 250th. Alfaisal University, located in Riyadh, placed in the fifth tier (501st-600th). THE highlights that universities in Saudi Arabia have generally embraced the global trend towards digital and technological changes in higher education.
“The Kingdom is moving up in different rankings,” Sultan Meo, a professor at KAU, told local media. “The Gulf governments, including Saudi Arabia, have invested heavily in higher education and research during the last decade,” he added.
In contrast to other countries in the GCC, where both public and private schools are struggling to recruit the teacher numbers that they need, in Saudi Arabia there is a surplus of graduates from local colleges and universities with teaching degrees. “The ratio of students to teachers is quite low,” Al Eissa told local media, “We have more teachers than we need, and the waiting list for those who are looking to get a job in the education sector is too high.”
He added that the government was working on plans to improve teacher skills, and another option under consideration was to only hire graduates with more advanced qualifications – such as master’s degrees in education rather than just bachelor’s degrees. If chosen, the new approach would be applied within two years. The MoE was also funding 1000 teachers per year to travel abroad for training in countries like the US, UK, Canada, Finland, Australia and New Zealand. This programme, designed to upgrade and modernise teaching methods, is scheduled to continue until 2030.
In 2017 the MoE launched a programme known as Future Gate, which is designed to promote digital learning in schools. During the same year a pilot project was conducted across 150 schools. One important aspect of the project is that students and teachers are given handheld tablets to use as a source for educational materials.
The pilot initiative was expanded to 1500 schools in 2018. The MoE has confirmed that the aim is to eliminate all K-12 textbooks by 2020, and bring all teaching materials online. This technological change is conceived of as being part of a shift from teacher-centred to student-centred instruction. In March 2018 the government also announced a decision to create a National Centre for e-Learning (NCeL). NCeL’s role is to monitor the quality of e-learning in education and to support a knowledge-based economy in line with Vision 2030.
In 2016 the government, through the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, signed a memorandum of understanding with Cisco for the US technology company to develop a Country Digitisation Acceleration programme that is aligned with Vision 2030 and designed to apply digital technology in four main areas: health care, education, smart cities and cybersecurity. Cisco said it would work with the MoE to introduce virtual connections between teachers and students to improve educational methods and classroom experience. In October 2018 Salman Faqeeh, managing director of Cisco Saudi Arabia, told local media, “Cisco has introduced an innovative virtual education solution to remote areas in different provinces in collaboration with the MoE. Since the beginning of the current academic year, some 14 virtual classrooms have been set up in seven cities around the Kingdom. This includes one broadcasting centre in Jeddah.”
One of the issues facing the Saudi education system across both vocational and academic streams is whether it is producing students with the right set of skills to meet the needs of employers. “Skill gaps are inevitable in a rapidly changing marketplace, and those institutions that are nimble and flexible when it comes to accommodating new skills will thrive,” Mohanad Dahlan, CEO of Saudi Arabia’s University of Business and Technology, told OBG.
The successful modernisation of academic institutions greatly depends on their ability to adapt to the rapid changes that are taking place in terms of technology and the business environment. Naif Al Obaid, a former head of the Saudi Arabian branch of Education for Employment, a charitable organisation focused on youth training, also told OBG that there is often a degree of mismatch between the two, and that there is a subsequent need for initiatives that improve collaboration between the academic and business worlds. Education for Employment operates a number of partnerships, one of them being a programme run together with the US financial company Citigroup, which is designed to equip young people in urban contexts with career-readiness tools through a form of apprenticeship.
A wide range of other collaborative relationships continue to be increasingly available within the digital sphere. There is also an extensive network of collaborations between the Saudi Arabian authorities and a variety of international universities and research centres. Over the past several years Saudi Arabia has invested significantly in funding scholarships for Saudi students and also helped to support a number of research projects.
For example, in 2018 the state-owned oil company Aramco pledged $25m for a five-year research agreement with MIT. Babson College, a private business school in the US, contributed to setting up the Saudi Arabia-based Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship. Other recipients of similar agreements include George Washington University and Harvard.
The growth outlook for the Saudi Arabian education sector is driven by demographic change and an expanding economy, with the overall aim of satisfying the increasing need to adjust and adapt to high-quality technological change. Delivering the education component of Vision 2030 will no doubt be a challenge given the speed of change across the global economy, but it is clear that the political will and the budget allocations necessary to achieving these targets are already in place.
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