Saudi Arabia expands educational offerings at all levels

Some SR1.5trn ($399.75bn) was spent on education between 2005 and 2015 in Saudi Arabia under the rule of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a national newspaper calculated. Under his successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, education looks set to remain a priority, with the creation of a knowledge economy stated as the third objective of the Kingdom’s 10th Development Plan (2015-19). One aspect of the late ruler’s legacy was the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Project for Development of Public Education, which was established with an initial budget of SR9bn ($2.4bn) in 2008. Tatweer Education Holding Company was created to implement and deliver the project’s goals.


Furthermore, King Salman’s ministerial re-shuffle and the merger of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) are expected to herald major improvements. “Education for sustainable development means we have to think about education as a driver of economic and human development,” Mohammed Alzaghibi, CEO of Tatweer, told OBG. “We are working to nurture critical thinking, creativity and the ability to communicate with all our students, and to achieve this goal, we must start with the teachers. Teachers are the key factor if you are going to drive change.”

In recent years Saudi Arabia has also been working to ensure that more emphasis is given to vocational training as well as academic education. “There is massive spending on education in the Kingdom, but we need to ensure that training also receives the necessary investment and focus,” Saleh Al Amr, CEO of the Colleges of Excellence (CoE), told OBG. “It is imperative that we emphasise both approaches if we are serious about helping Saudis get jobs.”

However, despite the fact that those in charge of both education and training are working on parallel paths towards the same objectives, reforms take time to show results. In the latest assessments of the Kingdom’s education system, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15” saw Saudi Arabia’s ranking slip four places to 24th out of 144 countries, and in 13 out of 14 measures based on education or training, the country’s ranking fell compared to the previous year. “Business leaders consider that the quality of education could be improved, especially with respect to training in management (ranked 78th) and maths and science (ranked 73rd),” the WEF report noted.


The government’s ongoing commitment to education was underlined in the budget for 2015, when it received a quarter of the total government spending allocation, or SR217bn ($57.8bn). Although this represented a 3% increase on the previous year’s allocation, growth in expenditure in any sector was significant given that falling oil revenues resulted in the lowest growth in budget expenditure since 2002, according to Jadwa Investment. Three new universities are to be built in the Kingdom and others are to be refurbished at a total cost of SR12bn ($3.2bn), while SR22bn ($5.86bn) – more than a tenth of the total – will be spent on the 207,000 Saudi students studying at universities abroad. Another SR14bn ($3.73bn) will be spent on 164 educational projects and SR400m ($106.6m) will go towards improvements to schools and sports centres.

Schools Data

Figures from the Central Department for Statistics and Information (CDSI) show that the number of children in Saudi Arabia’s schools increased by 3% in 2013 from just under 6.5m to close to 6.7m in 2014. Saudi Arabia operates a three-tier kindergarten-through-12th-grade (K-12) structure with primary, middle and secondary schools.

While the numbers of children enrolled in middle and secondary schools increased by 1%, the number of primary school pupils went up by 4.3%, significantly above the population growth rate of 2.55%, according to figures from the CDSI.

The number of children studying in private schools between 2008 and 2011 grew at about 9% each year and currently makes up approximately 14% of the K-12 sector, analysis from the Parthenon Group indicates. Private education plays a more significant and growing role at the secondary school level. In 2013, 18.5% of secondary school pupils were educated in private secondary schools compared to 17% the year before. The total number of students enrolled in private secondary schools was 277,292, a 9.6% increase on the previous year.

Private School Investment

In Saudi Arabia the government controls the fees that private schools can charge and it can overturn proposals for any fee increase, on a school-by-school basis, if parents object. However, these restrictions do not prevent investors from operating within the domestic market. Some of the long-established providers of private education in the Kingdom include Riyadh Schools, Manarat Al Riyadh Schools and the Tarbiya Al Islamiyah Schools for Girls.

Al Khaleej Training and Education, which is listed on the Saudi Stock Exchange, was established in 1993 as a training company, but has been running schools for five years. Its Rowad Al Khaleej International School in Dammam runs a hybrid curriculum, which emphasises Islamic studies and the teaching of Arabic alongside a system based on an American approach. The US system was selected because many Saudis have studied at universities there and would like to see their children follow in their footsteps. “American education becomes attractive because the parents see it will be easier for their child to apply for an American university when they finish high school,” Alwaleed Aldryaan, CEO of Al Khaleej Training and Education, told OBG.

In November 2014 Itqan Capital announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Al Khaleej Training and Education to run a chain of private schools across Saudi Arabia. Itqan Capital, a member of the Al Baraka Banking Group, made the announcement at a regional private equity summit in Dubai. Adil Dahlawi, managing director and CEO of Itqan Capital, said, “In the past few years the education sector has become the focus of private equity funds, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s potential and its share in the regional education sector. Around 75% of all school students in the GCC are in Saudi Arabia.” The largest private education company in the world, GEMS, which is based in Dubai, has also been working with schools in Saudi Arabia. From the 2015/16 academic year, Kingdom Schools in Riyadh will offer an international curriculum at their boys’ and girls’ secondary schools after working in partnership with GEMS Education Solutions.

Tatweer & Reform

Tatweer, itself a key player in the sector, works directly with 900 of the 34,000 schools in the Kingdom. Its strategy is to create beacons of excellence in the fabric of the buildings, the approach to learning and the style of teaching. “We are focusing on the three inter-connected points of a triangle: the school, the teacher and the student,” Alzaghibi told OBG. “We focus on the school, but also within the school on the teachers and the students. It is about changing the culture. It is not just about new school buildings or new equipment, but more than that. And the task is huge.” Tatweer works with each school district to spread the message from the Tatweer schools to the wider school community.

The organisation has identified some specific ways in which the approach to education can be adapted and changed, and it is working with private sector partners to achieve these ends. Alzaghibi said, “The MoE is struggling to do something…[by] changing the role of teachers within the classroom. It is not about what the teachers know, or their level of expertise, but about how they communicate this in the classroom, and this is fundamental.”

Another aspect of the training of teachers that is being addressed is their proficiency in English. Students wishing to enrol on a university course in Saudi Arabia are required to complete a preparatory year to improve their proficiency in English as well as their study skills, while many vocational diploma courses also require a preparatory year including intensive English tuition. However, the preparatory year for Saudi students is not as efficient as it is meant to be. One of the strategies is to help teachers improve their own English language skills so that they are able to pass on these skills to their pupils and so help them to make a successful transition to the next tier of education. Tatweer is working with Pearson Education to train some 2000 teachers to achieve IELTS 6.0. An even more ambitious project will see 25,000 teachers sent to the UK, US, New Zealand, Canada or Australia for six months to improve their English and hone their teaching skills. To qualify for the programme, teachers must already have IELTS 4.5.

Stem Subjects

A key area of focus is in the teaching of the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. Another Pearson Education programme for 500 teachers of these subjects began in May 2015. In the spring of 2015 pupils in Saudi Arabia were also due to sit the international maths, science and reasoning tests known as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The IEA TIMSS is in its sixth cycle and has been conducted every four years since 1995. Its tests are taken by students in the fourth and eighth grades to produce a comparison of international education systems in these key subject areas. The data in northern hemisphere countries is due to be released in December 2016. The PISA tests are run by the OECD, operate on a three-year cycle and are taken by 15-year-olds, who sit a two-hour test covering reading, mathematics and science. PISA tests are due to take place in November and December 2015 and the results are due out in December 2016.

In the last rounds of both tests Saudi Arabia’s results were below the international average, with a science score of 436 (compared to an international score of 500) and a maths score of 394 (compared to the international average of 500). Countries in East Asia, such as Singapore and Taiwan, have tended to produce the highest scores globally.

The Saudi government has made performance on the tests a priority and has said it wants to see a top-15 ranking in TIMSS and to be in the top 20 in PISA by 2021. “We do care about PISA and TIMSS and we would like to do better, but if we are going to design policies based on this, then we have to consider the best ways to train our teachers and students to perform well in these assessments,” Alzaghibi told OBG. “When we commissioned McGraw Hill to produce textbooks for us, we included some examples from TIMSS and PISA, and about 20% of the questions in the textbook’s exercises are based on that style of assessment,” Alzaghibi added.

Higher Education

In 2014 Saudi Arabia’s MoHE produced a detailed study of trends in the Kingdom’s universities between 2009 and 2013, drawing some comparisons with international trends highlighted by UNESCO. During that five-year period the number of universities increased from 20 to 34, while the number of institutes and colleges went up by 74%, including 72 private colleges. The number of new freshmen students rose from 272,854 in 2009 to 366,216 in 2013, with female students accounting for 44.5% of the 2013 total and non-Saudis making up 4.3%. The number of people enrolled in graduate courses nearly doubled over that time.

Area of Study

For a number of years employers have complained that too many university students opt for arts or humanities courses rather than studying applied subjects. The report found that in 2013 the proportion of students studying humanities and the arts, social sciences, business or law was 44.5%, down from 48.9% in 2009. By contrast, the number of enrolled students in the field of engineering, manufacturing and construction increased from 41,978 in 2009 to 89,693 in 2013, a total growth of 113.7%.

The gross enrolment ratio (GER), which is the percentage enrolled from the eligible population who graduated from high school in the five years before the survey, increased to 52.3% in 2013, which the report says was higher than the international average of 30%. Furthermore, that figure included non- Saudis living in the Kingdom, but did not include Saudi students studying on scholarships abroad. Thereport’s authors say if those factors were taken into account, GER would be 68.4%, putting Saudi Arabia on a par with many developed economies.

Although the number of students enrolled on doctoral courses was low by regional standards, at 0.4% compared to an average of 1.4% in the Arab world, this figure increased substantially if students studying on scholarships abroad are included. When fields of research were analysed, the four most popular were medicine, engineering, chemistry and biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology, with medicine accounting for 26.7% of the total. In 2012 a total of 104,458 students graduated with bachelor’s degrees, up from 91,144 three years before.

Study Abroad

Although Saudi Arabia has paid for some of its citizens to study abroad since the 1930s, the number of students receiving international scholarships has increased notably since the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme was established in 2005. Saudi students are currently studying in 23 different countries around the world.

In the budget for 2015, the Ministry of Finance said that SR22.5bn ($6bn) was allocated for the year to fund a total of 207,000 Saudi citizens living abroad, including the scholars and their dependents and guardians. This sum represents 2.5% of the entire national budget and more than 10% of the allocation for education (see analysis).

Hussein Al Freihi, president of Al Yamamah University, told OBG, “We are seeing the pay-off from the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme with large numbers of students returning to Saudi Arabia and entering the job market. Gradually, they are replacing expatriates in technical and high-skills jobs, which is helping to boost Saudiisation.”

JOBS FOR GRADUATES: Matching university graduates with jobs remains a challenge, but there are some initiatives to help those who struggle to find work break into careers in the private sector. The King Salman Education for Employment Programme at Prince Sultan University, for example, offers courses in internationally recognised industrial software applications for Saudi Arabians with bachelor’s degrees who have been unable to find a job.

“For men, our employability rate on Cisco, Juniper, Oracle and SAP was 100%,” the programme’s project manager, Andrew Conder, told OBG. “For women, the process has taken longer, but there are signs we will reach at least 90% for SAP and 60% or more for Microsoft.” Among the 30 women who took the SAP course, some are now working for SAMA, Saudi Electronic University, Tata and SAP itself.

And higher education institutions are responding to the labour market’s needs by adapting their curricula accordingly. “There are indeed gaps between educational outcomes and labour market demands, but universities and training institutes are addressing this by offering diploma programmes and short training courses in more technical areas such as banking and insurance,” Fahad Al Dossari, director- general of the Institute of Finance, told OBG.

Vocational Training

The Kingdom is also investing substantial sums of time and money in training young Saudis who do not go to university to help them find rewarding careers in the private sector.

The Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) is the company responsible for building the training sector in Saudi Arabia by establishing public-private partnerships (PPPs) with both foreign operators and local companies.

TVTC has created a number of strategic partnerships with leading Saudi Arabian corporations. These include the Plastics Institute, which is a PPP between TVTC, the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), Saudi Aramco and several plastics manufacturing companies. In the last two years, however, the emphasis in training has shifted to the CoE approach.

International training providers with established track records in vocational training were invited to bid for the opportunity to establish and run courses in Saudi Arabia at training establishments that TVTC would build for them.

Ambitious targets have been set for these centres, which are designed to train young Saudis for hundreds of thousands of job openings. “The overwhelming majority of labour needs lie in the technical and vocational fields,” CoE’s Al Amr told OBG. “Therefore, both the citizens and the companies benefit from the opportunities provided by a comprehensive training infrastructure. The CoE will reshape the Saudi workforce by providing institutes dedicated to a wide variety of much-needed specialties.”

Payment on Results

The international training firms are overseen by the CoE company, which pays the providers in four tranches, with the final payment dependent on successful trainees finding appropriate employment at the end of the course. National Occupational Saudi Standards acts as a watchdog to help ensure that teaching, learning and assessment meet international standards.

“We align the colleges and courses to where we want to be with the economy,” Mohammed Almajed, vice-president for strategic business development at the CoE, told OBG. “We have 37 colleges at the moment and we are about to tender for 10 more, but our target by 2023 is to have trained 420,000 students, and half of those will be female students.”

The first year of each course covers English and IT, which is then followed by a two-year diploma course in a specific vocational subject. In addition, the CoE company also works with the country’s traditional training colleges and is helping them to improve their courses and management structures.

In the past young Saudis have shown a strong preference for office-based work, but as the population grows, so do their career horizons, as Al Khaleej Training and Education CEO Aldryaan has found.

Four years ago his company, which has taught accredited vocational courses to around 50, 000-60,000 people for the past decade, decided to establish a hairdressing course for young Saudi Arabian women at one of its training centres.

“From an employment point of view, there are no Saudi females in the hairdressing industry, so we brought that education to facilitate a profession that provides good income to the female sector,” Aldryaan told OBG. “We have taught about 100 trainees so far. It is growing slowly.”

Continuing Professional Development

To improve the quality and increase the productivity of the local workforce, Saudi Arabia’s leading companies and major public organisations have invested considerable time and money in continuing professional development (CPD) courses.

One such example is petrochemicals giant SABIC, which ensured every one of its 40,000 staff went through its Environmental Health and Safety Service (EHSS) workshops in 2013, according to its most recent sustainability report, published in June 2014. The company also received 10,000 applications for one of its student sponsorship schemes, which assists up to 400 students a year, and the first of its existing employees graduated in the same year from an MBA course run with the Thunderbird School of Global Management, from the US state of Arizona. In addition, 7500 staff took 425 CPD courses.

Institute of Public Administration 

The professional development of the Kingdom’s public servants is the responsibility of the Institute of Public Administration (IPA), which is based in Riyadh.

Bander A Alsajjan, the deputy director-general for development and quality at the organisation, told OBG that approximately 130,000 people took courses at the IPA in 2014, up from around 90,000 the previous year. “The programmes are about administrative development and the aim is to improve the performance of the government. We also conduct research, but focus on administrative issues in addition to training,” Alsajjan told OBG.


When King Salman carried out his first ministerial re-shuffle after ascending to the throne in January 2015, the MoHE and the MoE were merged together to form a super-ministry devoted to education. Azzam Al Dakhil, chairman of the board of NUMU Group and a board member of its parent company, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, was named as the new minister.

In Al Dakhil, who has also been a visiting fellow of the department of journalism at City University in London, King Salman has appointed a senior figure from the private sector to run the two government departments carrying the responsibility of preparing the new generation of Saudis to help build a more developed and diversified economy. Al Freihi told OBG, “With everything now under one umbrella, it will be easier to identify and resolve issues. It makes sense to combine the two ministries so that there can be a unified strategy for development.”

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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2015

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Saudi Arabia 2015

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