Given pride of place in both the Kingdom’s long-term development plans and in its annual budget, education in Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a major expansion – both in terms of quantity and quality. A range of new projects were launched over 2017 and will continue into 2018, from university construction to curriculum development. Indeed, the centrality of education and training to the country’s ability to achieve other developmental objectives is now widely recognised by planners, policymakers and investors alike, with important consequences for the sector as a whole.

Plans & Programmes

The Kingdom’s education system has come a long way since the country’s foundation in 1932, when public education options were limited. Taking its cue from the Egyptian school system – itself modelled on the French – the then-Directorate of Knowledge imposed a mandatory six-year term of elementary education, followed by five years of secondary education, though enforcement was stymied by a shortage of school places.

The first technical school and school of higher learning were founded in 1949, with a range of other colleges established in the 1950s. Illiteracy remained high, however, at between 92% and 95% during that decade, with absenteeism a major issue. In 1953 the Ministry of Education (MoE) was founded, and was tasked with revamping the system, which at that point only males could attend. In 1961 education of females was mandated, with the beginning of a programme to build schools and colleges for girls.

The following decades saw expansion continue, with the aim of developing more teacher-training colleges and higher teaching standards. By the 1980s and 1990s four different agencies were involved in the sector: the MoE, with responsibility for planning and policy, as well as for male elementary, intermediate and secondary schools; the General Presidency of Girls’ Education (GPGE), overseeing female learning; the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), established in 1975 and in charge of the academic tertiary sector; and the General Organisation for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVT), with a remit for those areas.

Sector Reforms

There have since been further sectoral reorganisations. In 2002 the GPGE was brought under the remit of the MoE, with a deputy minister of education for women’s affairs appointed to handle female educational issues. Then, in 2015 it was announced that the MoHE would also be incorporated into the MoE, a process aimed at consolidating educational development under a single roof.

Meanwhile, the GOTEVT has undergone reform, with a number of bodies now responsible for this type of education and training. The Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) is the main umbrella organisation for the segment, under which the Colleges of Excellence (CoE) and the Saudi Skills Standards programmes function. Monitoring both these departments and the MoE is the Education Evaluation Commission (EEC). The EEC includes within it the Public Education Evaluation Commission, the National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment, the National Centre for Assessment in Higher Education (Qiyas), and the TVTC Awards and Evaluation Department.

Saudi Arabia’s CoE programme is the result of a scheme rolled out in the 2012/13 academic year, under which a number of technical and vocational partnerships were established with international institutions. Some 37 contracts were issued to foreign providers to establish colleges in the Kingdom.

Study Abroad

Another highly significant development was the launch of the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme in 2005. Under this, students at the higher education level have the opportunity to study in international institutions on programmes fully funded by the Saudi government. By 2015 some $6bn had been earmarked for this scheme, with plans to support around 207,000 students over the next decade. The programme has since been tightened, however, due to budgetary constraints and a shift towards encouraging enrolment at domestic institutions. Nonetheless, studying abroad remains popular for Saudi students, with the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Europe major destinations. Indeed, in the 2015/16 academic year Saudi Arabia accounted for the fourth-largest source of overseas students studying at the post-secondary level in the US, with 105,992 enrolled, or around 60.8% of all Saudi students studying abroad.

Public Education

A further important development occurred in 2006, with the launch of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Public Education Development Project. This programme was introduced as part of an effort to improve the quality of the public system, bringing the curriculum up to date with the latest technological and scientific developments. The programme also stresses the need for increasing teacher-training facilities and implementing global best practices. It is administered by the Tatweer Education Holding Company, which was established by royal decree in 2008. Although an arm of the government, the company has its own transport, catering, building and other services wings, in addition to its directly educational aspects.

The public education system includes five levels: kindergarten, for ages three to five; the elementary level, for grades one to six; intermediate level, for grades seven to nine; and secondary school, which brings students up to the age of 18. The technical and vocational stream can begin at age 15, or the start of the secondary level. After the age of 18, students may join either university or technical and vocational paths.


Some 7.28m students were enrolled in educational institutions of one level or other in 2016, with 3.73m in primary, 1.68m in intermediate and 1.86m in secondary education, according to the General Authority for Statistics (GaStat).

The male/female balance consisted of 3.75m males and 3.53m females across the three levels, with 1.91m boys to 1.82m girls in primary, 872,105 to 810,404 in intermediate, and 961,888 to 898,228 in secondary. The figure was down on 2015, when 7.45m were enrolled, but slightly up on 2014, when the total was 6.8m.

At the same time, 1.3m students were enrolled in technical colleges – 1m in boys’ colleges and 21,800 in girls’ – while 145,000 males and 65,200 females were enrolled in training institutes. The latter includes government vocational training schools, private schools and strategic partnership institutes – schools established through a partnership between the TVTC and private entities. In higher education, a total of 670,000 male and 730,000 female students were enrolled in universities. In addition, a number of specialist institutes, such as the Institute of Public Administration, Prince Sultan Military Faculty of Health Sciences, and the Jubail and Yanbu Industrial Colleges also enrol higher education students, bringing the total of those in the tertiary sector to 830,000 males and 793,000 females.

Growing Population

These numbers are drawn from an overall population that has been expanding rapidly in recent times. At the time the first schools for females were opening the in the 1960s, the population of the Kingdom was around 4m, rising to 5.8m by 1970, 9.9m in 1980 and 16.4m in 1990. As of 2017 GaStat figures put the population at 32.6m. This comprises 20.4m Saudi and 12.2m non-Saudi residents, or a 62:38 ratio of nationals to foreigners.

The Saudi-national population is also very young. By mid-2017, 2.1m people were between the ages of five and nine, 1.9m in the 10-14-year range and 1.8m in the 15-19-year range – meaning that 28.5% of the Saudi national population were between the ages of five and 19. According to a PwC country profile on the Saudi education system, released in March 2017, this means that by 2020 there will be some 4m Saudis in the zero-to-six age group, 8m in the six-to-18 demographic and 3m aged 18-24. Some 125,000 more places are likely to be required in the Saudi education system by that date. This places organic growth pressure on the education system as the current youthful population moves through the Kingdom’s educational structure. This will lead to an increasing demand for more schools, colleges, teachers and trainers in the years ahead.


The government has long recognised the need for expansion to meet organic growth, while also seeing that the Kingdom’s institutions of education and training must adapt to meet the changing requirements of the modern, knowledge-based economy. Thus, education forms a central part in the government’s long-term development plan, Vision 2030, which was unveiled by then-Deputy Crown Prince, now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in April 2016. The plan’s three basic themes – creating a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation – all depend on the success of the education strategy, and have major implications for it.


Fundamental to the strategy is economic diversification. The need for this has recently been reinforced by declining oil and gas prices, with hydrocarbons accounting for some 87% of the Kingdom’s budget revenues. Economic growth slowed as a result, with GDP expansion dropping from 3.6% in 2014 to 3.5% in 2015, according to World Bank figures. Despite efforts to push oil prices back up through global production cuts, they remained below $50 per barrel for almost all of 2016 causing the economy to slow further to a more moderate 1.7% growth.

Although GDP data for 2017 had not been released at the time of publishing, the expectation is for sluggish growth, with a report published by the World Bank in October estimating 0.3% expansion for the year. However, the worst may be over, with oil prices passing the $60 per barrel mark in December 2017.

The Kingdom will also need to address unemployment, with the population expanding as the economy attempts to pick back up. According to GaStat, as of the second quarter of 2017, the total number of people in work nationwide was 13.8m, with 3.1m of these Saudi nationals. There were some 736,300 Saudi job seekers at that time, with the unemployment rate of the Saudi population aged 15 years and above at 12.8%.

Societal Bonds

Vision 2030 recognises the need to develop other economic sectors, particularly those capable of generating high-value addition. There is also a shift away from the public sector and towards private investment, easing the state’s current high level of fiscal responsibility. A more entrepreneurial culture is expected to be key in achieving this objective.

Under the first theme of Vision 2030 – creating a vibrant society – special attention is given to the importance of families as the basis of society. “In particular, we want to deepen the participation of parents in the educational process,” the document states. At the same time, education’s role in developing well-rounded children is also recognised, with education being seen as an avenue for undertaking cultural, social, volunteering and athletic activities. The strategy aims to have 80% of parents actively engaged in school activities and their children’s learning by 2020. The Irtiqa’a (“Raising the bar”) programme is being used to monitor this interaction, with initiatives including parent-led school boards and more training for teachers to communicate with parents and involve them in the process.

Learning For Working

When it comes to the second theme – creating a thriving economy – investment in education and training is given pride of place, with the overall strategic aim of “learning for working”. This means tailoring programmes more closely to suit the requirements of businesses, with the National Labour Gateway being established to coordinate this approach. “Nowadays, know-how is more important than knowledge in itself, and the education sector has to do more to evolve accordingly and better accommodate the needs of different industries,” Abdullah Al Mosa, rector and president of Saudi Electronic University, told OBG.

The importance of education and training for Saudi women is also given special emphasis, as is providing those with disabilities the opportunity to undertake the education necessary to enable more independence.

In addition, specific goals include placing at least five local universities among the global top 200 in international rankings by 2030. Three Saudi universities have already achieved a top-200 score. In 2017 King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah and King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh both scored within the 101-150 bracket in consultancy firm Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, while King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran was ranked 173rd in the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings for 2018.

Supporting more institutions to achieve top spots will be facilitated through the introduction of a modern curriculum, compiled with the close cooperation of the private sector. To this end, the government aims to improve regulations so that private investors are able to take a larger role in the education system. In addition, a centralised database will track students from early childhood through to the end of their education, with e-solutions promised for a wide variety of education and training services, from applications to courses.

Boosting Standards

Vision 2030 also dovetails into the shorter-term National Transformation Programme (NTP) that sets some specific key performance indicators for all state institutions involved in education and training to be achieved by 2020.

Under this the MoE has a number of targets under the NTP. First, it must boost the number of children in preschool from a baseline 13% to 27.2% by 2020. The percentage of illiterate adults will also be brought down – from 5.32% to 2.5% – while the percentage of students using school bus transportation systems is set to rise from 28% to 43%. Furthermore, the number of students aged between six and 18 with special needs or learning difficulties that use student disability programmes should increase from 58,600 to 200,000.

Meanwhile, the average number of professional development hours completed by teachers is to rise from 10 to 18, while school leaders are required to increase leadership training hours from five to 20. The Qiyas teachers’ test must also be more rigorously enforced, with the percentage of teachers passing raised from 48% to 65%. These steps should boost teacher quality, with one result expected to be a hike in the number of medals and honours taken by students in global competitions, from 86 to 133. While 87.3% of students currently benefit from special gifted programmes, this figure must rise to 100% by 2020.

Improved Results

The Kingdom has seen a decline in its international testing results in recent times. In International Mathematics and Science Study, scores for maths decreased from 410 to 383 for fourth grade students between 2011 and 2015, and from 394 to 368 for those in the eighth grade, while those in science fell from 429 to 390 and 436 to 396, respectively.

Under the NTP eighth grade average scores are to hit 450 in maths and 480 in science by 2020, while for the fourth grade they should be 460 and 470, respectively. Average scores in Progress in International Reading Literacy Study reading tests should also go up, from 430 to 460 at the fourth grade level.

Underscoring the emphasis on engagement in extracurricular activity for both students and parents, the NTP aims to increase the percentage of students involved in such activities from 15% to 55%, while the percentage of students using community club facilities has been targeted to rise from 5% to 25%.

Economic Participation

With these reforms in place the NTP expects that by 2020 the percentage of graduates who will have secured employment within six months of graduation will also rise, although exact targets are still being determined. In the fourth quarter of 2016 the economic participation rate of those with a bachelor’s degree or above was 78.2%, less than the 83.5% for those with non-university diplomas, potentially indicative of a mismatch between graduate’s skills and those being sought after in the labour market.

Private Prospects

At the primary, intermediate and secondary levels, the public sector dominates provision, with estimated enrolment of 88% in the public system and 12% in the private system in 2016. Although the latter figure was up slightly on 2010 levels of 11%, it is unlikely to rise significantly during the NTP period as a proportion of overall educational participation. Nonetheless, with general population expansion and a major push to increase enrolment and retention, demand for private schools is likely to increase.

According to the PwC education profile, by 2020 a total of 300,000 extra seats will be required in Saudi Arabia’s primary sector, across both public and private schools. The same number will be needed at the intermediate level, while at the secondary level that number is 400,000. To meet this growth, an additional 70,000 seats will be required at private primary schools, 20,000 at private intermediates and 60,000 at private secondary schools, with average private school sizes of 200 at primary level, 100 at intermediate and 240 at secondary. Given these figures, the report concludes that some 350 private primary schools will be needed by 2020, along with 200 private intermediates and 250 secondary schools. At the preschool level the NTP’s target of having 27.2% of three-to-six-year-olds in kindergarten by 2020 would indicate a major expansion of around 430,000 additional places.

Higher Education

The NTP calls for a significant shift in higher education towards the private sector, with the Vision 2030 strategy supporting this trend in the longer term. The top-five private universities and colleges by enrolment are: Arab Open University, with 15,678 students enrolled in 2016; Al Ghad International Health Science Colleges, with 7461; University of Business and Technology with 6316 enrolled; Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University, with 5261; and Farabi College of Dentistry, with 4921 students. These five accounted for over 39,600 of the 88,716 students enrolled in private universities that year, Kingdom-wide.

This number pales in comparison to enrolment at state universities, however. The five largest state institutions in terms of enrolment in 2016 were: King Faisal University, with 187,836 students, followed by KAU (166,286); Al Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University (117,077); Umm Al Qura University (102,260); and Taibah University (69,526). Total enrolment at state universities was 1.4m that year, leaving private universities with around 6.3% of total enrolment numbers. Raising the private higher education enrolment percentage to 15% by 2020 is therefore an ambitious goal.

One factor encouraging growth may be a slowing down in the numbers of Saudis currently going abroad to study. Although it once aimed to send 207,000 students abroad from 2015 to 2025, the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme has been scaled back, with a tightening of qualification criteria, particularly in regard to English-language requirements, and the need to gain a place in one of the top-50 programmes in a particular field, or one of the top-100 universities worldwide.

To make up for belt-tightening measures in the sector, access to student financial services could be a potential avenue for those students no longer eligible for scholarships. “If we’re going to educate and train 250,000 young Saudis by 2030, a framework for student loans will be necessary to create opportunities for the private higher education sector,” Mohanad Dahlan, CEO of the University of Business and Technology, told OBG.


Meanwhile, expenditure on domestic education has been a priority for the government in recent times. The 2018 state budget made education its second-largest line item, with 21.6%, or SR192bn ($51.2bn), allocated out of a total budget of SR889bn ($237bn). The significant proportion of funding will cover a number of new projects, as well as the expansion and continuation of existing programmes. The budget allocates a further SR9bn ($2.4m) – of which SR3.1bn ($826.5m) has been paid – to Tatweer Education Holding for the continuation of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Public Education Development Project.

Funding has been provided for building schools, with the budget stating that work was currently under way at delivering 1107 new schools and educational facilities from 2016 to 2018 – 42% of the 2621 new schools expected by 2020. A further SR5bn ($1.3bn) was given to complete the renovation of girls’ colleges at various universities from 2016 to 2020, of which SR1.4bn ($373.2m), or 31%, will be allocated as of 2018. The overseas scholarship programme will continue with total annual expenditures amounting to SR14.7bn ($3.9bn), excluding scholarships for government employees.

Several public universities are already engaged in expansion programmes. KSU in Riyadh is undergoing a 680,000-sq-metre expansion project that will see the addition of medical colleges, a college of pharmacy, a dental faculty and 11 other buildings designed for various uses, including a convention centre and two hotels. The 11 towers form an endowment project, aiming to boost the university’s ability to finance itself.

Revenue Generation

Indeed, the future organisation and financing of higher education is to be characterised by an increasing emphasis on colleges and universities generating at least part of their budgets from their own resources. This may take the form of commercialising research and development (R&D), evidenced by KSU’s Riyadh Techno Valley (RTV) – a 1. 7-sq-km science and technology park on the KSU campus. The university works with private sector partners to encourage companies to join the site, with biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, ICT, information security, energy, petrochemicals and other high-tech sectors represented. Also in the RTV is the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation-run Home of Innovation, an initiative that aims to promote technical innovation and economic growth by facilitating collaboration between companies operating in technical fields. The concept is also being emulated elsewhere, with the construction of the Dhahran Techno Valley (DTV), wholly owned by the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

As universities become more self-reliant they are also fulfilling another of Vision 2030’s objectives: tying education more closely to the needs of industry. The RTV and DTV initiatives show that industry is also likely to be at the high-value-added end, closely related to R&D and innovation – areas receiving close attention under the government’s development programmes.

Additionally, large-scale innovation and technology projects are set to have an effect on education. The launch of a $500bn private industrial zone dubbed Neom was announced in October 2017. Stretching over Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, the project aims to bring investors, businesses, consultants and innovators at every stage of development to a place where they can work and live. “Giga-projects such as Neom will greatly increase the Kingdom’s need for skilled human resources with advanced degrees.” Khaleel Alibrahim, rector at the University of Hail, told OBG. “The resulting increase in demand for higher education will naturally be a boon for the sector, but to truly capitalise on such a demand, universities must align more closely with specific skills required by these projects.”


The short to medium term is likely to be busy. The goals of Vision 2030 and the NTP are undoubtedly ambitious, yet advocates argue that even if some targets are not met within the given time period, there will still have been a notable shift from public to private involvement, and from traditional to more contemporary methodologies. In addition, infrastructure expansion means significant opportunities for investors.

There are challenges, too, with continued budgetary constraints set to provide some difficulties. Meanwhile, 2017 and 2018 may see progress on a new law, which could mean that university presidents will be elected, rather than appointed by the King. This may result in greater university autonomy, especially as institutes begin raising their own capital. At the sub-tertiary levels, substantial investment is required in infrastructure and teacher training, while in rural areas matters such as transport can be an issue. The private sector’s involvement in education, as well as technical and vocational training, is welcomed, with education being highlighted by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority as one of the areas open to greater foreign investment.