Saudi Arabia’s tertiary education segment is steadily deepening its contribution to the country’s push for higher competitiveness via applied research and the alignment of educational outcomes with economic needs and labour market realities.

This improvement is apparent in the expanding presence of Saudi universities in international rankings. The 2022 edition of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai ranking, includes seven Saudi higher education institutions among the world’s top-1000 universities, up from four in 2019 and six in 2021. Similarly, in 2022 the Kingdom strengthened its standing in the QS World University Rankings, with 14 universities entering the 1400-plus classification, in comparison with nine in 2019. Finally, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings saw a significant increase in the number of Saudi universities listed among the world’s top 1600, jumping to 22 in 2022 from just six in 2019.

In terms of individual institutions, King Abdulaziz University, King Saud University, and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals hold the leading positions in the Kingdom, achieving comparatively high rankings in a number of disciplines at a global level.

Vocational Training 

Elsewhere, the Kingdom has furthered the development of technical and vocational education and training (TVET). With the Ministry of Education overseeing the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation since 2017 and the expansion of the technical college network in 2018, in 2019 the Kingdom exceeded targets set for the admission of high school graduates to TVET institutions (22.9% graduates against a target of 11%) and for the number of successful strategic training partnerships with the corporate sector (33 partnerships against a target of 29).

Moreover, the stage appears set for growth, as 2020 saw a number of new steps to boost the segment, including the transformation of 18 technical colleges for boys into independent colleges and the opening of two digital colleges for girls. Large corporations continue to support this growth, as illustrated by the August 2022 accreditation of two Saudi Aramco TVET-related initiatives – the National Industrial Training Institute and the Saudi Arabian Drilling Academy.

At an aggregate level, the improving performance of tertiary education is reflected in the country’s progress in the UN Development Programme Global Knowledge Index. In 2021 Saudi Arabia improved its scores in higher education (52.8 out of 100 points, up from 41.3 in 2020) and TVET (69.6, up from 68.5), with the country ranking ninth out of 154 in this area. Looking more closely at the link between education and competitiveness, the Kingdom registered improvement in the World Competitiveness Yearbook by International Institute for Management Development (IMD), where in 2022 it ranked 37th in the indicator for education as an enabling factor of competitiveness, up from 41st in 2021.

Market Alignment

It will be important to continue efforts to close the gap between the output of higher education institutions and the requirements of the job market. To this end, the Kingdom is implementing a dual-pronged approach to boost entrepreneurship and fine-tune research and development in tertiary settings.

Training in entrepreneurial skills is becoming prevalent, and a number of universities are introducing initiatives to allow professors to launch commercial schemes via profit sharing agreements with universities. Moreover, in a first for the country, under the supervision of the Agency for Research and Innovation five-year research strategies were developed for 27 universities. The realisation of these strategies will be supported by the newly established Institutional Fund, which in its first round of funding allocated a total of SR350m ($93.3m) across more than 2000 research projects, advancing 92 strategic priorities. Moreover, by late 2022 the Research and Industrial Partnerships Initiative is to be launched with an aim to forge over 50 partnerships between universities and companies.