Saudi Arabia has consistently prioritised the education sector, with significant government spending and wide-ranging reforms that seek to improve learning outcomes and revise curricula to meet the needs of the current and future economy, in line with the goals of the Vision 2030 socio-economic development blueprint. The focus is on preparing the workforce for the technology-driven global economy by enhancing technological proficiency and critical-thinking skills. Technology is being integrated into education, expanding access to high-quality learning through interactive software and online programmes. As the education system improves, opportunities are opening up for private investment to raise standards and strengthen infrastructure.
Regulation & Legislation
The Kingdom has made advancements that have expanded access to education. The sector’s regulatory and legislative framework features a variety of important laws and rules that provide clarity and security for operators and stakeholders. Central to this is the Basic Law of Governance, which mandates public education, while emphasising the teaching of Islamic values, knowledge and skills.
Adding to the regulatory framework, the Law that established the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) was enacted in 2007 and modified in 2017. The TVTC is the primary government entity overseeing the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector. Elsewhere, the Kingdom’s commitment to inclusivity is demonstrated through the 2001 Regulations of Special Education Programmes and Institutes, which provides comprehensive provisions for educating students with disabilities, fostering an inclusive and equitable learning environment.
More recently, the Law of Universities, introduced in 2019, established the Council of Universities’ Affairs to approve policies and strategies for university education, supported by an independent board of trustees, councils and other officials. The law emphasises the significance of university accreditation from the Education and Training Evaluation Commission (ETEC), as well as mandates that each university maintain an approved independent annual budget, providing guidelines for financial autonomy while ensuring fiscal responsibility.
The main authority on education is the Ministry of Education (MoE), which is focused on making education universally accessible, and improving its quality and governance, as well as on developing an educational environment that encourages creativity and innovation. The sector has traditionally vied with the military for the largest portion of the budget. In 2021 the budget for education – which is allocated to the MoE – stood at SR192bn ($51.2bn). However, there was a slight decrease in 2022, with an allocation of SR185bn ($49.3bn), although actual spending was estimated at SR195bn ($52bn). Encouragingly, the budget plan for 2023 in the Kingdom included an increased allocation of SR189bn ($50.4bn) for the sector.
While the MoE sets the comprehensive vision and guidance for the education system, ministerial agencies, departments, secretariats and centres are responsible for executing policies and programmes. Eight of these are under the direct management of the minister of education, a position occupied since September 2022 by Yousef bin Abdullah Al Benyan, former CEO of government-owned petrochemical firm SABIC.
Among those under the minister’s direct responsibility is the Vision Realisation Office, which is tasked with coordinating actions and monitoring progress towards educational goals under Vision 2030. The minister is supported by two vice-ministers and one assistant minister, who oversee the various other departments and agencies. Administrative duties are carried out by 16 directorates spanning the country’s 13 regions, supported by 240 education offices, which ensure a localised approach. These entities have their own departments, subdivisions and reporting hierarchies.
Although administrative responsibilities are decentralised, important decision-making authority remains with the MoE. As the primary custodian of education policy, the MoE assumes responsibility for policy formulation. This centralised approach is exemplified by the uniformity of national guidelines, covering school evaluations, teacher policies and learning expectations. These guidelines ensure a standardised educational framework that seeks to promote both cohesion and equality throughout the Kingdom.
The commission, established in 2017 and operating independently under the prime minister’s direct supervision, is responsible for evaluating and improving the quality of education and training. In 2019 ETEC received a new statute to strengthen its role as a specialised institution. ETEC has begun implementing a new strategic five-year plan, spanning 2023-27. It aims to establish a strong system for quality assurance throughout the education and training sector. The plan focuses on improving learning outcomes, enhancing educators’ capabilities and promoting continuous improvement.
ETEC will work closely with the relevant national authorities to ensure that institutions and programmes meet the standards envisioned by Vision 2030 and the Human Capability Development Programme (HCDP), the Vision Realisation Programme designed to meet Vision 2030’s long-term objectives related to skills and talent development. ETEC’s strategic plan includes a variety of initiatives, performance indicators and targets under various assessment programmes. Additionally, the board of directors has approved updated academic accreditation standards to streamline processes and better meet the requirements of the labour market.
In February 2023 ETEC introduced standardised tests for university graduates. These tests form part of the commission’s Jaheziya programme to enhance the readiness of graduates to capitalise on opportunities in the labour market. They are intended to assess graduates’ job market readiness, evaluate educational quality and identify areas for improvement. Developed with input from academic and industry experts, the tests cover finance, accounting, computer science and artificial intelligence. The initiative aligns with an earlier decision by the Council of Universities’ Affairs to periodically evaluate graduates’ knowledge, skills and values.
Policy & Strategy
A key goal of Saudi Arabia in the field of education is to provide individuals with the necessary skills and knowledge to support the country’s development and labour market requirements. To achieve this, the Kingdom has implemented a range of policies and programmes. In particular, policy is guided by the HCDP, which has the stated aim of ensuring that Saudi citizens have the capabilities to be globally competitive by instilling values, enhancing knowledge, and developing basic and future skills. The programme features 16 strategic pillars that fall directly under the supervision of the MoE, and includes targets and key performance indicators that are regularly monitored.
Notable targets for 2025 include having 40% of children enrolled in kindergarten and six Saudi universities ranked among the world’s top 200, as well as achieving a top-45 ranking in the World Bank’s Human Capital Index and a Saudiisation rate of 40% in highly skilled jobs. Other strategic goals for the MoE including developing the capabilities of educators; enhancing community participation in teaching and learning; improving access to education and promoting lifelong learning; enhancing the role of private sector and non-profit actors in the education system; further developing universities and training institutions; and promoting scientific research and development (R&D).
In terms of R&D, the MoE has devised a comprehensive university research strategy following extensive consultation with government institutions and universities. The strategy is focused on 12 research and innovation priorities for Saudi universities, with 56 specialised subfields that align with Vision 2030 and the established strengths and capacities of institutions.
The first four stages of the Saudi education system are pre-primary (ages three to six); primary (ages six to 11); secondary (ages 12 to 18); and tertiary (ages 18 and upwards). The fifth stage, TVET, is optional and can be started at either the secondary or tertiary level. Compulsory education begins at six years of age and lasts for nine years. Pre-primary schools are referred to as kindergartens and high school runs to grade 12, so the schooling system is typically referred to as K-12.
In line with Vision 2030 objectives, the MoE undertook a comprehensive review of the K-12 curriculum between 2019 and 2021, leading to the establishment of the Saudi National Curriculum Framework. The framework emphasises three fundamental pillars: Islamic education, fostering national identity and cultivating an international mindset. Following the review, a series of structural and content reforms were introduced from the 2021/22 academic year. These included a transition to a three-semester system with more teaching days, and the introduction of new study plans and learning pathways in high schools to ensure students can capitalise on their talents and develop skills that will be in demand in the future job market.
Primary schools follow a single-shift system, with classes held either in the morning or afternoon from Sunday to Thursday. The performance of students is assessed through ongoing evaluation and examinations, leading to the award of a general elementary/primary school certificate upon finishing school. Reflecting cultural norms, public pre-primary and primary schools in Saudi Arabia segregate boys and girls, with teachers of the same gender. However, since 2019 female teachers in the Kingdom have been able to oversee classes of boys in grades one to three, which has helped expand the pool of qualified educators for young children. In May 2023 the MoE announced that female teachers in private and international schools would be able to teach classes of boys up to grade six.
Secondary education in Saudi Arabia extends for a period of six years, accommodating students between the ages of 12 and 18. It is further divided into middle school and high school, each spanning three years. As part of recent reforms, a new pathway system has replaced the former high school dual-track system, which divided high school pupils into either a natural science or humanities track for their last three years of formal schooling. The new system features a general pathway and four specialised pathways – health and life sciences, computer science and engineering, business administration and Islamic studies. The pathways are designed to develop well-rounded graduates equipped to capitalise on their talents in the labour market. The general pathway is available in all schools, while the specialised pathways are offered in selected schools. A complete evaluation of the new pathways system is due to be completed following the 2023/24 academic year.
According to the most recent data available, there were 6.3m children in the K-12 education system in 2020, 50.3% of which were male and 49.7% female. A total of 393,732 children were enrolled in kindergarten that year, with 3.2m enrolled in primary school, 1.4m in middle school and 1.3m in high school. Across the whole K-12 system in 2020, 5.2m children attended public schools, 690,552 attended private Saudi schools, 388,871 attended private international schools and 25,650 attended schools operated by the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu. In proportional terms, this means that 83% of students attended public schools and 17% attended private schools. By the 2022/23 academic year the total number of pupils in private schools at all levels was 957,128. Although public schools outnumber their private counterparts across Saudi Arabia, regions such as Riyadh and Makkah have a higher prevalence of private schools compared to other regions due to greater affluence, an interest among Saudi families in schools that adhere to international curricula and a larger presence of foreign residents.
Beyond K-12 and tertiary education, the Kingdom emphasises adult education as pivotal to its national endeavour to empower individuals who were deprived of educational opportunities during their formative years. As part of recent reforms, efforts to promote lifelong learning have been stepped up. In 2021 the MoE launched the professional development pathway to upskill and reskill employees and jobseekers. It is intended to ensure that adult Saudis are equipped for the evolving needs of the labour market.
Saudi Arabia is witnessing significant population growth, with UNICEF projecting an increase from 32m people in 2015 to 39m in 2030. The number of 10- to 19-year-olds in the Kingdom expected to grow from 4.8m to 5.8m over the same period. Such growth is expected to see a 12% increase in the school-age population and necessitate close to 1m additional student seats, which should contribute to an upward trajectory in enrolment at private sector schools.
Approximately two-thirds (5562) of private schools in Saudi Arabia adhere to the Saudi national curriculum, while the remaining one-third (2930) offer international curricula – typically US or British – to meet the growing interest among Saudi parents in English-language schools for their children, offering diversified international programmes for the local population and the sizeable expatriate community. International private schools are expected to include crucial subjects in their curricula, ensuring a well-rounded education. Moreover, allowing foreign investment in international education in Saudi Arabia aligns with the country’s commitment towards advancing the sector and providing opportunities for students. This will not only benefit the educational landscape in Saudi Arabia, but also contribute to the global exchange of knowledge and cultural understanding. As of 2023 there were seven branded international schools in Riyadh, and the Kingdom plans to attract more to different regions.
Since launching Vision 2030 private investment has been a priority for the sector to reduce the funding requirements for education from the government’s budget, as well as to introduce competition, with a view to raising quality standards. A 2018 study conducted by US-based LEK Consulting concluded that the optimistic potential market size for the international K-12 sector was $14bn, as opposed to $1bn at the time of the study.
Private sector participation in the Saudi education system can take various forms beyond the operation of private education institutions. The MoE’s General Department of Investment and Privatisation (DIP) is spearheading efforts to stimulate private sector involvement in education. To this end, the DIP devised five executive programmes to attract private investment in the areas where it deemed the most value could be added. These are: the development of new schools; the development of tertiary education institutions; housing developments for faculty members; improving the Kingdom’s boarding school offering; and the development of university hospitals.
In April 2023 a list of 11 new projects was announced, all of which align with the DIP’s executive programmes, indicating that privatisation efforts in the sector are focused on infrastructure-related aspects, rather than the direct delivery of educational services. The National Centre for Privatization & PPP is overseeing and managing the process of attracting private investment in the projects, which represented the entirety of its project pipeline for the sector as of mid-2023.
The teacher population has dropped since its high of 545,456 in 2015, with the number at 506,390 in 2023, according to the most recent publicly available figures. When considering the corresponding teacher-to-pupil ratio of 10.7 and 13.0 for these years, policymakers have acknowledged that more teachers are needed to keep pace with demand.
The disparity is particularly pronounced in rural areas of the country, where many schools face additional challenges recruiting staff who are willing to reside far away from urban centres. The government is taking action, and in July 2022 announced 11,547 additional teaching jobs for the 2022/23 academic year, which should help to alleviate the demand for teachers. The aforementioned decision to allow female teachers to teach classes of boys in grades one to three should also support efforts to recruit more female educators.
Teachers have opportunities for growth and development. Internal and external training programmes have been adopted to raise their proficiency, and special focus is given to distinguished teachers for their further advancement. Professional development efforts are led by the MoE’s General Department of Scholarship Affairs, which is responsible for teaching scholarships both at home and abroad, as well as the ministry’s teacher development and training initiatives. Working in concert with the Centre of Curriculum Development and the Vision Realisation Office, the department developed a policy document that covered all aspects of the new curriculum that required teacher training, with a tailored training programme for different subjects then rolled out through an external training agency.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the MoE has increasingly used online training programmes for professional development. In 2020, 342,957 teachers took part in the first and second phases of the MoE’s e-training programme, while 425,377 took part in the summer professional development programme.
Universities & Higher Education
The higher education system comprises public universities, private colleges, and technical and vocational institutions. Notably, three of the country’s universities ranked among the top five in the Arab region in the 2023 QS Arab Region University Rankings, with King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah placing first, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran placing third, and King Saud University in Riyadh placing fourth. King Abdulaziz University and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals also made the top 200 in the QS World University Rankings 2024, placing 143rd and 180th, respectively, as the Kingdom works towards its goal of having six universities in the world’s top 200.
With 27 public and 36 private licensed universities and colleges in 2020, Saudi Arabia offers a range of educational opportunities. Although the Kingdom has more private than public higher education institutions, in 2020 the latter accounted for 81% of students and 68% of new enrolments. However, following the 2019 Universities Bylaw allowing international universities to establish branches in the country, private institutions expect to play a greater role in the segment. In 2020, some 1.4m undergraduate and post-graduate students were enrolled in colleges and universities. Of these, 761,126 were female, representing 55% of the total cohort, while 622,666 were male. Female students outnumbered male students at all levels up to and including master’s, but male students constituted 55% of doctorate students and 61% of fellowship students.
To meet the evolving demands of the Saudi economy, it is expected that many new course offerings will be aligned with science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. This shift reflects the changing job market and may require replacing traditional non-technical studies to ensure graduates are well prepared for future employment opportunities.
Saudi Arabia is actively working to increase private sector involvement in higher education. One approach being pursued is collaboration between academia and corporations. An example of this is the 2022 agreement signed between the University of Tabuk and Zain, a telecoms company, to promote collaboration in the areas of digital innovation and academic research. The agreement will see a research chair established at the university, while Zain will provide digital services and data systems to the university to help advance its digital transformation goals. Meanwhile, it was reported in January 2023 that the MoE is reviewing regulations to encourage leading international educational institutions to establish branches in Saudi Arabia.
The core focus of TVTC is to cultivate the national workforce through vocational and technical training, aligning with the various demands of the labour market. It operates 98 secondary industrial institutes for high school students and over 140 technical colleges for graduates. TVTC oversees international technical colleges and strategic partnerships, fostering collaboration with the business sector. Moreover, TVTC is the sole entity overseeing and licensing private sector training facilities and trainers in the Kingdom.
In addition, TVTC is committed to increasing the number of accredited colleges and institutions in Saudi Arabia, working towards providing high-quality programmes. The corporation’s ambitions include expanding its capacity to accommodate 40% of high school graduates by the year 2030, and introducing a new training model in partnership with the private sector known as the professional apprenticeship model. As of late 2022 the TVTC had signed 22 international agreements to support efforts to raise the standards of local courses and integrate Saudi industries into the global market. The Kingdom ranked first in the 2022 Global Knowledge Index – devised by the UN Development Programme – for the proportion of students enrolled in post-secondary vocational programmes.
In response to the pandemic, Saudi Arabia swiftly implemented measures to ensure the continuity of its educational system through digital solutions, which has served to accelerate digital transformation in the education system. In-person attendance at educational facilities was suspended just one week after the country’s first Covid-19 case was detected, and the MoE immediately began devising strategies for remote learning. A range of initiatives were introduced to facilitate student learning from home, including televised lessons and the use of a newly developed learning-management system known as Madrasati. Through this platform, which launched in August 2020, more than 353m classes were created and 3.1bn e-homework tasks assigned, as well as more than 662m e-exams administered. In 2020 the National Education Portal (iEN) aired more than 15,100 filmed lessons and recording 75m live broadcast views. YouTube, where iEN has 1.3m subscribers, was also leveraged as an educational resource. Simultaneously, efforts were made to enhance teachers’ digital skills through online professional development sessions.
This rapid transition not only aligns with Vision 2030’s emphasis on digitalisation, but builds upon the foundations laid by the Tatweer 2007-23 programme, aimed at integrating ICT into the Saudi curriculum. By effectively embracing digitalisation, the education sector was able to swiftly implement necessary changes and adapt to the new educational landscape. Within the broader context, the 2016 establishment of Tatweer Educational Technology (TETCO) as a dedicated company supporting educational technologies, operating under the Public Investment Fund’s Tatweer Education Holding, exemplifies Saudi Arabia’s commitment to driving digital transformation in the education sector. TETCO took a significant stride towards this objective by forging a strategic partnership with Hong Kong-based technology giant Lenovo in February 2023. This collaboration marks a crucial step forward in facilitating the integration of digital solutions and technologies, thereby accelerating much-needed educational transformation.
The future of digitalisation in education is promising. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, and Vision 2030 recognises the transformative potential of digital transformation in education. With further investment in digital infrastructure and the involvement of stakeholders, the education sector in Saudi Arabia is likely to see further advancements in online learning, virtual classrooms, personalised learning experiences and access to education.
At the core of the Saudi education system lies a strategic, balanced approach that combines centralised policy-making with decentralised implementation. This strategy ensures a cohesive national education agenda while empowering local education offices to tackle specific challenges. The MoE’s focus on innovation, professional development and aligning education with market needs represents a forward-looking approach designed to cultivate a generation of specialised, ambitious and competent individuals who are capable of contributing to future economic development. Ongoing reforms in the education system, such as the new National Educational and Training Strategy under development, will enhance economic dynamism, elevate the global competitiveness of Saudi universities and students, and drive innovation and digitalisation.