Teaming up: Higher education looks to collaborate with industry in research and innovation

Saudi Arabia’s higher education sector has grown dramatically in recent years, both in the number of students and in the number of tertiary institutions in the Kingdom. In 2009 there were just 20 universities, but by 2015 this had increased to 35 and, over the same period, the numbers of new students enrolling had increased by almost 40%, from 272,854 to 379,179, according to data from the General Authority for Statistics. When the 207,000 students who were studying abroad on scholarships are included, the total Saudi student population studying at home and abroad in 2014 was 586,179 – 2.8% of the 20.7m Saudis living in the Kingdom.

Star Performers

In a recent comparison of the tertiary sectors in the MENA region, three of Saudi Arabia’s universities were ranked in the top-five universities in the Arab world. Eight countries were compared based on data from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16. King Abdulaziz University was placed first out of 15 institutions, with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) and King Saud University in third and fourth place, respectively. The survey suggested that financial backing from the government had played a role in helping the three institutions achieve such high rankings. It said the three Saudi universities received $733,069 of income per faculty member compared to $101,317 at a typical Egyptian university. The Times Higher Education report also added that the Saudi universities received credit in the survey to the extent to which they collaborated on research with other universities in the region and beyond, for their use of international benchmarks to evaluate programmes and for management strategies designed to enhance the quality of teaching and learning. By 2030 the Saudi government plans to have at least five universities among the top 200 in international rankings.

New Universities

However, leading academics in Saudi Arabia feel that the quality of education on offer at some of the Kingdom’s universities is not met by all its tertiary institutions. As new universities have been built to improve access to education for students all over the country, some have found it harder than others to recruit students and faculty members. “There are as many as 15 new universities and, although they have campus buildings and facilities, they can find it difficult to recruit faculty, because they are in remote areas and offer the same subjects as all the other universities in the Kingdom,” Abdulmohsen Aloqaili, professor of reading and language education at King Saud University, told OBG. Aloqaili said he believes Saudi Arabia should follow the example of China, which, in 2015, turned 60 universities into polytechnics offering degrees in vocational subjects. “We do not need more graduates in theoretical subjects, because we will only have to pay to educate them again to get jobs,” Aloqaili told OBG. “Research published in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 showed that people with technical degrees received the highest salaries after business and law graduates.”

Contrasting Sizes

There are also considerable differences between the sizes of universities in Saudi Arabia, with King Faisal University having almost 186,821 students, and King Abdulaziz University with 167,627. There are smaller universities, which are specialised and highly prestigious. The all-male KFUPM had 9532 students in 2014/15 and saw 1387 people graduate, while the all-female Princess Nora University in Riyadh had 46,813 students enrolled and saw 4861 women graduate. Smaller universities in remoter parts of the country had fewer graduates in 2014. Al Jouf University had 27,291 students, with 2824 people graduating, while Northern Border University had 13,795 students and saw 1270 graduate. A total of 2357 people graduated from Al Baha University, which had 25,734 students enrolled.

Centralised Control

The higher education offering in Saudi Arabia is characterised by a high degree of centralised control of universities by the Ministry of Education. Universities can only review the content of existing degrees or develop new programmes with explicit approval from the ministry, which can be time consuming and inflexible.

Abdullah Aldosari, vice rector for graduate studies and scientific research at the University of Hail, told OBG that, “There is some demand for universities to be released from direct control by the ministry, so they would hopefully have more independence and the ability to make their own arrangements.” Aloqaili also suggested the idea might be tested in some of the more established universities first before granting greater freedom across the board. “In principle this is a very good idea, but while I believe you could apply this system to traditional and well-established universities, I am not sure it would be wise to grant this degree of autonomy to the new universities, because they would not have the capability to run without government support,” he told OBG.

Research Culture

Universities in Saudi Arabia are trying to foster a research culture, and many of its academics are involved in collaborative studies with leading global institutions. “We are engaged in some very interesting medical research in the sequencing of DNA and genetics,” Aldosari told OBG. “We have had a partnership with Cambridge University since 2013, and we have already gathered some data based on our research. We have been very proactive, as we believe collaboration with other institutions is important, both inside the Kingdom and out. Sharing knowledge is very important and it has many benefits.”

One research university notable for its collaborative studies in the fields of science and technology is the privately owned King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Founded in 2009 KAUST admits graduate students to engage in research in one of three fields: energy, food (agriculture) and water. KAUST works with major companies throughout the world, such as Boeing – which opened a research and development centre at KAUST in 2014 – and IBM, Saudi Aramco and Cray. In 2015, 840 students of 60 different nationalities were enrolled at KAUST, which houses 10 research centres. Funding is allocated to the university in the national budget and, although the exact figure is not public, the university is estimated to have a $20bn endowment.

Industry Facing

Universities are also keen to pursue applied research that has measurable outcomes with a demonstrable benefit to society or the economy. A new pharmaceutical company has opened in Hail, and the university’s connections with it have helped train potential staff and work on new developments. “We have programmes in pharmacy and engineering, where the research will benefit the university but also help businesses to create more prosperity and jobs in the future,” Aldosari told OBG.

At King Saud University, Aloqaili said the interaction between industry and academia can be a two-way street if both sides are prepared to meet and exchange ideas. “We have the concept of universities without walls, which is about engagement with society, and also about building up partnerships with other sectors and companies,” Aloqaili told OBG.


A central institution driving progress at this interface between universities and industries is the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). “We have many graduate students in the top universities in the world; for example, we have the largest body of graduate students at MIT relative to any other entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Mansour Alsaleh, the deputy director of the Joint Centres of Excellence Programme, KACST, told OBG.


For their part, a number of industries and multinationals would like to see further collaboration with the tertiary sector as part of a broader and more coherent innovation and research ecosystem. “The thing about innovation is that it needs to be designed, and someone has to take a strategic decision that we need to do research and development,” Khaled Al Dhaher, managing director at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Saudi Arabia, told OBG.