JEDDAH: DIANA AL-JASSEM
Thursday 9 August 2012
Last Update 8 August 2012 10:10 pm
Experts have said that private higher education in Saudi Arabia lacks competitiveness, harming the national economy.
While the Saudi government dedicates the lion’s share of its budget to human resource development (50.6 percent), which includes government education and training, economists and university teachers have criticized private higher education and called for allowing foreign educational investment projects. Economists told Arab News that the budget for scholarships could be used to create a knowledge-based economy and boost the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“Saudi Arabia’s education does not meet the standards of countries at similar income levels. However, some progress is visible in terms of the assessment of the quality of education, but only in some private universities like King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST),” said Habibullah Turkestani, professor of marketing and business management at King Abdulaziz University.
The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Saudi Arabia as the 21st most competitive economy overall, but 51st in higher education and training.
Turkestani attributed the absence of competition in private higher education to several reasons, such as monopoly and tough investment requirements.
“The Ministry of Higher Education has to facilitate investment in higher education by allowing foreign investors to participate. The problem we currently have is that a number of private universities are lacking quality. At the same time, these universities insist only on financial profits rather than quality,” he said.
“I consider private higher education as a corporate social responsibility that needs awareness from businessmen, the government and society.”
He added: “We have about 20 private universities and colleges in the Kingdom that offer education in a limited number of fields. The absence of competition among these universities has led to the decrease in education level.”
More technical and practical fields are required to fit the needs of the Saudi market, he said.
Private higher education should be developed to contribute to the country’s GDP, said Salem Baajaja, professor of accountancy at Taif University. “As the Saudi population is growing annually, government universities cannot cope with the large number of students every year. Some students don’t want to go to private universities due to the low education level and high fees exceeding SR 70,000 per year,” he said.
Statistics show that enrollment in private higher education in Saudi Arabia grows at 33 percent annually. Half of all private higher education revenues come from medical courses, where enrollment is growing at 45 percent per annum.
“The budget that has been dedicated for scholarships should be kept and invested inside the Kingdom to build private universities with international standards,” said Baajaja.
Statistics confirm that over 80 percent of enrollments in private universities and colleges are in courses like medicine, management and commerce, IT, and engineering. By contrast, over 50 percent of students in public universities are enrolled in disciplines like humanities and sciences.
Arab News visited the private higher education webpage of the Ministry of Higher Education and found that the ministry had instructed some colleges of medicine to stop receiving new students.
“The currently available colleges and universities are not enough. We need to boost higher education institutes that offer better English language courses, hire foreign teachers, and are based on international standards,” the accountancy professor said.
Habib Shams, an economist, said that private companies lose huge amounts of money by sending their work force to receive training abroad due to the low education level and unprofessional English language courses inside the Kingdom.
“I would prefer if the government held agreements with international universities, like Harvard, Cambridge, Texas University and London School of Economics, to establish branches of these universities in the Kingdom. Such step would boost the Saudi knowledge-based economy. However, the government allocated a large budget for scholarships programs abroad, because Saudi universities cannot receive the large number of students,” he said.
The central department of statistics and information at the Ministry of Economy and Planning issued a report in 2012 saying that the total number of students abroad reached over 120,000.
Essam Khalifa, member of the Saudi Economic Association, said the development of private sector education is crucial, as the public universities can only receive 5 million students a year. “The rate of undergraduate students is increasing by 30 percent a year. Saudi government universities cannot receive this large number of students, which is why we support qualified private universities. I wonder why the government does not open investment opportunities for foreign investors,” he said.
The establishment of foreign private universities would raise standards, as it would bring in professional educational institutes with international experience, he concluded.
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