September 27, 2010 3:47 pm

Saudi Arabia takes westward academic turn

Saudi Arabia has for several years used the proceeds of bumper oil production to build new universities, upgrade existing institutions and send thousands of students abroad on generous scholarships.

Many of its peers in the Gulf, meanwhile, have chosen to open branches of western universities, such as Georgetown in Qatar and the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. In contrast, Saudi Arabia has invested in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a research-orientated graduate school backed by an endowment of $10bn.

Now the kingdom looks set to emulate its neighbours. Last week, the country’s General Investment Authority (Sagia) signed a letter of intent with Georgia Institute of Technology of the US to build a centre to provide applied research degrees. The institute aims to be the first to offer foreign-accredited, postgraduate research degrees inside the kingdom.

“The primary focus is to support the kingdom’s needs and stop the brain drain,” says Grant Rogan, chief executive of Blenheim Capital, a consultant to Sagia. “Students leave the kingdom and do not come back. They are trying to change that by creating the infrastructure and research facility inside the kingdom.’’

Georgia Tech’s Saudi campus is due to be the second mixed-gender university in the kingdom after King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. It will be built in King Abdullah Economic City, a residential and industrial hub under construction north of Jeddah on the Red Sea. Sagia hopes the university will open in a year’s time.

The focus of the school will be supporting an industrial base in the Economic City, particularly the aerospace, electronic and engineering industries.

“These are the right steps, but you want to expand that to a larger scale,” says Hatem Samman, a director of consultants Booz & Co. “The idea of a cluster of education [institutions] with businesses and research is the main theme running across the GCC.”

Georgia Tech will manage the academic standards programme for a prospective
20 to 40 students, who will come from Saudi Arabia as well as the rest of the region. Saudi students will be able to choose to take courses in other Georgia Tech campuses in the US, Europe and the Far East.

Saudi Arabia faces unique challenges. Although benefiting from oil wealth that has fuelled economic growth, it is struggling to find jobs for a young population, 70 per cent of whom are aged under 30.

Employers often complain that university graduates lack applicable knowledge. For example, an information technology professor at King Saud University in Riyadh complains that most of his students lack a basic knowledge of mathematics despite having a high school degree.

The state of the education system has resulted in 9m expatriate professional and workers occupying 90 per cent of private sector jobs, while unemployment among Saudis remains about 10 per cent.

According to Booz, the government has spent about 7 per cent of gross domestic product on education since the 1980s, but outcomes have been poor.

“We need to fix the state education system,” says Mr Samman. “We cannot have graduate education without reforming the pre-university education. We have to fix the elementary schools, improve teachers standards.”

But for many Saudis who want to pursue higher education without compromising their family life or jobs at home, a Saudi-based western school is the answer. “My dream is to study at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology],’’ says Foad al-Farhan, a technology entrepreneur. “But if there was a real international school here, with a real credit, I would rather join it.”

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