Saudis raise higher learning

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Saudi Arabia is turning the home of one of its older industries into a symbol of what the kingdom hopes is its future.

Thuwal on the Red Sea coast is a fishing port but, as part of a plan to end the kingdom’s dependence on its petroleum-based economy, the government is turning it into the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, or Kaust.

The project, scheduled to open in 2009, will house up to 15,000 people, based around a graduate research-focused university.

Kaust’s mooted $10bn (€7bn, £4.9bn) endowment, would make it one of the best funded universities in the world, helping it to forge research programmes with foreign universities, pay foreign lecturers well and lure back the best Saudi students from foreign universities.

The university is the centrepiece of the kingdom’s higher-educational reform plan, which aims to boost the number of students entering university and guide them towards courses in science and education rather than religious studies and the humanities.

There has been some soul-searching about the religious domination of the education system since the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, which were led by Saudis, and because the kingdom’s schools have ­produced generations of ­students ill equipped for employment in the private sector.

Kaust plans to bring western standards of education to a Saudi institution amid an environment of academic freedom. The university, loosely based on Aramco’s gated community where the kingdom’s social mores are watered down, is set to push the boundaries of gender segregation in an education system where men and women very rarely meet.

The university plans to guarantee academic freedom, bypassing any religious pressure from conservative elements, by forming a board of trustees that will use recently approved bylaws to protect the independence of the university.

“It’s a given that academic freedom will be protected,” says Nadhmi al-Nasr, an Aramco executive who is Kaust’s interim president.

His assertion has yet to be tested but the mix of academic freedom and social liberalism could spark criticism despite the king’s patronage.

Dar al-Hikma, a private women’s college in Jeddah, has faced trouble from those who reject social liberalism. “Many have opposed us but this is different – the king is behind Kaust,” says the Dr Suhair al-Qurashi, the college’s dean.

Dr Khaled al-Sultan a former deputy education minister, is helping produce a 25-year plan for higher education meant to fix problems related to funding and standards and to improve links with the private sector.

Kaust is being handled by Saudi Aramco, the oil company, on a pro bono basis.

It is part of the king’s broader reform drive consisting of economic liberalisation and institutional reforms with the aim of boosting economic growth and providing jobs for the tens of thousands graduates that spill into the workforce each year.

Dr Sultan says the government’s aim is to raise the percentage of 18-24-year-olds in higher education to more than 50 per cent from the current 30 per cent figure.

The university could help foster further social change, even if that is not the institution’s primary focus, says Khalid al-Falih, a senior executive at Saudi Aramco.

Dr Sultan, who is rector of one of the kingdom’s premier teaching bodies, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, provided an example. He said that in 1970, only six women were in higher education. Now, 60 per cent of the country’s students are female.

Graduates of Kaust who like their surroundings may also have the chance to stay nearby once they have finished their studies. King Abdullah Economic City, a $27bn industrial, residential and commercial development managed by Dubai’s Emaar Properties, is expected to rise a few ­kilometres away from the university.

“We hope this means 24 hours-a-day work for our people,” said Haj Rajih al-Jahdali, a tribal leader from the village.

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