From zero to 39,845 in seven years; Saudi Arabia’s fast track to women’s degree study

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Saudi Arabia’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University opened in 2011 and is already the world’s largest university for women. Its rector, Dr Huda bint Mohammed Alameel, tells Tony Martin about this remarkable achievement, how the university is impacting on Saudi Arabian society, and already contributing to global well-being and research.

What are the priorities for higher education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in particular those for women’s higher education?

We can say that the priorities for the higher education of women and men are the same. Both stand for preparing university graduates, developing their skills, and continuing to build up their values, in a way that effectively contributes to building economic, cultural, and social development. Additionally, there are priorities to achieve the National Development plans, including the Kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’. One more priority for higher education in the Kingdom is bridging the gap between universities’ outcomes and the needs of the labour market in different professional and technical majors.

What is the ratio of women to men at the Kingdom’s universities?

It is widely noticed here in the Kingdom that the number of women continuing their higher education is rapidly increasing. For example, in 2012 there were 511,593 female students at Saudi public universities rising to 551,192 in 2013. In general, the percentage of women in higher education is 51.8% of the total higher education students in the Kingdom.

What has been the driving force behind the creation of Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) and what are its key strategic goals?

The driving force behind the establishment of PNU is achieving excellence for Saudi women’s higher education. This is done by utilising all capabilities to support quality of education in order to ensure efficient outcomes, and to build a knowledge-based economy by implementing strategies that aim to incorporate values of education, scientific research, and communal partnerships. Ultimately, it is empowering women to effectively contribute to economic and social development.

Seven key strategic goals of PNU:

  • The provision of quality academic programs.
  • Providing students with the necessary professional skills.
  • Establishment of a comprehensive scientific research strategy.
  • Societal partnership, with emphasis of women and family subjects.
  • Strengthening the capabilities and improving the quality of PNU human resources.
  • Establishing the necessary processes and systems for achieving effective performance.
  • Financial diversification to achieve independency and sustainability.

Although only opened in 2011, PNU is already the largest women’s university in the world. In this short period of time, what have been its main achievements in terms of academic provision and student enrolment and graduation?

In PNU, we are proud of our achievements in academia. This year we established the College of Engineering. Thus, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University now has 14 colleges: four faculties in the Humanities, and ten divided between Scientific and Health Disciplines, in addition to the newly established Engineering College, we have, for example: Art & Design, Computer Sciences, Medicine, Pharmacy, Nursing, and Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Colleges.

As of today we have 65 undergraduate programs, 10 master’s programs, and 13 diploma programs. The number of PNU students stood at 39,845 students, of which 461 are postgraduates. Our students are taught by 2,198 faculty members of 22 different nationalities. I would like also to highlight that the percentage of PNU female graduates out of the total number in the Kingdom is 7.5%.

PNU is also focusing on its scholarship programs with top international universities especially in North America and Europe. Today, we have 478 Saudi women scholars, 70% of whom are PhD candidates.

Last but not least, PNU has been able to establish the Health Colleges Simulation Center, with more than 200 simulation dummies. It is the largest of its kind in the Middle East, spanning more than 28,000 square meters.

What importance does PNU place on internationalisation? What challenges does it face in achieving its goals in this area and what recognition does it seek?

There is no doubt that we are seeking to do so. A source of our pride in PNU stemmed from the international partnerships we have held with a number of top universities and academic institutions around the world, to name but a few: INSEAD, Monash University, University of Nottingham, University de Rouen Normandie, University of Leeds, University Mohammad V de Rabat, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Center for Creative Leadership, University of Pennsylvania, University of Auckland, University of Southern Denmark, Dublin City University, Sookmyung Women`s University, and National Institute of Education in Singapore.

To support forming these partnerships, we are ensuring we help our students to improve their English language skills, and we are also providing the opportunity for our faculty members to enroll on courses, in-house or abroad, to develop their language skills. We are very interested to transfer the knowledge from these international partnerships, in order for our faculty members to develop and expand their capabilities, and I consider this to be the challenge that will lead PNU to further grow and develop.

PNU’s vast new campus architecture was constructed in a remarkable two years. What are its special features in successfully accommodating up to 60,000 students?

Indeed. PNU’s campus features, which enable it to embrace this large number of students, can’t be described in a simple answer. However, the fact that the university was built on a total campus area of over eight million square meters and accommodating 600 high-tech buildings, makes it unique. This vast campus is connected by a monorail system (consisting of 22 self-driving vehicles, four lines and 14 stations). In addition, the campus provides all necessary services to the faculty members and students. The Central library, which is distinguished by wonderful Islamic architectural designs, has a capacity of five million books (stored electronically). Also, the campus hosts a medical hospital (King Abdullah University Hospital) with a capacity of 300 beds. It has seven specialised clinics.

PNU also has a state-of-the-art-Sports Center for students and faculty. The dormitory is fully equipped for all residents with 24/7 support. There is also the Convention Center, which hosts the university’s academic and cultural events. This is the largest such Center in the country with a seating capacity of approximately 3,600, and it has hosted different public events for the community. The PNU campus was designed to be environmentally friendly, and we have won several international awards by the Green Campus Council, and at PNU, we are committed to maintaining environmental sustainability in energy, water and waste management.

In what priority areas is PNU developing its research capability and does collaboration with industry play a role?

Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University is keen to provide an open research environment and capacity for all its scholars and researchers. We encourage our faculty to form research groups, develop distinguished papers, and publish in notable international journals. Moreover, PNU’s Deanship of Scientific Research offers grants for outstanding research projects. Usually, the research topics that we seek to develop arise from global research interests, which are framed by the faculty members’ specialisations, and through the support of the scientific societies within the different Colleges, as well as seven research centers in our university. These include, the College of Science Research Center gives research priority on the alternative sources of energy, renewable energy, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and its applications, as well as the study of materials science and polymers; the Research Center of the College of Art and Design focuses on researching the documentation of local art and heritage in KSA; the Research Center of the College of Social Services focuses on the study of societal issues and the examinations of new communal trends; and the Center for Promising Research in Social and Women’s Studies is specialised in developing research related to Saudi women’s subjects, needs, achievements and challenges.

PNU also has four research chairs which contribute to the university’s research capacity: Women’s heart and arteries diseases, Environmental pollution, Childrens’ literature, and Volunteering work. We are proud that we have collaborated with leading local research institutions and centers such as Aramco and Sabic, King Faisal Specialist Hospital, King Abdulaziz University, Islamic University, the Institute of Public Administration, King Salman Youth Center, and other private sector institutions.

What special message would you like to convey to QS Showcase’s key readers including senior leaders of top universities around the world?

Dear readers, we all share a common matter, which is developing a great asset: Human Capital. It is indeed a huge responsibility to develop a human being. We also play an important role in developing academic research around the world. Thus, the responsibility is even greater. However, we hope that all of the efforts will bring about change – a change for a brighter future for all people around the globe.

Huda bint Mohammed Alameel, PhD is the second rector of Princess Nourah bint Abulrahman University in Saudi Arabia, the largest women’s university in the world. Prior to this, she was one of the founding directors of Dar Al Uloom Private University. Dr. Alameel held the position of vice rector, in addition to her role as dean of Education and Human Development College in DAU. She began her career at King Saud University as lecturer and then vice dean of the College of Education, and deputy chair of the Department of Education and Kindergarten Department. Dr. Alameel holds a PhD in Early Childhood Education from the University of Wales, UK. She also holds two masters degrees in Education from Western Michigan University, USA, in Educational Leadership and in Early Childhood Education.