The development and advancement of higher education in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

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The development and advancement of higher education in Saudi Arabia

By Prof Abdulrahman O AI-Youbi
King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia


I start by quoting the words of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, when he introduced the Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030 earlier this year: “My first objective is for our country to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence, on all fronts, and I will work with you to achieve that.”

While presenting the Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030, Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs said: “It is my pleasure to present Saudi Arabia’s vision for the future. It is an ambitious yet achievable blueprint, which expresses our long-term goals and expectations and reflects our country’s strengths and capabilities; our real wealth lies in the ambition of our people and the potential of our younger generation. They are our nation’s pride and the architects of our future.”

Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030 themes

The Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030 is built around three themes: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.

From the official booklet of the Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030, one can read the following education-related items:

  • In the second theme, a thriving economy provides opportunitiesfor all by building an education system aligned with market needs and creating economic opportunities for the entrepreneur, the small enterprise as well as the large corporation. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will continue investing in education and training so that our young students are equipped for the jobs of the future. Saudi children, will enjoy higher quality, multi-faceted education. Efforts will be doubled to ensure that the outcomes of the education system are in line with market needs.

  • One of our most significant assets is our lively and vibrant youth. We will guarantee their skills are developed and properly deployed. More than half of the Saudi population is below the age of 25 years. We will take advantage of this demographic dividend by harnessing our youth’s energy and byexpanding entrepreneurship and enterprise opportunities.

  • Among KSA commitments is an educationthatcontributestoeconomic growth. KSA will close the gap betweentheoutputsofhigher education and the requirements of the job market. In the year 2030, KSA aims to have at least five Saudi universities among the top 200 universities in international rankings. KSA will help students achieve results above international averages in global education indicators.

  • A modern curriculum focused on rigorous standards in literacy, numeracy, skills and character development will be prepared. Progress will be tracked and a sophisticated range of education outcomes will be published to show improvements.

  • KSA will work closely with the private sector to ensure higher that education outcomes are in line with the requirements of the job market. KSA will invest in strategic partnerships with apprenticeship providers, new skills councils from industry, and large private companies. The job specifications of every education field will be developed. Furthermore, a centralised student database tracking students from early childhood through to K-12 and beyond into tertiary education (higher and vocational) will be built inorder to improve education planning, monitoring, evaluation, and outcomes.

  • KSA will allocate prime areas within cities for educational institutions.

Brief history of higher education in KSA

During the Islamic civilisation era, mosques everywhere acted as universities, where scientists of different disciplines graduated. The two holy mosques of Makkah Al-Mukaramah and Al-Madinah Al-Munawarah were no exception.

In the recent history of KSA, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud gave, in 1949, an order to establish the College of Islamic Sciences (College of Shari’a) in Makkah Al-Mukaramah. Three years later, the Teachers’ College was established, also in Makkah Al-Mukaramah.

In 1953, the Department of Education became the Ministry of Education, where King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (he was a prince then) was appointed as the first minister. In the same year, the College of Islamic Sciences (College of Shari’a) was founded in Riyadh, and a year later, the College of Arabic Language and Literature was established.

Riyadh University (now called King Saud University) was established in 1957, and began with a single institution with 21 students and a staff of nine. King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud was the first head of the university.

Other universities followed successively: The Islamic University in Al- Madinah Al-Munawarah (1961), King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals (1963), King Abdulaziz University (1967), Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University (1974), and King Faisal University (1975). In 1975, the Ministry of Higher Education was split from the Ministry of Education to take care of these universities. However, in 2015, the two ministries were united again under one ministry to unify the Saudi education policies.

At the moment, there are 28 public universities and 10 private universities spread all over the kingdom. The most recent university is the University of Jeddah, which is a spin-off from King Abdulaziz University in 2014.

Aafaq (Horizons) plan

To promote a knowledge-based economy and move from oil to a worldwide centre forhigh-technology research, Saudi Arabia announced in 2009, a research initiative called “Aafaq” (English: horizons). The 25-year plan is intended to improve higher education opportunities for the entire nation, boost scientific research and tackle the country’s shortage of scientists in critical fields.

Saudi engineering graduates meet only a fifth ofthecountry’sneeds, and graduates from abroad fill 68% of science jobs. Saudi Arabia has a workforce shortage in many areas of science and technology, such as health, agriculture, engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology.

The Aafaq initiative conducted studies in various disciplines such as admission and capacity, job market, cost and financing, infrastructure, management and organisation, education and graduate education, scientific research and community services. The Aafaq also conducted various studies on higher education, including female education, health education, engineering and technology, private education and teacher education.

Among the first steps in implementing the plan were the establishmentof few new universities in different towns in the kingdom, creating about 50 technical colleges and about 150 vocational centres across the country, and the launch of Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh.

In a further effort to solve Saudi Arabia’s scientific workforce shortage, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was established in 2009. Located 80 kilometres north of Jeddah in the town of Thuwal on the Red Sea coast KAUST is a graduate research university of science and technology renowned by global benchmarks.

The above mentioned efforts and plans will produce technical human resources that will be the workforce for science-based economic development and will help in turning science development into economic gains.

Rapid growth and expansion

Saudi Arabia continues the rapid expansion of higher education. University capacity increased to 1.7 million students, up from 850,000 in 2009 and 636,000 in 2006. Graduate programmes expanded and diversified to meet a goal of ensuring 5% of the student population are graduates. The new development focuses on developing the scientific workforce and enabling graduates with the necessary knowledge and education to apply it to entrepreneurship, an area where considerable progress remains to be made for the translation of knowledge into production.

Figure 1 shows the numbers of universities in 1989, 1999 and 2012, while Figure 2 and 3 show the numbers of colleges and academic departments respectively.

Figure 1. Growth in the numbers of universities

Figure 2. Growth in the numbers of colleges

Figure 3. Growth in the numbers of academic departments

Figure 4 shows the number of admitted students according to gender over the period 1999–2012. Growth in the number of faculty members is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 4. Growth in the numbers of admitted students

Figure 5. Growth in the number of faculty members

International rankings

Recent university rankings show universities in Saudi Arabia edging their way up the global charts. From no Saudi universities in the world academic ranking in 2003, this year Saudi Arabia has three universities in the global top 500, while four other universities are on their way to reach the top, as shown in Table 1.




King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM)


King Saud University  (KSU)


King  Abdulaziz University (KAU)


King Khalid University(KKU)


Umm Al-Qura University (UQU)


Al-Imam Muhammed Ibn Saud Islamic University


King Faisal University

Table 1. QS Rankings for KSA universities (2016)

Also, in 2003 there was no Saudi universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Rankings) but in 2016 Saudi Arabia has four universities in the global top 400, as shown in Table 2.




King Abdulaziz University (KAU)


King Saud University (KSU)


King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST)


King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM)

Table 2. Shanghai Rankings for KSA universities (2016)

Finally, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016– 2017 Saudi Arabia has two universities in the global top 500, while two other universities are on their way to reach the top, as shown in Table 3.




King Abdulaziz University (KAU)


King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals


King Saud University


Al-Faisal University

Table 3. Times Higher Education Rankings for KSA universities (2016–2017)

Of course this was achieved by the efforts of the national centre for assessment in higher education, as well as the efforts of the national commissions for academic accreditations and assessments.

It is essential to mention that the production of a skilled workforce is a national ambition for Saudi higher education, and the Ministry of Education had to ensure that its higher education produces the highly skilled manpower that this call for. In the past decade education in general, and higher education in particular both have received generous support for the establishment of additional higher education systems of global standing. At the same time the Saudi government has supported the private sector to invest in higher education fields by establishing its own institutions. So there are 10 private universities and a range of more specialist colleges and institutes.

Today Saudi students in higher education level have a broad choice of high quality higher education inside the kingdom and some students no longer feel the need to head for Europe, North America or elsewhere to pursue their studies. Despite this, the Saudi Government encourages international outreach by providing more opportunities for scholarships to study abroad. There is abundant government support for universities. As far as student opportunities for education are concerned, a full range of subjects is available, and facilities are excellent. Many of the programmes are directed towards the vital fields of oil, gas and their infrastructures, but there is also plenty of support for areas including communications, technology and finance. It is also important to mention that Saudi governmental expenditure for higher education per student is considered as one of the highest in the world.

All Saudi universities have a key role to play in building the Saudi knowledge-based economy, far from the traditional oil-based one. It is being recognised that investing in post-secondary education and research drive social and economic development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saudi government has been investing in education and research as never before. So all Saudi universities play a key role in the educationof society development of new ideas, innovation and technology, and in the transfer of knowledge to the society and national economy and by supporting entrepreneurship among both: students and faculty staff, with the goal of stimulating new off-campus jobs and business.

Interaction between Saudi universities and business has increased significantly over the last years. Each is fighting to build on this with continued investment in collaborative research; innovation and technology transfer to community and national economy.

As innovation and entrepreneurship have become an even greater force in sustainable development, most of Saudi universities will be leaders in discovering that innovation and in nurturing the entrepreneurs that can create products, services, economic value, and high-quality jobs, with long- term objective of driving economic development in its community through locally developed enterprises and businesses.

Since educational quality encompasses all three primary functions of higher education institutions, i.e. teaching, research, and community service, Saudi universities have strived for excellence in all three functions. This is an important stage on the pathway Ministry of Education elected to follow for the establishment of world-class universities.

The foundation for the venture towards international recognition and world-class academic status was the establishment of campuses with excellent and appropriate infrastructure. This is certainly crucial for both students and researchers. Adequate state-of-the-art laboratories are essential for the production of scientific work of a high academic calibre.

Every Saudi university selects the highest achievers academically from its graduates in all disciplines to offer them scholarships to pursue graduate studies abroad for master’s and doctoral degrees in top-ranked world-class universities to prepare them to return and become academic staff members. By so doing Saudi universities guarantee highly qualified academic staff members of the future, and acquire in-depth awareness of their academic profiles.

Graduate students are in the front-line of scientific research. This is the reason Saudi universities started their graduate programmes sosoonafter its foundation. The international graduate students programmes are successfully attracting students from different countries.

For graduate courses, the total number of new entrants has significantly increased, and this growth has necessitated strengthening and invigorating all aspects of higher educational academic research at the Saudi universities. This has helped to ensure that when Saudi universities’ graduates enter the employment market, their competencies and qualifications are sought after and welcomed by employers.

Every Saudi university is striving to become a recognised national venue for “elite higher education”. It has a reputation for academic excellence and is considered to represent quality higher education in keeping with the requirements of the nation and the society`s rapid economic development. Each Saudi university always encourages its academic staff by all possible means. One such means of encouragement is research prizes.

Almost all Saudi universities offer funds enabling academic concepts and ideas to be explored, investigated and realised through conducting research. A prime factor in ensuring funding is that would-be researchers are required to provide substantive evidence that proposed work is eligible for publishing in ranked ISI Journals or their academic status equivalents.

Several hundred research projects are funded every year under different schemes. In addition, Saudi universities act as mediators between their scholars and other organisations, which provide funds for scientific research, , such as King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, and SABIC Company. This policy,in conjunction with the prize policy, has resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume of publications and citations of some of Saudi universities in ranked ISI journals.

Saudi universities have realised the importance of scientific research as a trend in current higher education. Accordingly, they have adopted strategic plans to become active research universities. This has involved more use of international collaboration, more visiting scholars, and growing numbers of PhD students. The government is backing this initiative and there are already more active research groups, especially in the science and health areas, than in the past.

In parallel with the internationalisation ebdeavours of universities in the developed world, Saudi Universities are globalising themselves through positive openness, cultural exchange, as well as academic and research participation with esteemed universities and scientific research centres around the world. This will definitely raise the efficiency of these Saudi universities.

In the track of the Third Mission of the universities (Community Service), Saudi universities are carrying out professionally and keenly this important mission, which has three dimensions: 1) technology transfer and innovation; 2) continuing education; 3) social engagement.

This third mission by these three dimensions should force the university (any university) not to live in its ivory tower, away from the community and its problems. So any university should think deeply about its role and should concentrate on its functional views and to be aware of how to connect itself to the growth of the region in which it is established. This role will help it meet the demands of public and private sectors in the society, and to achieve the main objectives of the university.

This process will lead to crystallise clearly the concept of the third mission of universities. And to think that the concept of the third mission should be of a great concern of the excellent and distinguished experts of the domain of higher education, i.e. it should be carried out in a more comprehensive manner. That will help every university raise its contribution to building the knowledge society in line with the objective of the development plans already decided.

In the domain of continuing education it is essential to provide different programmes and training courses to upgrade the efficiency of all students and promote their potentialities and develop the student skills in different stages and different specialties.

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Education is determined to internalise a culture of planning among Saudi universities so that they take a greater role in developing the society. This is done through active trends and by paving the way for implementation as well as eliminating change resistance, which is surely considered as one of the main obstacles in implementation of any strategic plan. And this is one of the reasons that make me confident that the success criteria should be focused mainly on the strategic plans, besides other factors.

In conclusion, it is very important for a Saudi university to carry out more strategic plans; to encourage university experts to do their best to develop the scientific researches efforts; to find out the best circumstances to further the education progress; to improve all kinds of community services; to offer more care for students with special needs; to set and follow up the best conditions for talented staff members as well as students through establishing more talent and creativity units; to make the rector or president feel that he/she is a trainer and a leader of these people working with him/ her; and all these points must be under the lines of rules and within the borders of systems.

Professor Abdulrahmam Al-Youbi is the present rector and a professor of physical chemistry at King Abdulaziz University (KAU), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He came to this position after spending over 15 years as the vice rector for academic affairs. Prior to that he served for about ten years managing the Faculty of Science as the vice dean and dean, consecutively. A KAU alumnus, he received a Bachelor and Master of Science both from King Abdulaziz University and a PhD from Essex University, UK; all in chemistry. He has since worked his way through all academic ranks at KAU ending with the professorship position in 2000. During his tenure at KAU, and despite his heavy involvement with administrative matters, he excelled in teaching, research and service. To his credit are an excellent record of teaching, many funded research projects resulting in a large number of high-quality publications and serving in over 80 committees, boards, teams and working groups at King Abdulaziz University and also at several other national universities.