Saudi Arabia has announced plans to allow foreign universities to open branches in the Kingdom in a drive to modernise the county's education system. Minister of Education Dr Hamad Al-Sheikh said yesterday that a new Law of Universities was approved by the Council of Ministers to allow for what has been described as "remarkable qualitative changes in the Kingdom's higher education sector."
Speaking about the new law, Al-Sheikh said that it would bring about a qualitative leap in the progress made by Saudi universities. "It would also be instrumental in raising the efficiency of spending, developing financial resources and human capabilities for universities in line with the Kingdom's Vision 2030."
The new law will be introduced gradually by allowing three foreign universities to set up branches in the first phase. The names of the three universities have not been announced.
With a bulging youth population, Saudi Arabia's ambitious plan to modernise the Kingdom rests on delivering on the hopes and aspirations of the tens of millions entering the job market in the conservative country. The entertainment sector has been given a huge boost as part of the vision 2030 programme with the growing youth population in mind.
Education is also a key area that has been identified as needing reform. Thousands of Saudi citizens travel abroad for higher education but this is not a viable option for many. With this latest initiative, Riyadh is hoping to be able to cater to the needs of every student.
Whether western universities take up the offer in large numbers is yet to be seen. Conservative Gulf Kingdoms can be a lucrative prospect for higher education institutions looking to expand but such moves come with a number of challenges. Universities in the west have flourished largely due to the free and open culture of those countries. As the incident with Matthew Hedges, a PhD student from Durham, showed last year, though, liberal university values in the West often clash with the repressive policies of Gulf States.