Although GCC governments are attracting foreign universities into the region, inadequate primary and secondary education leaves students under-prepared for university or the workplace. Published in MEED, 20 August 2013
In late May, a ceremony was held in Washington to mark the graduation of more than 7,000 Saudi students from US universities this year. A few months earlier, a similar event was held in London to celebrate the 3,500 Saudi nationals who had completed degree courses at UK and Irish universities.
Those two events offer just a hint of what Saudi Arabia is doing these days to prepare its young population for the future. Since it was set up in 2006, the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme has sent hundreds of thousands of students abroad to study. At any time, there are about 150,000 Saudi students taking courses overseas, with about 72,000 in the US alone.
The programme gives young nationals access to some of the finest universities in the world. For those stuck at home, however, the picture is less bright. While the kingdom has been investing a lot of money in third-level institutions, quality does not always match ambition.
“Graduates from within Saudi Arabia are not getting better,” says a human resources manager at a large local firm in Riyadh. “Companies can provide the functional analysis and the communication skills, but I want to know that [graduates] have some base knowledge and whether they want a career or a just a job.”
He says that a few local universities do produce strong graduates, including King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust), although the better ones tend to be the smaller, specialist institutions. “Kaust is good but it is small, it is niche. King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals is also good. The graduates from there stand out in terms of skills.”
Saudi Arabia cannot rely on niche institutions, however. Given the size of its population, the scale of the education challenge it faces is far greater than that of any other Gulf country. In the academic year 2009/10 for example, more than 90,000 students graduated with bachelor degrees from Saudi universities. Add in other types of degrees and the total number of graduates was more than 136,000, according to the central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama).
Riyadh also devotes far more to the problem than most other GCC governments, spending about 5.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on education. Only Qatar, with a 6 per cent outlay, outspends the kingdom relative to GDP. The lowest spender is the UAE, which sets aside just 1.1 per cent of GDP for education.
All these countries are having to face up to the same issue of large numbers of young people steadily moving towards adulthood and the jobs market. The median age across the Arab world was less than 30 in 2010 and in some Gulf countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, it was closer to 25. Finding gainful employment for all these people is not easy. The local economies tend to rely on expatriate labour in much of the service sector, and the oil and gas industry, which provides the bulk of revenues for most GCC countries, is capital-intensive but not labour-intensive.
There is a recognition that the education and training of the next generation needs to improve if the job creation issue is to be tackled. That explains the enthusiasm for sending students to study at leading institutions around the world, but a lot of effort and money is also being spent to bring foreign expertise into the region.
The leading countries in this regard are Qatar and the UAE, where international branches of Western universities have proliferated. Education City on the outskirts of Doha now has eight international institutions providing courses, including the US’ Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon, alongside some home-grown institutions. Similarly, the UAE has outposts of New York University, French business school Insead, Paris-Sorbonne University and London’s Cass Business School, among others.
Local universities, however, continue to struggle when placed up against their international peers. According to the Times Higher Education global ranking of universities, the best-placed institution from the region is King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, which is ranked at a lowly 301st in the world.
Poor preparation for universities
Part of the problem is the standard of students that enrol in the universities in the first place. The quality of primary and secondary education in Gulf countries often leaves a lot to be desired, with students poorly prepared for university or the workplace. In particular, the prevalence of rote learning has long been a criticism of the school system across the region.
In the GCC, schooling begins at 6 years of age. Based on current trends, pupils can expect to stay in school for about 11 years in the case of Emirati children, rising to more than 14 years for Bahraini, Saudi and Kuwaiti children.
Access to education is generally high. The net enrolment rate (NER) for primary education – a measure of the proportion of school-age children that go to school – ranges between 92-98 per cent for all Gulf countries except the UAE, where it is 88 per cent. In Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the rate is slightly higher for boys than girls, but the reverse is true in the other three countries.
The pupil-teacher ratio at primary schools ranges from 8.6 children per teacher in Kuwait to almost 20 in Oman. In all cases, the completion and repetition rates at this level are better than the regional and global averages. The vast majority of students go on to secondary education, although Saudi Arabia and the UAE are relative laggards on this measure at about 96 per cent.
By the time children reach secondary school, the pattern of enrolment rates for boys and girls starts to swing in favour of girls. Based on the NER, a higher proportion of girls than boys enrol in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. The proportion is roughly the same for both groups in Oman, at just under 94 per cent, while in the case of Saudi Arabia the figures are not broken down. Overall enrolment rates range from 81 per cent in the UAE to 94 per cent in Bahrain and Oman, but all GCC countries again do better than both global and regional averages.
One unusual feature of the schooling system in the region is the high proportion of children who go to private school, at both primary and secondary level. This is particularly noticeably in the UAE, where private school enrolments account for 72 per cent of the total at primary level and 58 per at secondary level, but Kuwait and Qatar also have rates higher than the global average.
Whether because of private or public education, the GCC generally scores well when it comes to the basic literacy of its populations. The proportion of those aged 15 or above who have basic reading and writing skills ranges from 87 per cent in Oman and Saudi Arabia to 96 per cent in Qatar. In all six GCC countries, men have a higher literacy rate than women, but both outperform the global average of 84 per cent.
Beyond the basics of reading and writing, there is an important area where GCC education systems appear to be failing, however. Perhaps the greatest issue is that pupils often leave school unprepared, or at least underprepared, for the workplace or third-level education.
The problem has been implicitly acknowledged by the authorities in most countries. The Qatar Foundation, for example, launched an academic bridge programme in 2001. Since then the scheme has helped 2,500 local students make the jump from high school to university, either in Qatar or abroad.
Similar programmes exist in other Gulf countries. In Saudi Arabia, state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco runs a one-year college preparatory programme, which is designed to prepare high school graduates for admission to overseas universities.
Such schemes are “an implicit acknowledgement that schooling has failed”, according to one education industry consultant. “They have large numbers of ill-prepared students.”
Of those who do make the grade and are accepted by universities, women fare better than men. Indeed, the difference in male and female enrolment ratios seen in secondary schools becomes even more pronounced when it comes to tertiary education. On the basis of the gross enrolment rate, which, unlike the net enrolment figure, does not take account of age, women are far more likely to attend university than men in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, and they also have a slight lead in Saudi Arabia. No comparable figures are available for the UAE.
As with the primary and secondary schooling systems, the curriculums in some third-level institutions could also benefit from modernisation. However, it is not likely to be a rapid transformation and even in countries at the forefront of change, modernisers will not win every argument. In January 2012, for example, Qatar’s Supreme Education Council made a surprise ruling that all teaching at Qatar University had to be conducted in Arabic.
“Change is not easy,” says the Saudi human resources manager of local university curriculums. “It takes time, especially when the culture has been established for such a long time.”
Regardless of which language students are taught in, having a degree offers no guarantee of getting a job. According to the World Economic Forum, 43 per cent of those with tertiary-level education in Saudi Arabia are unemployed, and 22 per cent in the UAE.
All those Saudi graduates at the ceremonies in Washington and London still have a big challenge ahead of them when it comes to building a career.