If any proof were needed as to the importance of education for the future of the Gulf, then look no further than national budgets. Qatar now spends $6bn a year on the sector, just over 4 percent of GDP. In Saudi Arabia, spending this year will soar to $54bn, a 21 percent gain on last year, and the single biggest annual expenditure increase on education since the 1970s. The UAE will spend $2.7bn on the sector in 2013, with the sum taking up 22 percent of the country’s budget.
Shiny new universities are springing up as a result. The UAE has its Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia has the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology and the giant women-only Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University, while Qatar has attracted a slew of international institutes to its Education City campus on the outskirts of Doha.
All around the Gulf, countries are spending heavily as they seek to educate younger populations with the skills needed to cope in a modern workforce. Public expenditure on education in the region amounts to around 18.6 percent of government spending, as opposed to a world average of 14.2 percent, according to the latest data from the World Bank.
Some of this cash is going towards revamping the schools system, while some is boosting vocational training — i.e. making sure that when students leave education, they are actually suited to the workforce.
If any proof were needed of Qatar’s ambitions to foster its own human capital, then look no further than Education City. First launched in 1998 by the Qatar Foundation, the project now features nine world-class universities.
“Qatar has become a successful example of Arab foreign policy,” said former US ambassador Edward Djerejian, in a speech delivered on his visit to Education City earlier last year.
“Qatar is one of the few countries in this part of the world that has made the decision to invest in developing a society based on knowledge. The country’s leaders are not sitting down satisfied with what today’s landscape looks like, but are looking towards the future and working to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy for future generations.”
Of course, getting the signature of top universities — such as Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern University and Georgetown — is really only the beginning of the battle. The big names need to continue committing their resources well after launch.
In the nearby UAE, several Western universities have shut up shop after initial funding dried up. Michigan State University closed its Dubai campus in July last year after losing millions of dollars over its two-year stint, while George Mason University shut its Ras Al Khaimah campus in 2009.
According to one expert, some schools didn’t have the long-term plan needed to sustain their operations.
“Knowledge cities become a prestige initiative for governments and they look for brand names to come in that are not connected with the degree offerings that the local market place has,” Robert Lytle, co-head of US consultancy Parthenon Group’s Education Centre of Excellence, said, at the time.
“They [universities] don’t often pay enough fundamental attention to supply-demand… and they don’t really get what the right offering and right price point is,” Lytle added.
But the region’s universities still have some way to go if they are to match tertiary education institutions elsewhere in the world. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University has been rated at the top university in the Gulf, according to The Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings for 2012.
The Jeddah institution, which was founded in 1967 and is home to around 42,000 students, was ranked 49th in Asia overall. The university specialises in scientific undergraduate and post graduated programmes.
The next academic institution to feature in the list was King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, also in Saudi Arabia, which came in at 62nd best in Asia. This was followed by King Saud University at 77th and the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain at 86.
“It is an exciting time for higher education in Saudi Arabia, and this prestigious list shows that the country’s institutions are firmly established among the best in the Asian continent and are very close to the highest world standards,” commented Phil Baty, editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.
“The signs are encouraging: investment in higher education in the region and the political drive to ensure that the country is at the forefront of new knowledge are promising signs.”
Baty added, however, that the UAE “had much work to do... if it is to reach not just regional standards, but global ones too”.
Over in Saudi Arabia, the education system there has been hobbled by the fact that it has barely entered the modern age. Focused on religious and Arabic studies, it has long struggled to produce the scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers that Saudi needs.
High school literature, history and even science text books regularly quote Koranic verses. Employers complain that universities churn out graduates who are barely computer-literate and struggle with English. So frustrated are some students, they have taken to the streets in protest.
Several years ago, alarmed by how many young Saudis were out of work, King Abdullah launched an overhaul of state schools and universities. The effort is part of a raft of reforms designed to ease the influence of religious clerics, build a modern state and diversify the economy away from oil to create more jobs. The reforms are controversial, though, and nowhere more so than in education. Adding more science classes means scaling back on religion — a direct challenge to the Wahhabi clerics who helped found the kingdom in 1932 and dominate vast parts of society.
In the past, many Saudis found work with the government. But the kingdom has one of the region’s highest population growth rates so citizens no longer automatically get such jobs. The country has partly solved this issue by implementing scholarship programmes to send many of its best and brightest to Western universities. However, this is not a sustainable solution, and the country is now attempting to build hundreds of schools to educate its youth in more practical skills.
It may take time and money, but local governments are aware that their countries cannot afford to cope with growing unemployment. Fixing their education programmes should solve that issue.
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