Sixty-three percent of Saudi universities students are focused on human and social sciences and Islamic studies leaving them ill-equipped for the labor market when they graduate.
Higher education and technical and vocational training are still so far from the requirements of the labor market and specifically in the private sector. Official data show that the proportion of those who enrolled in Saudi universities from high school is the highest in the world — 78 percent (more than 383,000 students), compared to 56 percent in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and a little less than 30 percent in Turkey.
But only 9 percent of those who have finished high school enrolled in colleges offering technical or vocational training, compared to 41 percent in the OECD and about 37 percent in Turkey. The global average for enrollment in technical and vocational colleges is roughly 40 percent.
Most alarming is that more than 63 percent of Saudi universities students who are focused on the education, human and social sciences, and Islamic studies which leave them ill-equipped for the labor market and is generally useless for the private sector, as evidenced by the number of unemployed holders of a bachelor’s degree at 46.2 percent of the total unemployed in the Kingdom.
The fact is that there is an incompatibility between the output of higher education and the labor market. Professional and technical colleges in the Kingdom need to significantly improve the quality of education and type of specialization, and generally need to develop a new educational curriculum and training methods to align with the needs of the labor market. The Saudi private sector is in urgent need of technical and professional disciplines, and this would make the Saudi economy shift from excessive dependence on expatriate labor to rely on national employment.
Until this happens, Saudi Arabia must inject technical material and intensive professional training in general education. Attention must be given to ensure the empowerment of the public education system to provide students with the technical skills needed by the labor market, especially since 13.4 percent of the total employees in local private sector companies are Saudis, according to Labor Department data.
The higher education goals of Saudi Arabia have been about construction — building schools and universities. But if these institutions are creating undesirable disciplines for the private sector, the curriculum and requirements are in need of restructuring lest students leave college unskilled. Community colleges should be restructured, and it is essential that they be converted into technical and vocational colleges that are located near the large number of universities throughout all regions of the Kingdom and most of its provinces. Most importantly, programs must be adopted that bridge between technical and professional colleges and universities to motivate high school students to enroll with the equivalent of hours of study that was completed in technical and vocational education with hours of study in universities. These programs will permit for more qualified and trained graduates.
In spite of the huge financial allocations toward education in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom can do much better for its citizens in educating and training them for the Saudi economy. To avoid traditional work in the General Organization for Technical and Vocational Training, it is a must to allocate institutes and affiliated colleges and contracting with global training companies specialized in technical and vocational areas to create and oversee vocational colleges in engineering, health, agriculture and information technology specializations, among other vocational specializations.
It is time to restructure the General Organization for Technical and Vocational Training and reduce admission rates to all Saudi universities to maximize the productivity of Saudi citizens.
John Sfakianakis is an economist based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.