Saudi universities well placed to become world leaders

Saudi universities well placed to become world leaders

During the past several years, I have had the privilege of witnessing the progress of two leading universities in Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. KAUST, established in 2009, is a private university dedicated to graduate education in science and technology. KFUPM, established in 1963, is a comprehensive university in science, technology and management, with both undergraduate and graduate programs. The progress that these two universities have made during the past six years is truly remarkable. They are on the way to achieving their long-term aspirations of becoming world-leading universities, contributing both to the Kingdom’s development and to the prosperity of the world.
 
There is no other university in the world that can be compared with KAUST. It has one of the largest endowments in the world, second only to Harvard University in the United States. It has assembled a world-class faculty, recruited highly qualified graduate students of both genders, and built state-of-the-art research facilities on the shore of the Red Sea. The publications by its faculty are superb both in quantity and quality. It has also built a strong collaborative relationship with many universities in the world, including KFUPM. It is a world-class research university that will affect higher education worldwide as it reaches full maturity.
 
KFUPM has produced many outstanding graduates who are now leaders in industry, government and universities in Saudi Arabia. Although it is only about 50 years old, KFUPM has become the best university in the Kingdom and in the Middle East. It is the best university in petroleum engineering in the world and its graduates are leading the largest petroleum industry in the world.
 
However, despite the fine attributes of KAUST and KFUPM, universities in Saudi Arabia face many challenges — there are many outstanding universities in the world that are competing for outstanding professors, the best students, and the most able researchers.
 
KAUST and KFUPM are on the way to becoming world-leading universities, contributing both to Saudi Arabia's development and to the prosperity of the world.
 
Nam Pyo Suh
 
During the last several decades, many nations’ top research universities have made significant contributions to their countries and the world through their discoveries, innovations, and scholarly work. These leading research universities have nurtured many Nobel Laureates and enabled bright young researchers to pursue their ideas and make contributions that have enriched and benefited many generations of humanity. Innovations in telecommunications, transportation, computation, manufacturing, energy, medicine, and other fields have been possible because of the research infrastructure provided by these universities.
 
Research universities have also become economic engines of many countries. Their graduates have created new industries that have transformed not only their respective nations but also the world. In the case of the US, two universities — MIT and Stanford — are often cited as having created new industries that transformed the economic infrastructure of the nation and the world. As of 2014, MIT alumni had launched 30,200 active companies, employing roughly 4.6 million people and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenues. Similarly, the companies created by Stanford graduates generate revenues of $2.7 trillion annually and have created 5.4 million jobs since the 1930s. Similar developments are likely to occur in Saudi Arabia with continued investment in its universities and its K-12 education.
 
Creating a great research university is not an easy task. For the most part, the top of the rankings do not change much over relatively short periods; top universities tend to remain at the top. The universities that are leading in all of their chosen fields have a much greater probability of growing even stronger because of the intellectual, human and financial resources they already have. Universities that are up and coming must try and improve their ranking through the addition of a large number of outstanding faculties, attracting more competitive students, generating significant financial resources, advancing major scientific discoveries, and introducing technological innovations. To create a great university, we must attempt to solve the most profound problems of our era, such as global warming, energy, environment, water, and sustainability.
 
Saudi Arabia is a rich country with a large reservoir of natural resources and rapidly increasing human capital that can contribute to its future prosperity. At the same time, it is also a country with its share of problems, such as its extreme climate and low numbers of women in engineering and science. 
 
Saudi Arabia has many assets. Foremost, it is an energy-rich country not only because of its vast oil reserves but also because of its abundant solar energy that is available year-round. The supply of oil is finite, but solar energy is truly limitless. Using its abundant solar energy, Saudi Arabia should solve its water problem; it should develop technologies to use solar energy to desalinate the seawater. If KAUST and KFUPM can create a viable solution for this problem, it would open a new chapter not only in the development of Saudi Arabia, but the world. It would also put KAUST and KFUPM at the forefront of universities.
 
Some of the readers of this article may think that the issues raised here are too idealistic, unrealistic, and not achievable. However, the essence of a great university is to think of “unthinkables” or “unimaginables” to challenge young minds, as well as to test the minds of “old” people. We need to stretch the imagination of the young by implanting ideals and ambitions to affect their life for the better. We all need to dream a bit to make this world of ours a better place. The role of education at research universities is to implant in students the concrete foundations for the acquisition of knowledge, creative thinking, and the ability to implement practical solutions.
 
This article is part of a series on the future of education, published in collaboration with Community Jameel.  

 

  • Nam Pyo Suh is a member of the Board of Trustees of KAUST, a former president of KAIST, and Professor Emeritus at MIT.
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