Proliferation of universities is a mixed blessing



Alaa Alghamdi

Published — Monday 26 November 2012

Last update 26 November 2012 4:10 am

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One does not have to be a university professor or a student to be aware of the fact that institutes of higher learning have been springing up all over the country, in virtually every region.
A quick look at the statistics illustrates just how widespread this expansion is. As of this year, Saudi Arabia has a total of 63 universities and colleges across all provinces. Of those, only 16 were established prior to 2000. Moreover, the vast majority have sprung up since 2006, with a large number having been established in the last two years.
The expansion of post-secondary education cannot of course, be taken as a negative development. In particular, the establishment of institutions to educate female students, as that has the potential to benefit our society on many levels. Currently, the education of girls still lags behind; in fact, the literacy level of females is only 70 percent, compared to over 85 percent for males.
The establishment of new universities may ensure that more women are able to set and realize personal, educational and professional goals. Problems with housing female students — such as the lack of dormitories, which indirectly brought about the tragic death of 12 students at Hail University last year — can be alleviated by the proliferation of universities. Female students can more easily find accommodation at student dorms, or even better, can attend a school close to home.
Another advantage to expanding the educational system is the potential for specialization. The growing number of universities means that different institutions can concentrate on different areas of study, attracting the most qualified professors.
There is a great potential to enhance the reputation of universities and colleges — among the international community as well as among our own student population.
With all these advantages, is there a down side? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Post-secondary schools have been springing up as fast as the market will allow, and we may currently be reaching the point of saturation. There is, after all, a limit to how many universities and colleges a country of our size and population can sustain.
This limit is closely linked to actual need. If more universities are opened than are needed, the inevitable result is that some will be forced to close, causing disruption for the students enrolled there. Confidence in our educational system as a whole may be eroded.
There is also the question of quality. Whenever the emphasis is on speed and expediency — entering the market at the crucial moment — quality may suffer for the sake of speed. That’s acceptable in some businesses — but not in education, where quality is both absolutely crucial and difficult to quantify or commoditize.
In short, a balance has to be found. The proliferation of Saudi universities and colleges, from a mere 16 prior to 2000 to 63 institutions today, empowers students by offering choice and opportunity. But the educational system must be maintained at a sustainable level, before it becomes too much of a good thing.

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