Foreign universities: Much ado about nothing
While governments around the world are eagerly finding ways to attract top universities to open branch campuses in their countries, Saudi Arabia continues to struggle to find credible institutions that will conform to our customs and traditions.
Apart from this sensitivity issue, presumably there’s an unwillingness to accept the rich benefits of a foreign university campus unless there are strings attached every step of the way.
Today, the Ministry of Higher Education is considering dozens of applications by foreign universities to open branch campuses in Saudi Arabia.
Conditions for approving an application and setting up campuses range from the reasonable to the tough to the “we really don’t want you here, so we will make the criteria impossible to meet.”
Consider the reasonable: The ministry wants applicants ranked in the top 100 universities in the world. Faculty must have the same qualifications as required by the institution in its home country. Faculty and administrators must familiarize themselves with our customs and traditions, and must abide by the laws of Saudi Arabia. OK so far.
Consider the tough: Not only the universities must offer the curriculum they provide in their home countries, they must teach Islamic studies and the Arabic language.
I am not sold on the benefits here. Of course, teaching of Islamic studies as a subject is a cornerstone of our education system, but we are not asking foreign universities for their expertise in Islamic studies or Arabic. We want their expertise in science, technology, medicine and research among other studies that Saudi Arabia needs help to teach. Presumably, Saudi students are well versed in Islamic studies. I also question whether western universities have the expertise to offer religious instruction that will satisfy the Ministry of Education, let alone Saudi society.
I should add that religious studies are not required for scholarship students going abroad, so why the requirement for the reverse? After all, the concept of bringing foreign educators here is to reduce costs and to give students a well rounded education on home soil. Still, those though conditions are surmountable.
The “you will never please us” conditions come in the form of demands that male and female remain segregated, although of course we make no such demands on Saudi students going abroad. In addition, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has demonstrated over five years now how a coed environment is not disruptive or a danger to the sensibilities of Saudi society. KAUST was a big step forward for Saudi Arabia in establishing a true international institution. We should not be taking a backward step.
The ministry is also insisting that it will not provide facilities for foreign universities until their curriculum is proven a success. This unfairly relieves the ministry of all the risks of bringing in foreign educators and places it squarely on the shoulders of the visiting institutions.
The ministry is also demanding that a Saudi must be appointed by the minister as dean of the university on a renewable contract. While this may be in the best interests of Saudization, it does nothing to sustain the vital leadership necessary to make a foreign university successful in its first few years if the ministry can’t find a qualified Saudi to fill the post.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship program has been deemed a success and thousands of young Saudi men and women are returning home with a western education as contributing members of society. But there is a sense that the government wants more control over its students by offering that all-important foreign education, but offering it right here in the safe embrace of the Kingdom.
However, some of these requirements are unpalatable to foreign educators. So, while the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar reap the benefits of opening branch campuses of foreign universities, some of the demands we are placing on these foreign educators means we will fall behind our neighbors in educating our children.
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