Saudi Arabia prepares for a quantum leap in higher education
With Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 setting the tone for its massive national ambitions, one critical segment on everyone’s radar in the Kingdom is the shaping of higher education to keep the growing children in pace with scientific, engineering and technical innovation.
Vision 2030 is aimed to help the economy transition from an over-reliance on oil revenues to a more balanced, investment-based model. To achieve this, the Kingdom will embrace a modern curriculum focused on rigorous standards in literacy, numeracy, skills and character development and work closely with the private sector to ensure higher education outcomes align with the job market’s requirements.
The competing forces shaping the 2030 blueprint have compelled universities to introduce new scientific programs to prepare graduates for the future workforce, as they will need these skills to enter the workforce and kick-start their careers. On the other hand, a few government universities are being transformed into independent nonprofit institutes to give them complete freedom in achieving their goals and managing their affairs.
With NEOM Smart City becoming a reality in the coming two decades and its CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr’s recent announcement that educational facilities would start construction in 2023, the Kingdom’s education sector is receiving the necessary impetus to cater to the modern student and youthful workforce. A knowledge economy is being created for this purpose, encompassing the learning experience of Saudi youth.
The Kingdom’s school-going population is almost three times that of the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to a recent education report on the country by Knight Frank.
The report asserts that this strong base of students will require adequate if not vigorous vocational training options and higher education options going into the next two decades. In the last two years, the educational sector has accounted for the highest proportion of the Kingdom’s government expenditures.
In fact, the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2022 report by the Global Competitiveness Center of the International Institute for Management Development states that the Kingdom has progressed in education, research and innovation indicators, a reflection of the leadership’s support for the education sector at all levels. Its ranking advanced four positions in education indicators to 37 from 41 last year.
Training a billion people by 2025
The Kingdom seems on track for a massive uptake in science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates across all interests of economy and development, which brings into focus the need of the hour: the quality and impact of instantly and easily accessible advanced education options for high school and university students.
Experts have already said much across the GCC on Saudi Arabia’s education efforts during and after COVID-19 to sustain home-based education to stay on par despite no access to physical schools for most of the two years.
The Kingdom’s digitization of quality education has set an example of how higher education is imparted in a world that has already welcomed the metaverse.
One of the biggest trends globally among secondary school children is the obsession with learning through Roblox. In this metaverse-ready immersive virtual world, young children construct entire ecosystems and cities in a 3D, lifelike environment with nothing but their wits and creativity. With school-going children in the Kingdom getting future-ready, the impact on higher education and the demands on futuristic, STEM-led online and instant education options cannot be overstated.
The generation entering universities in the coming years are those born into a metaverse world, where entities like NEOM Smart City and The Line will be a reality waiting for them to join the workforce to solidify the Kingdom’s commitment to advancing its citizens’ lifestyle and comfort.
Teaching additional skills to this generation requires programs that are available today, not in the future. Moreover, the skills must prepare them for the exponential needs of the construction, logistics, engineering and tourism industries that are gearing up for the Kingdom’s economic demand, which has already started.
Empowering the education sector
The Kingdom’s Human Capital Development Vision Realization Program has ensured that the country’s education outcomes align with immediate and future market requirements. These initiatives and projected labor requirements have driven government plans to expand the technical and vocational education sector.
Given the way COVID-19 changed how we educate and raise our children in a hyper-connected, digitally native world, developing curricula and learning options that harness this world is critical and cannot be a second thought.
Companies are creating engaging content with innovative technologies and digital delivery, helping the new generation of teachers deliver effective education to their students in ways accessible to them.
The universal pandemic forced educators to work in new ways, teaching online and adapting in a strictly digital world. With internet penetration higher than in most countries, teachers in the Kingdom are more engaged with communication technologies than in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. They are more likely to engage with these technologies to make use of them within teaching and learning.
A unique opportunity exists to enhance digitally available education. The pandemic showed that students in the Kingdom are strongly motivated to learn and feel supported by parents with whom schools seek to maintain strong relationships.
This enthusiasm possibly spurred the Education and Training Evaluation Commission’s strategic plan for 2023-2027 to enhance some key drivers, emphasizing developing the education and training sector to reach a world-leading Saudi model.
The scheme aims to raise the quality of output to meet the needs of the labor market and Vision 2030’s Human Capacity Development Program.
It ensures the strategic plan caters to students, trainees, learning outcomes, practitioners, institutions, programs, the education and training system, and the internal capabilities of the ETEC.
The policy hopes to improve student learning outcomes and performance through modern curricula standards and assessments and enhance excellence and quality of education and training professionals by setting higher standards, granting licenses and pushing the pace of excellence in the field.
Supporting the ETEC is the National Transformation Program, which outlined its objectives in line with Vision 2030, including preparing a modern curriculum focused on rigorous standards in literacy, numeracy, skills and character development.
The NTP will work closely with the private sector to ensure higher education outcomes are in line with the requirements of the job market, which will most definitely take into account the outlined megaprojects.
One key area it will focus on is to pave the way for investors and the private sector to acquire and deliver education services currently provided by the public sector. In addition, they wish to improve the recruitment, training and development of teachers and the existing curricula and teaching methods to enhance students’ core skills.
There are enough economic and development indicators within the Kingdom to invest substantially in its higher education offerings, and the time to start is now.
• Majid Mneymneh is vice president for higher education at Pearson Middle East.