JEDDAH—While there are more opportunities for Saudi Arabian women to get university degrees than there used to be, women still face limitations, says Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, president of Effat University, a private institution for women.
Since 2008, Jamal Al-Lail has led Effat, the first university to offer engineering degrees to women in the oil-rich kingdom. She says Saudi women still don’t have access to a full range of disciplines.
But personally, Jamal Al-Lail has set an example for what can be achieved. She studied business administration at King Abdulaziz University, in Jeddah, before receiving her master’s degree and later, her Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Southern California.
“During my days there were limited fields for females and limited seats for studying abroad,” she said. “Legally and socially we couldn’t travel alone. To be enrolled in a scholarship program we were obliged to have a male guardian travel with us,” she said.
Al-Fanar Media sat down with Jamal Al-Lail in her office at Effat University.
What challenges do Saudi women face today in education?
Education fields have long been limited for Saudi women. It used to be harder in the old days when fields such as political science were not available for females. Now, it’s more open and there are more options but it is still not enough. The society still doesn’t accept a full opening of all fields to Saudi women.
The challenge of technology is also strong… Technological capabilities are becoming increasingly important to the education process and any deficit is a challenge. This deficit is generally one of our big challenges in Saudi, but more so to women because technology-related fields are limited for them and therefore [they have fewer] job opportunities. Women’s institutions face this problem because in many cases [they have] staff who don’t know how to operate and deal with high-tech devices and software.
Saudi universities are witnessing an increase in the number of Saudi instructors. What do you think about that?
In the private sector, the numbers are not increasing fast enough, unlike governmental universities where the growth is rapid. However, for us, in order to get into the global rankings we need to meet a quota for international students, international teachers and international programs. Universities need to internationalize to have diversity.
In Saudi Arabia, this is very hard to achieve as we face visa obstacles… We also face the challenge of “Saudization” as we are requested to hire more Saudis. We previously told the minister of labor and the minister of higher education that we need to change the “Saudization” quota from [where it stands at] 49 percent to a more reasonable quota… We can’t choose people only because they are Saudi. This created problems such as risking quality to achieve quantity, and accepting teachers who are only loosely linked to the required fields because we couldn’t find ones [to meet our] exact demand.
What task do you consider to be the most difficult?
Recruitment of faculty. It is the biggest nightmare for private universities. Quality of education cannot be achieved through a copycat style. We need more diversity and creativity in higher education, so it’s not helpful when we are faced with rigid “Saudization” laws. Actually, right now, even governmental universities want to diversify their teaching staff in order to acquire international accreditation.
And despite this being our most difficult task, most of our time is spent on ensuring the quality of teaching. We put a lot of energy into ensuring good curriculums and we must always nag about this. Getting accredited is also one of our major tasks.
What is your take on the recent decision to merge the two education ministries—the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education?
I believe that merging is good, but it needs a lot of work. We need to see a healthy ecosystem for education. It’s not helpful [for them] to work separately…
What do you think of the research environment in Saudi universities?
It’s picking up but no with clear direction yet other than [the goal of] getting international ranking. We still don’t have an environment conducive to research and plenty of conducted studies are not organic, not very relevant to our local needs. A good exception here is the new King Abdullah University of Science Technology.
What do you think of academic freedom on Saudi campuses?
Freedom of thought should be open to everyone but within a framework, a limit. Nowadays, freedom is available at the tips of your fingers. Everything is available to everyone. But freedom shouldn’t be equivalent to chaos. One can access all the information, so no. There is no limitation on freedom of thought, but the next step is how to express your new knowledge without violating the law, religion and the norms and customs of the society.
The student government and the Shura Council are both elected student bodies within our university. They were created to ensure that the voice of students is heard in decision-making. We need to not only hear their complaints but also their solutions. Student unions and courts may fit other cultures and countries, but here, this version fits us and our culture. To develop this we need to exchange experiences with other universities and it will be great if one day we get to see a Saudi national association for all student governments.
If you could change one thing in Saudi academic life what would it be?
The concept of student life… It should be a whole environment, a whole life, that develops the student’s personality, increases their volunteerism and contribution to society. Academic life is not only about classrooms, and a vibrant student life should be a huge part of the academic process.
What is your greatest ambition and greatest disappointment?
My greatest ambition is to serve the society and elevate our education until we reach the international level by truly adding value inside and outside. As for my disappointment, it’s that we can’t achieve our ambitions fast enough. They are reachable ambitions but the system and workflow, the processes and the bureaucracy are real obstacles. Even holding an event on your campus requires permission from the region’s governorate and an approval from the ministry. If you trust me in this position and gave me a license to operate, then let me work freely and I guarantee that there will be nothing against the system or the culture. There is a lack of flexibility and it is one of my greatest disappointments.
* The interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Haifa Jamal Al-Lail is a member of the board of trustees of the Alexandria Trust, the U.K. charity that also supports Al-Fanar Media.