“We will close the gap between the outputs of higher education and the requirements of the job market.”
That statement—repeated often in many Arab countries—is one of the goals in Vision 2030, the policy program of Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the country’s ruler in all but name. The program is focused on the two-thirds of the country’s population who are under the age of 30.
Vision 2030, first announced in 2016, combines social liberalization (last month the kingdom made it legal for women to drive cars) with reforms intended to prepare young people for life in a commercial economy, and to wean the country from its dependence on oil revenue. In the past, most young people expected to get a government job or make a living through some other means of government support. In higher education, Vision 2030 emphasizes technical and vocational education.
The crown prince’s policies have been described as “authoritarian populism” by Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, an independent research group in London that studies international relations
Ahmed al-Issa, the Saudi minister of education since December 2015 (and the third since Mohammad bin Salman’s father, King Salman, came to power), has a résumé that reflects the new emphasis on producing employable graduates from the country’s universities. He was previously the head of the private Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, which focuses on management and business, and was a member of the quality assurance body for higher education in Dubai’s free economic zones.
Meanwhile, the crown prince has given his name to a new higher education institution called the Prince Mohammad Bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship, which opened for its first academic year in 2017. Its aim, according to its website, is “to be the pre-eminent institution of higher learning that will unlock entrepreneurial potential in Saudi Arabia to create the jobs of the future and contribute to Saudi Arabia’s knowledge economy.”
Would-be entrepreneurs point out that they need to be able to set up private companies in commercial areas where governments may already have a monopoly. They also want stronger intellectual-property laws to protect them from people stealing their ideas. Educating entrepreneurs is useless, they say, unless they are also given the conditions and a legal framework to operate in.
Sultan Alamer, a doctoral student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that many of his colleagues who work in universities in the kingdom feel sidelined by the new policy. Alamer contributed a chapter to a new book on Saudi Arabia under Mohammad bin Salman titled Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, edited by Madawi al-Rasheed of the London School of Economics.
“Most of the consultancy work [on developing the new policy] was done without relying on the expertise of university professors,” he said. “Instead, the government hired management consultancy companies, or had contracts with western universities.”
Alamer said higher-education policy in Saudi Arabia was very different under the previous ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who ruled from 2005 to 2015. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program, established in the first year of his reign, has paid the expenses of thousands of Saudi students who study abroad each year, though its budget has shrunk in recent years
“During King Abdullah’s era, the scholarship program sent hundreds of thousands of students around the world,” he said. “I am one of those who was able to change his major from engineering to study philosophy and then to study political science, because of the opportunity provided to us by this program.
“The old policy created avenues for people to achieve social mobility and study whatever they liked,” Alamer said, “but that window has now closed.”
Under more recent scholarship policies, Saudi students are generally required to study in a government-selected discipline which can be as specific as “supply-chain management.” Students may have to repay the government if they change the focus of their studies.
Alamer noted that from 2005 to 2015—King Abdullah’s time in office—the number of universities in the country doubled, from about 30 to more than 60, including new universities in provinces that had been without one, according to the Ministry of Education. But while Saudi Arabia has a lot of expertise in construction and can easily build new campuses, filling those campuses with qualified professors has sometimes been difficult, and the new universities have led to additional problems.
“The universities used to be one of the ways the government solved the unemployment problem: to hire more people than was needed, especially in rural areas where there were no big ministries or agencies. This was one way to distribute wealth to the people,” Alamer said.
“Now they are trying to make universities efficient,” he said. “But you have to solve this problem in a way that doesn’t make people lose their jobs and livelihood.”
Inside the kingdom, Melfi Alrasheedi, an associate professor at King Faisal University in Hofuf, in the country’s Eastern Province, noted the need to manage expectations in response to the new policy. “The biggest challenge is to close the gap between the majors of higher-education graduates and the needs of the labor market, and developing public education and orienting students towards suitable career choices,” he said.
While Vision 2030 calls for societal changes that would give women more freedom and expand their participation in the workforce, it has not addressed the issue of women being allowed to take up scholarships abroad without needing the permission of a male family member.
For example, a student of physical therapy named Hajar, who did not want to give her full name or say where she was studying, said that while her test scores were good, she would be unable to travel abroad on a scholarship without being accompanied by a male family member. That requirement, while it is not always enforced, doubles the cost for a woman who wants to study abroad, along with requiring her to get family permission to travel.
“I am sure,” she said, “that, God willing, this condition will soon be removed, as I fully trust Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. My family approves and I expect a large number of families in Jeddah and Riyadh and the Eastern province would not object, but I’m also sure that many would object as well.”
Alrasheedi was optimistic that the policy would change. “Vision 2030 focuses on establishing positive values, building an independent identity for the youth of our country, and providing educational opportunities for all. Therefore, emphasizing independent personal fulfilment and equal opportunities makes allowing girls to go abroad on a scholarship without a male family member a certainty. We really hope to achieve this in Vision 2030,” he said.
The success of Vision 2030 will require profound cultural change. More than two years since Vision 2030 was first announced, most Saudi watchers say that a great deal more needs to be done before it becomes clear whether it is another grand announcement or real path toward progress.