Thursday, September 24, 2009

KAUST may test Saudi higher education system

A few weeks ago I was taken to task by a reader who complained about my enthusiasm for the academic potential of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which had its inauguration this week.

The reader implied that I was na├»ve to believe that KAUST will benefit any Saudis, noting that KAUST is nothing more than a “$10 billion write-off.”

The reader writes: “KAUST barely brings any benefit to the local population. It has been created as a gated microcosm whereby foreign intellectuals and scholars from around the world come, live in their own little worlds whereby they need not have any interaction with the local population, and enlighten each other at the expense of King Abdullah's $10 billion endowment … and will then conveniently leave after benefiting from years of tax-free income.”

I think the observer fails to grasp simple economics. But I will get to that in a moment.

The reader continues with a more valid point: “What … actually (will) be a landmark project would be a complete overhaul of the education system, which is failing spectacularly at nurturing homegrown Saudi talent.”

The fact is that KAUST is likely to be a boon for local job market if the global economy recovers from the disasters of 2008. As for the quality of the Saudi lower educational system, I couldn’t agree more.

But KAUST is the test case as to whether its successes can be applied to entire the Saudi education system in the future. But let’s address the economic impact first.

KAUST is situated on a 24-acre campus in Thuwal, about 50 miles north of Jeddah. Three residential districts for men and women include more than 3,000 housing units for faculty, students and their families numbering upwards of 5,000 and more. Yes, the campus will be self-contained with markets, theater, a bowling alley, bank and other support services.

There is a danger that KAUST faculty and students will live in their own little bubble. There are plenty of examples in Saudi Arabia with self-contained residential compounds where many Westerners remain behind compound walls. But I think it’s unlikely since Jeddah is only a short distance away from the campus.

But more importantly is that that the campus’ residential and commercial project is expected to create 500,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2016, according to KAUST officials. The nearby Knowledge Economic City is expected to create 20,000 jobs in the Madinah providence by 2014. And this does not include the benefits the region will reap with the completion of the proposed railway that will link the Red Seat with the Arabian Gulf.

It’s a mistake to believe that KAUST’s success or failure is not linked to the current Saudi education system. Certainly on an international level, Saudi Arabia’s lower education system has failed its students with too much emphasis placed on non-academic curriculum.
The standards of higher Saudi education are less of an issue, although. Western universities continue to accept Saudi university degree holders in great numbers for postgraduate work, so we can’t call the system a failure.

The role I hope KAUST will play in developing better higher academic standards is the international makeup of its faculty and students. According to KAUST, the current faculty of 71 professors is 14 percent American, 7 percent German, 6 percent Canadian and 6 percent Chinese.

The university provost is Dr. Brian Moran, an American who served as chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Northwestern University. KAUST’s president is Choon Fong Shih, who was president and vice-chancellor of National University of Singapore.

The student population, which numbers only about 400 now, is 15 percent Saudi, 14 percent Chinese, 11 percent Mexican and 8 percent American. The rest of the students come form nearly 60 other countries. Students, particularly Saudis, thrive in an international environment and their exposure to non-Saudi students will go a long
way to breaking down barriers between the Arab world, the West and developing countries.

While I sound like an optimist I am not kidding myself of the obstacles ahead. A mixed-gender student population is going to be difficult for many Saudis to accept. I suspect the university will be under tremendous pressure from law authorities because the campus is not accessible to routine inspection like other Saudi universities. Further, Western academics teaching Saudis opens the university to
criticism from conservatives that the West is corrupting Saudi youth.

I suppose we can sit back and hope that KAUST fails; that its impact on Saudis will be minimal and the grand experiment will be an object lesson that Saudis have no need for foreign meddlers in our education system. But if my critic is correct that the Saudi education system is a failure, then KAUST is indeed a bold experiment that deserves our support to ensure that it succeeds, and the lessons we learn there
will be passed on to the rest of the Kingdom.

It’s easy to dismiss KAUST as a $10 billion debacle that further lines the pockets of expatriate academics. It’s more courageous to take $10 billion risks to ensure Saudi Arabia future in the international


Anonymous said...

sorry to disappoint you but that reader is absolutely right

irisheyesksa said...

Actually, Dr Moran is Irish, born and bred, although his PhD is from Brown University in the US

Siraj said...

Optimism is not a bad thing, I admit. But this has to be combined with a perspective on reality and a judgement on the past experiences. You do - to be fair - express a concern whether KAUST will actually turn out to be a bubble, like so many other things in Saudi (and I speak from first hand experience, having lived in the country for several years).

What I would say is this: any attempt at modernising/reforming/helping (call it what you may) the education system in Saudi (and surrounding countries) is very welcome. What I hope from the KAUST initiative is not that we will end up with a world-class institution overnight (or even for several years to come), but that the region gets some exposure to the (1) scientific methods that emphasise objectivity, rationality and methodology, (2) modern educational system specially from a curriculum and administrative purposes and (3) an appreciation of the benefits that a free, mixed/multicultural thinking brings to the human thought process. Such things, I hope, could be experienced and replicated elsewhere in the region and hope to be benefited from (even at a superficial level at first).

I like in the UK and we have some of the oldest educational institutions in the world. There is a point to be made here: modern, big buildings, new economic cities, wider roads and any other material attempt does not bring any benefit to the educational system. What matters are are two things: first, a free (and I mean free!) and a constructive attitude to approaching science (be it physical/natural or social), and secondly, means to be aware of the immediate problems surrounding us so that they can be tackled. The university should not be insulated (in a compound!) from the rest of the society.

Saudi Arabia, admittedly, faces some unique challenges. The need to address the concerns of the youth amongst a society set deep in cultural and conservative traditions is not easy.

But I repeat myself: optimism is not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. Because if hope and optimism die, we are left with nothing.

While intellect and rationality are critical to success (in this context), a real passion for change and progress is really the time of the need. We need to do more. This world deserves better.

Bill said...

My 13 year old son, an Australian, loves science - specially biology - and thinks that's what he wants to do with his life.

He read all about KAUST and it inspired him so much he now says he wants to go there to do research when he's older - not MIT, not Harvard, not Cambridge but KAUST in Saudi Arabia.

Sure KAUST is in its infancy and my boy is many many years away from postgrad scientific research but your reader will have to explain to me how something that can inspire such feelings in a kid about a country that usually only attracts negative comment in the West is a bad thing, because I just don't get it...

vishakha said...

In Pune, India, many educationalists like Dr. Arun Nigvekar have come together to form Seamless Education Academy, that is the first and only Creativersity in India. they have very recently launched a blog ( as well. it seems here that they want to give a focus to the creative genius in their students in RJ, Sound Engineering, Gemmology, Animation and Broadcast Media. i think that initiatives like these are a ray of hope and really need to be commended.

Arjen Rienks said...

Having visited KAUST recently I can only admire the fact that this huge campus and the associated residential areas have been built in only two years. The amount of equipment on campus is equally impressive, from the Shaheen supercomputer, an extensive (electron) microscope facility and an extensive visualization lab. The Saudi's decided to purchase "best in class" for everything, up to the office furniture.

Will KAUST succeed in its mission of opening up Saudi Arabia to modern science and to get young Saudi people interested in it? It is difficult to predict and far too early to tell but it will be extremely difficult. The society surrounding it is governed by the strict Islamic (shari'a) law and recently a conflict on KAUST teaching (the fact that classes at KAUST are mixed-sex) has been going up to the level of HM the King, forcing him to fire one of the religious leaders. That could result in big setbacks for KAUST once HM passes away (he is 85, after all). Will the KAUST endowment continue after his death?

The current challenges KAUST faces is that the recruiters for the faculty and staff have done extensive over-promising "your house will be ready and waiting for you" "the lab is completely equipped" and, unfortunately the reality on housing (bad construction, long repair times) has already proven to be a nightmare for some. KAUST is 90 km north of Jeddah so anything not available in the small campus shops means a long drive in Saudi traffic (passing on the hard shoulder with 160 km/h is perfectly OK). Power outages are very common (no power on the complete campus for more than one hour, like last week).

The (potential) faculty has to face the question if living in the golden cage of the KAUST campus with all that nice equipment but otherwise being literally in the desert (even worse, Red Sea shores, meaning 40 C and 90 % salt humidity) is something that advances their scientfic careers. Due to the attractive salaries (~ 100 K$ and up, tax free, moving expenses paid) many "gold-seekers" have joined.

I really hope and wish for the Saudi people and the surrounding countries that KAUST will make a change but I must say that in my view the chance of success is very, very low.

Anonymous said...

Being a graduate of the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, I can almost guarantee that this will be a failure. Why? One word. Co-ED.

When you force a system that conflicts with the Islamic requirements of separation of the sexes then you are asking for trouble. The political system there is such that this will create big time problem for the Saud dynasty.

Other problems such as very high humidity and salt levels is troublesome too. The $$$$ are not the only thing. Researchers who are enticed by $$$$ only are not the true researchers in my opinion.

Moreover, the research that is being showcased to happen in the future should help "local" industry and solve "local" problems such as water treatment, power, irrigation, farming, etc. Looking at the several disciplines, it merely is research for the sake of research. Even if there is some benefit, it is likely to go back to the founding companies who are not Saudi-based.

A sanity check is needed here.

Anonymous said...

well.. it's like I thought!

Anonymous said...

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