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Opinion: Developing Education - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Something important is happening in Saudi Arabia—something that deserves recognition. For the fourth time, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz is boosting education above and beyond the state’s education budget, by opening the door to foreign scholarships.

The first development was to raise the number of Saudi students studying abroad with government funding, which now exceeds 120,000, comprised of both males and females. Second, the number of state universities has increased from seven to 27 in less than 10 years.

What the King did was to allocate a large sum from outside the education budget—10 billion Saudi riyals (3 billion US dollars)—and when that sum was used up, he allocated another 80 billion riyals (25 billion dollars) to be spent exclusively on developing the education system. These were separate sums from the Ministry of Education’s annual budget, which is 121 billion riyals (over 32 billion dollars), most of which is spent on salaries and fixed expenses.

The additional 80 billion riyals—a large sum of money by any standard—has been allocated to completely overhaul the education system. In developing education, the country as a whole is also developed, and is moved forward to a new era—one of a state built on education and the skill and knowledge of its citizens.

This is Saudi Arabia’s real future, not the massive buildings and wide roads which would fall into rubble if the price of a barrel of oil fell to one dollar, leaving behind only people’s minds and their abilities to create, develop and produce.

Fortunately, education is the foundation of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s development program, to which he pays more attention than any other, and which leaves us no excuse for inaction or hesitancy. This means that we must try to build on the existing education system in order to enable it to change the nature of the country and its future. The information on the project I have read so far is general and does not allow one to make an informed judgment. It only summarizes the areas of expenditure in the budget allocated by the King for the development of education. It must be said that all the information is based on ideas which reflect the “needs of the education sector,” but not to develop education, while the budget allocations do not seem to be prioritized as we had hoped they would be.

The previous tranche of 10 billion riyals was mostly spent on building schools, and the lessons of this were not learned. In the new project, the ideas are repeated: more modern buildings. But these building projects do not solve the essential problems of the education system, in terms of quality and direction. It is worth remembering that the greatest schools in the world are not necessarily those housed in plush buildings, and the buildings of the world’s most important universities are not as fancy as ours, which are more akin to five-star hotels. Education is about the quality of its content.

The single biggest item in the budget, 35 billion riyals, will go on construction, maintenance, and the purchase of land. As for the only “cure” for the Kingdom’s ailing education sector—that is, electronic learning or e-learning—a little over 1 billion riyals have been allocated for this. This will help equip some 250,000 school classrooms with smart-classroom technology, with another billion riyals allocated to build and connect the networks.

What we need—and what we strongly demand—is for the majority of this 80 billion riyals to be spent on the development of education itself. Here I am not ignoring the country’s need for new schools for a third of its five million pupils, nor the opening of youth clubs in local areas, or kindergartens, and so on. But if a pupil does not learn anything useful, then there is no point to the new amenities, not without an advanced curriculum, scientific education, and the incorporation of new and modern technologies.

Changing the current situation requires developing curricula, training teachers, and enabling pupils to move from merely being taught to actually learning. Electronic learning will compensate for the lack in schools’ workshops, laboratories and libraries, and will compensate for the weaknesses of some teachers. It will unlock the potential in both poor villages and rich cities, reduce the burden of overcrowded classrooms, and link traditional local education with the advanced international education that is constantly developing. It will reduce the distances between young pupils who are more technically developed than their teachers, and will help increase the use of electronic learning aids that are more sophisticated than the paper-based curricula inherited from the last century. It will also further enable the teaching of natural sciences, mathematics, and the other technical fields in the world of education.

This is what we need to do if we want to emulate South Korea, and not remain an oil state which lives on the intelligence and abilities of others. In the last three decades blame has been kicked around like a football at the curriculum, then teachers, then teaching methods. The job market blames the universities, who in turn blame the general education system—and the result is constant failure. Millions of graduates are not suited to the labor market, and it is time for a change. By shifting to modern education and e-learning, we can follow the examples of the northern European countries.

I do not think that it is useful to waste time in politicizing the issue. My opinion is that the real crime in education lies not in the attempt to hijack it, nor in the dilapidated buildings in which it takes place—it is worse than that. It is the neglect of development, whether due to the ignorance of those responsible for education, or the lack of attention paid to it. Progress stopped such a long time ago that it has become part of history, a part which is not in harmony with the sciences and the needs of modern times.

Therefore, the time that we have lost in developing our schools and teachers is time that cannot be caught up except by a leap in quality. Education Minister Prince Khalid Bin Abdulaziz is a tough administrator who has dealt with the youth during his long career, and this new education development project has made everyone enthusiastic. It is a project which can really change the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If it works, five million pupils will grow up to become qualified, successful people—people their country can rely on, not people who rely on their country.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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