Although the Saudis are well aware that their universities are not very good, they were still shocked to learn that they came at the bottom of a list that had 3,000 universities on it, according to a recent classification.
I read the minister of higher education’s comment, who cannot be blamed, as he earnestly tried to defend the universities. He objected to the criteria of judgment and the method of data collection, which was mainly comprised of general information gathered off websites rather than employing practical means of research to obtain accurate results. Surely his objection is valid, but the truth is that most Saudi universities – if not indeed trailing behind the international ones – are at least responsible for the decline in the standard of university graduates and their rejection by the job market. This means that the problem is not where Saudi universities stand in relation to the international list, but rather in the confidence and certitude of the parents, students and society, something that has now reached a state of doubt and blame that necessitates discussion and reviewing.
What spared the universities the participation in the race is the fact that from an Arab perspective they are ascribed a simple role; just another school, whereas in advanced societies they are a center of guidance, development and change. The truth is the government is fully responsible for the state the universities are in since it is the one to set the main program and curriculums, finance and handle their affairs. The university administrations have an even bigger responsibility as they have been given a substantial authority internally, which may account for their lack in reviewing and comparing themselves in relation to other universities of the same caliber.
We can generally say with a clear conscience that the impoverishment of university education is the reason behind the stunted development, which cannot be rectified by building modern airports, highways, large factories, impressive malls, or luxurious houses. All these are material constructions that have nothing to do with the building of human beings, and all that will remain of them one day will only be concrete ruins.
The chief development should be in increasing the human ability to a level that would enable them to build for themselves, rather than rely on their wallets to achieve that, or importing foreign labor and expertise to carry out their duties. The levels of advancement or backwardness can be identified through the university; with its curriculums, teachers, equipment, programs, and the research role it contributes to the community it serves. You just need to look around you to see the large number of graduates, new victims for the most part who are getting rejected in the job markets for their lack of qualification – and that doesn’t require an international list to determine where the defect is. Unfortunately, this education which has received a great deal of criticism has seen little changes either for fear of change, or from a failure to understand the problem, or a lack in funds.
Some years ago when I inquired as to the reason behind prohibiting the establishment of private universities, I was informed that the government believes that it should not have any rivals in the education field. And what a weak excuse that is seeing as the government is incapable of improving its university education.
However, we are now witnessing a change in that philosophy through the licensing permission given to some international universities, as well as the financing of scholarships to study abroad in international universities. And yet much remains to be done, especially on the public university education level.