x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The university of high ambition

A huge new research institution costing Dh9.8bn opens in Saudi as concerns are voiced about the country's education system.

A billboard advertising the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah.
A billboard advertising the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah.

JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia's largest research university opened its doors on Saturday for its first 400 students selected from different parts of the world, marking the soft launching of the university ahead of its official opening on September 23, which falls on the 79th anniversary of the country's National Day. While the kingdom is celebrating the opening of the 10-billion Saudi riyals (Dh 9.8bn) King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust), its education system is under heavy criticism at home and abroad. At home, many are blaming the education system for most of the kingdom's shortcomings, especially unemployment, which was at 10 per cent in 2008. For women, the rate has hit almost 27 per cent this year. Trad al Aamari, an activist who launched the kingdom's first civil anti-poverty campaign, said poverty is on the rise in Saudi because of the poor performance of the education system. "All the kingdom's anti-poverty programmes are designed away from the ministry of education and this is wrong." Abroad, concerns remain that schools are instilling religious fanaticism in the minds of the kingdom's youth. Kaust, which focuses on scientific research and offers master and doctoral degrees in applied sciences and engineering, is located in Thuwal, a small village on the Red Sea, about 80 kilometres north of Jeddah. The university has recruited faculty members from 80 countries. Its first students come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and Arab countries as well as Europe, the United States, East Asia and South Africa. Kaust is a dream project of Saudi King Abdullah, who has said he wants to transform the country into a knowledge-based society and economy. The school's president, Choon Fong Shih, who spent nine years as president and vice chancellor of the National University of Singapore, told pan-Arab daily al Hayat that the new university would help turn the king's three visionary goals for the country into reality. According to Mr Shih, the first goal is to create a scientific base, while the second is to use this base in diversifying the income source of the oil-dependant economy and turn it into a knowledge-based one. The university, which is managed by the state oil company Saudi Aramco, also hopes to fulfil the king's third goal of bridging cultures and bringing people together. On its website, the school says its goals include embodying "the highest international standards of scholarship, research, education, and learning, while providing unfettered access to information and share knowledge, skills, and expertise to achieve economic growth and prosperity". The university aims to "create an international community of scholars dedicated to advanced science" and welcome leaders in science, technology, commerce, business, and education through appointments and partnerships. The website says "the university will provide researchers the freedom to be creative and experiment". The opening of Kaust is the latest move in an effort to remake the country's educational establishment that began in February when King Abdullah appointed Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a former figure in the Saudi intelligence service who headed Al Aghar group, as the new minister of education. Prince Faisal worked with the Al-Aghar Group's think-tank team to formulate a strategy for transforming Saudi into a knowledge-based society by 2022. In a column last year in Saudi's English-daily, Arab News, Prince Faisal wrote: "Society should be characterised with a sense of sustainable growth through people working in an environment of advanced technology and equipped with a state-of-the-art infrastructure aimed at achieving a high standard of living, while holding on to the Shariah and sublime Islamic values." Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Saudi educational system has been under heavy criticism from the United States and other western nations, which have urged it to modify religious teachings that promulgate the concepts of jihad and Walaa and Baraa , which call for hostility towards non-Muslims. There has been resistance to the reforms of the curricula, especially from the religious establishment, said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of reform-oriented al Watan newspaper. He said that instead of focusing on the curricula's role in helping students prepare for the job market, contending groups have fought over how Islamic or secular the courses were and that has been delaying reforms. Ahmad Raddah, a Saudi who teaches Islamic studies to primary school students, said similar struggles occur in the ministry of education. "Students are studying some religious texts that are written by scholars 300 years back ? Any attempt to amend these texts is rejected by the strict conservatives in the ministry," he said. Another problem with the system, Mr Raddah pointed out, is the lack of incentives for teachers. "We don't take courses to update or develop our skills; our opinion on the curricula is not of importance to the ministry. "Our salaries are not encouraging and this in itself is a major problem," he said. Thousands of teachers have filed the kingdom's largest legal suit against the ministry of education for the abuse of their financial rights to better income. The lawsuit is still going on after the ministry increased their wages but failed to include the past 10 years in their pension. wmahdi@thenational.ae