Higher education is a very important part of a country and culture’s development. Trained professionals and intellectuals are necessary to accomplish the challenges that come with building, expanding, and modernizing a country. The Saudis recognize this, and have invested huge sums of money into developing the Saudi educational system as a result. We were given the opportunity to visit the prized jewel of this system, which happens to be the highest ranked university in the Arab world: King Saud University.
On Monday, we made a visit to the incredibly impressive King Saud University, the largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Saudi Arabia. While we were there, we talked to faculty and students about university life and schooling in Saudi Arabia. King Saud University is an impressive institution. It consists of a women’s college and campus and a men’s college and campus, a reflection of the separation of sexes in Saudi Arabia. There are more than 50,000 undergrad students enrolled in the university, as well as 8,000 graduate students, and the university faculty numbers over 6,000 people. According to the Dean we talked to, the university offers virtually every major, having 17 distinct colleges, 2 hospitals, numerous research centers, and around 130 department chairs. There are also 148 grad school programs and 48 PhD programs as well. Needless to say, King Saud University is huge.
Major themes which were reinforced throughout our visit were how important the Saudis view education for developing their growing nation and how Saudi university students go through an experience quite similar to American students. As the Kingdom develops, modernizes, and diversifies its economy, it will be in much need of a diverse array of professionals from different backgrounds. Right now, most Saudi graduates specialize in engineering, the sciences, and medicine. According to the faculty we talked to, this is largely due to the current demands of the market. Indeed, the size and competitiveness of the various graduate programs and colleges in the university are determined right now by the needs of the market. However, students and faculty expressed hope and optimism that a greater emphasis will eventually be placed on the humanities as the Kingdom continues to develop. As one of the Deans of the university put it, a fully developed country needs not only engineers and doctors but also lawyers, philosophers, and artists. The Saudi’s talked much about the King Abdullah Scholarship, which has helped send nearly 100,000 Saudi students to the United States to study. They also mentioned that the university has numerous international students, coming from places such as Yemen, Singapore, China, Pakistan, and even Spain, who are helped with Saudi scholarships.
Being a Saudi student is, according to those we talked to, much like being an American student. They specialize in a specific field and major and take classes mostly dedicated to that field. They have to pass final exams, which were actually taking place when we visited the university. Like with us, Saudi students often spend much of their time in the library, looking things up on the computers and studying in private study-spaces. Though most in the huge undergrad population live at home in the city and commute to school, there are many dorms also available on campus. As we drove through the campus, we saw quads, basketball courts, and all of the other things one would expect a university to have to keep their students busy and entertained. In their first year of university, Saudi students are given preparatory courses, which help prepare them for school and which determine their academic interests and strengths. According to their performance in this preparatory year, they are then put into specialized colleges which focus on specific fields. Upon graduation, the students may enter the grad school, but are sometimes also hired by the school to serve as lecturers. According to the Dean we spoke to, this helps ensure that there will always be a supply of teachers at the school, an idea I found very interesting and practical.
The tour of the campus was very nice. It is a massive and beautiful school, far larger than any school I’ve experienced back in the United States. Upon arrival, we spoke to a number of the Deans and higher administrative personnel about the history of the school and some statistics about it. After this, our tour began. We were first shown the massive conference center, a huge auditorium that can fit multiple hundreds of people. It was incredibly impressive, especially considering that the space itself was larger than most academic buildings on my campus! The staff there was preparing for an upcoming conference on the future Riyadh public transit system, so they were busy at work. From the conference center, we were taken to the massive university library and given quite an extensive tour. The library is 6 stories tall, with sections for English books and Arabic books. Like with our own libraries, there were plenty of students busy at work on the computers and in cubicles looking up information and studying for their exams. The staff clearly takes pride in this library, and indeed it seems as though it is one of the most impressive in Saudi Arabia. It is stocked with rows and rows of books, both in English and Arabic, on what seemed like every single subject imaginable. When visiting the library bookstore, where students often buy their class textbooks, we learned that the Saudi government heavily subsidizes their book purchases. Considering that textbooks back in the United States can cost hundreds of dollars, I’m quite jealous of that!
From the library we were taken to the law and political science department, a good choice considering that we are all political science majors and that I was most interested in this part of the Saudi education. We met and talked with the various professors and chair of the department, who were interested to learn about our trip and eager to share their ideas about their country. The discussion, which lasted a good 45 minutes, was fascinating. The professors talked much about how they thought their country was starting to enter the modern world, and that progress, such as equal rights for women and greater political freedoms, were coming fast. They rebutted the criticisms often aimed at the Kingdom that change wasn’t coming fast enough, arguing that change is a difficult and often complicated process and that many impediments, such as a conservative older generation, were keeping a more rapid pace of change from occurring. It was pointed out that the United States, despite its history, had only given women the right to vote 90-some years ago and African Americans true equality fifty years ago.
The professors also spoke to their hope that there will be greater cultural communication and cooperation between the Americans and the Saudis in the future. After all, the post-9/11 era is one of general ignorance and misunderstanding between our two people. As mentioned earlier, over 100,000 Saudi students are currently studying in the United States, but very few Americans get the opportunity to travel and study in Saudi Arabia. We all agreed that programs such as the one we are on right now are a key step in building closer ties between our two countries and peoples.
It was very interesting and exciting to go to the university and see how Saudi students experience their education. In many ways that experience is quite similar to our own schooling experience. It made me realize that the differences between our two cultures and ways of life perhaps aren’t that vast, and that an education is just as valuable across the world as it is in the United States. As seen by the size of the university, and the pride the Saudis took in it, higher education is obviously something they feel is important for the continued growth and development of their country.