Saudi Arabia needs a paradigm shift in higher education
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The higher education sector in Saudi Arabia has already made its mark in the Arab world, with 15 universities in the Kingdom earning a place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022, including five in the top 400.
This distinction is an outcome of the consistent efforts to develop this sector in recent years, including the provision of foreign scholarship opportunities, improvements in teaching and research standards, and the establishment of modern infrastructure.
Thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, the Kingdom is undergoing major socioeconomic reforms to meet the growing aspirations for a better life among the youth that form the bulk of the country’s population. This calls for an education system that contributes to economic growth by facilitating a “transition between different educational pathways,” and closing “the gap between the outputs of higher education and the requirements of the job market.”
To achieve these objectives, a paradigm shift is needed in the Saudi higher education sector, as its current profile is restricted to offering quality education in STEM — science, technology, engineering, math.
Liberal arts education provides the answer. This mode of learning has enabled American universities, especially in the Ivy League, to sustain global leadership and hence gain growing traction across the developed and developing world.
The value of liberal arts education lies in the interdisciplinary study and application of SSAH — social sciences, arts and humanities — along with STEM subjects. It combines the breadth of study across several broad fields of knowledge, as a general education requirement, with the depth of understanding in a major specialized field of study. This combination produces graduates with exceptional skills, such as creativity, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, digital technology and leadership.
Liberal arts education at the undergraduate level provides the foundation for graduate study in professional disciplines such as medicine, engineering, information technology, business and law, opening up multiple career paths for graduates.
Last month, Dr. Hamad M. Al-Sheikh, the Saudi education minister, took an important step in this regard by launching the Flexible Learning Pathways initiative, which seeks to develop the professional skills of well over half a million students and workers in partnership with global leaders in online education.
However, much more needs to be done to reshape the higher education sector so that it meets the underlying objectives of the national vision. Under the Ministry of Education’s New University System project, a serious effort must begin to institutionalize the prevailing mode of education at a global level. This is no longer a choice but a necessity in a world where technological innovation requires new ways of imparting knowledge.
In 2016, the year Vision 2030 was unveiled, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, floated the idea that the world was on the verge of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, “characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.”
This revolution rests on the knowledge economy and knowledge society. The former implies that the intellectual capital of a nation is the main driver of creativity and innovation, with a reliance on information and communication technology as an enabler. The latter is characterized by a high degree of dependency on the potential to create scientific and technological knowledge. In both cases, the quality of university education plays a central role.
Vision 2030 also represents the Kingdom’s drive for a knowledge economy and a knowledge society, both of which require human capital. Only university education can produce such human capital to help meet specific targets, such as increasing the share of women in the workforce or of small- and medium-sized enterprises in the national economy. The kind of education young Saudis receive from universities is therefore extremely important.
This brings us back to the value of a liberal arts education, which helps to ensure economic progress through the building of a knowledge economy, and social progress through the fostering of a knowledge society.
An education system that relies on STEM alone is therefore at an inherent disadvantage, unless it is fused with SSAH disciplines in a holistic, inter-disciplinary framework of studies.
The evidence for this is stark: The British Academy estimates that almost 60 percent of the chief executives of FTSE 100 index companies have studied SSAH. It is therefore leading SHAPE — Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy — a collaborative initiative of elite institutions such as Oxford University and the London School of Economics.
SSAH encompasses an array of subjects that range from anthropology, psychology and political science to languages, literature and philosophy. They teach us how to question, analyze, debate, evaluate, interpret, synthesize, compare evidence and communicate — skills that are critically important for producing independent thinkers and future leaders.
Of course, such trends are discouraged in conservative setups. But Saudi Arabia is changing for the good, with a leadership vision that seeks to tap the enormous potential of its youthful population, particularly among women. The social space is now reasonably open for celebrating cosmopolitan culture, reclaiming national heritage and debating critical issues.
Hence, reforms along liberal education lines are perfectly in order, beyond the current efforts to develop professional skills or modernize the curriculum of elementary education. The UAE and Qatar have already done so, by also collaborating with Western institutions — and there is no reason why the Kingdom should wait to build upon its current excellence in STEM education.
This urgent step is also needed to ensure that socioeconomic changes under Saudi Vision 2030 are smoothly implemented, and their manifold effects properly tackled. The focus on SSAH will in particular produce a wealth of ideas to project the positive realities of Saudi Arabia and overcome its negative perceptions in the world.
Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.