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Foreign universities in the Gulf: a solid education in the sun

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According to what some newspapers reported more than a month ago, the private education department at the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia was reviewing several requests from foreign and Arab universities for licenses to set up branches in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Higher Education has held meetings between its own advisers and advisers at Saudi universities to prepare a special register of foreign universities and a list of regulations for foreign investment. The Ministry requires that the foreign universities that have submitted requests be in the top 100 universities worldwide and that faculty members meet the criteria to teach at the parent university. The same curriculum of the parent university will be taught at the Saudi branch, with the addition of materials about Islamic culture and the Arabic language. Internal regulations must abide by the customs and traditions of the Islamic religion and not contradict any regulations in place in Saudi Arabia. Male students and female students must be segregated.

And so will Saudi Arabia join the other Gulf countries that have opened their doors to branches of foreign universities in recent years. Yet, is the mere opening of a Gulf branch of a prestigious university, with a fancy name and a lofty standing in the sciences, enough to produce a graduate at the same level as a student who has graduated from the parent university?

Better off

In my opinion the answer to this question must be no, and that graduate will probably not be much better than a student who graduated from an outstanding private or public Gulf-based university. Still, the graduate will be better off on the whole if the parent university was able to actually maintain the quality of teaching and of the curriculum at the branch. These are just hypotheses, though, as the experience is new and we have not yet seen the long-term results. There have been successful experiences in other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, but we cannot compare the experiences of these countries with the Gulf nations. There are deep-seated differences in their respective cultures and history and in the structure and system of higher education. The system and regulations of the foreign universities themselves and the history of their establishment also differ.

In view of the conditions set by the Ministry of Higher Education for opening a branch of a foreign university in Saudi Arabia, we see that, for instance, faculty members must meet the selection and teaching criteria of the parent university and an identical curriculum must be taught. At the same time, though, these universities are subject to 99 percent of internal regulations for private education, as reported in the newspapers. Such regulations stipulate that the university’s Board of Trustees include a representative of the Ministry of Higher Education, and the board is formed by a decree from the Minister himself. Likewise, it requires that the provost of the university be a Saudi national appointed by a ministerial decree for a four-year term, which is eligible for renewal. The university will be subject to supervision by the Ministry to ensure the adoption of regulations, curriculum plans and science programs, as well as the degrees and grades that are granted. The Ministry will also ensure that rules are issued to guarantee academic suitability in the quality of programs, educational curricula and research centers, and to ensure that university programs and curricula are conducted in accordance with specific objectives in line with the educational policy of the Kingdom.

Performance review

The university will be subject to periodic performance review by way of reports and site visits. If a university complies with all of these regulations, do we really expect it to be on the same academic level as the parent university? It is well known that the prestigious foreign universities are independent and have their own academic curriculum, principles and style. Moreover, one of the most important things that benefits the student who pursues his studies abroad is the exposure to a varied educational curriculum and a different teaching style. Such exposure opens before him horizons of knowledge, information and “out-of-the-box” thinking far removed from memorization, recitation and generalizations. This does not come from the mere transfer and replication of experience by constructing buildings, putting the name of the foreign university on them, and importing faculty and curricula appropriate for our culture, particularities and religion, which requires a great degree of monitoring and supervision. I do not know the regulations of other Gulf countries that permit the establishment of branches of foreign universities, but I expect that there are still some restrictions.

It is assumed that the desired objective of opening branches of foreign universities is to raise the quality and capacity of higher education in Saudi Arabia, as well as to reduce scholarships abroad and the associated costs and to redirect a portion of these expenses to the state and scholarship students, and finally to create competition among private universities. I do not doubt that the establishment of these branches will raise the quality and capacity of education and create competition among private universities. As for public universities, they will remain outside competition and development, except for the few that are intent on keeping pace with the developments. This is because the students who enter private universities are either of a certain class or the children of expatriates living in Saudi Arabia, which in time will lead to the widening of the quality gap that already exists between graduates of private universities and those of public universities. This, in turn, will affect employment, because the private sector attracts the best and brightest and the public sector cannot absorb all of the remaining graduates, thereby exacerbating the unemployment problem among those with college degrees.

Valuable benefits

As for the reduction in scholastic exchanges, I believe that one of the valuable benefits that stays with the scholarship student is the experience of living in a different society and environment. The student experiences interaction with people from various cultures and nationalities, adjusting to the new lifestyle, learning about civilizations and being introduced to the Western depiction of Saudi nationals, which has become marked by terrorism and fundamentalism. These students are our ambassadors abroad, especially if they present the good, hard-working and moderate model. Experiences like these enrich a person’s life and open his mind and perceptions. Plus, scholarships are open to students from all social classes as long as they can prove their intellectual superiority and earnestness. Hence, scholarships offer equal opportunities.

A lot of Saudis have sent their children, especially their daughters, to study in foreign universities in the neighboring Gulf countries because they are nearby and do not require a visa. They also have varied fields of study that may not be available in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, such a degree would carry the name of a prestigious university, and that is what is really important.

In the book Higher Education in Saudi Arabia: A Journey to Find Identity published by Saqi Books in 2011, Professor Ahmed Issa, former director of Al-Yamamah College in Riyadh, remarks that the biggest issue in higher education is the quality of educational material. He also says the linkage of the universities to the state narrows the room for freedom and hence the space for innovation and excellence. Professor Issa believes that Saudi universities are all identical and lack an identity, unlike universities abroad, where they are careful to develop and preserve their own identities. Thus, students from Saudi Arabia and from all over the world seek to study at those universities. I think that branches of foreign universities lose a lot of the identity and nature of their parent universities, as well as the quality of academics and standards of scientific research.

In my opinion, opening branches of foreign universities in Saudi Arabia will benefit a small segment of society, especially young women. Perhaps these universities will be able to realize a quantum leap in the level of higher education as a whole—that is, if academic freedom and scientific research is permitted and they focus on the disciplines of science and medicine. They must also take advantage of the capabilities and experiences of their parent universities in developing public universities, through cooperation and the passing on of expertise. However, it is necessary for the Ministry to make an effort to improve the performance of public universities, in which the greater numbers of students are enrolled and to direct their focus towards scientific and research specialties.

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