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The Saudi Education Landscape – Much to be Done

May 16, 2011

I wrote yesterday about Princess Noura University, whose massive new campus in Riyadh was opened yesterday by the King. I happened to be in Riyadh at the time.

As a counterpoint to the celebrations, I came upon a rather downbeat assessment of the Saudi education system in yesterday’s Arab News that set me thinking.

In Certificates of the poor state of our educational system, originally published by Al Eqtisadiah, Abdul Rahman Muhammed Al Sultan laments the low standard of teaching, the disconnect between success at school and prospects of employment and the failure of attempts to reform the system. He goes on to say:

The failure to correct our educational system will cost us. We all know that the recent decisions made by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to make temporary employees permanent, increase employment opportunities in the government and pay assistance to the unemployed are aimed at resolving the unemployment problem. The royal decisions will result in an extra financial burden on the government as a result of the creation of more jobs in the public sector. This will be a long commitment on the part of the government. Circumstances may change. Oil prices may not remain as high as they are today, and the volume of oil exports may also drop. This may take us back to the days when the budget suffered deficits and development projects shrank. The salaries of government employees constitutes a large chunk of government spending.

The present expansion of employment in the public sector will be at the expense of the government jobs in the future. Future graduates will have few chances to be employed by the government. If more than 400,000 secondary school students are expected to graduate this year, you can imagine that the future graduates will have very little chances of getting government jobs.

Attempts to rectify the loopholes of our education system through training programs by the Human Resources  Development Fund have failed. They have also failed in increasing job opportunities for Saudis in the private sector.

We need brave measures to save our education system from its present regression. Otherwise we will face a big problem in the future. The problem will not be solved by employing more people in the public sector. We have to take real reform actions to improve the quality of our graduates. It is pointless to say we have made progress while everybody knows that our education system is bad and is in need of courageous steps to rectify.

Clearly Abdulrahman Al Sultan is not impressed by the efforts of the Ministry of Education to address many of the underlying problems in the education system through its offshoot Tatweer – a corporation specifically set up to improve curriculum, teaching standards and educational technology.

With apologies to all my educationalist friends both within and outside Saudi Arabia who know far more about the subject than me – and would perhaps be able to blow what I have to say on the matter out of the water – here are some thoughts from a simple soul who has had some dealings with the Saudi education system, but is by no means an expert.

The issue of employment is paramount.

Effective training and development of young entrants to the workforce can effectively make good many of the educational gaps resulting from failures in the primary and secondary systems. If the government is prepared to make funds  available to the private and public sectors to pay for supplementary education programmes for first-time employees, such programmes, if properly designed and organised, could make a big difference.

That does not help the unemployed. A national service scheme for the young unemployed might do so. I wrote about this idea, which came from a Saudi friend, in a recent post. The context was Bahrain, but the concept could equally apply to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Technical and Vocational Training Council could have a role both in supplementary programs and in administering a non-military national service scheme. Its current remit is to establish technical institutes designed to meet the vocational skills needs of the Saudi economy. It will be familiar with learning by doing, which is a part of the gap left by the education system. The physical institutes it has set up around the country most likely have spare capacity to handle additional students, and possibly access to additional faculty.

A new Saudization plan has been launched by labour minister Adel Fakieh. I will not comment on it here, because it is too big a subject and deserves a separate analysis. But hopefully it will address some of the obstacles to getting young Saudis into work.

The second big issue is the curriculum. Thanks to the Tatweer programme, I understand that there have been a number of positive changes to the curriculum, but that the focus on rote learning, and what some perceive as a lopsided emphasis on religious education, have not changed significantly.

I appreciate that this goes to the heart of Saudi society – the ongoing debate between different elements of society about the purpose of education. It’s a sensitive subject. The current emphasis in the system on the liberal arts – those disciplines that most effectively teach pupils to think critically – is close to zero. That’s not to say that young Saudis emerge from school with no critical thinking skills. And teachers are now being encouraged to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills of their charges. But most students acquire those skills despite rather than because of the system – through  individual teachers, parents, peers and personal curiosity.

I have no startling insights to offer here. I would encourage the government to press on with its reform of the curriculum – no matter what the political cost, and what eggshells will be stamped upon in the process. It’s that important.

Finally, moving to the teachers. Teachers who are undervalued will underperform. While there are fixed salary scales for teachers in state education, this does not apply in the private sector. Private school operators only have two ways to increase profit – increase fees, and cut staffing costs. In a competitive market, increasing fees is not easy, unless they invest in value-added activities that differentiate them from their rivals. So the easy option is to cut back on salaries of teachers.

A Saudi friend recently told me about one female teacher who is paid a salary of SR1000 a month by the private school that employs her. This is one third of the new civil service minimum wage set by the government recently. Her driver, on whom she depends to get to work, is paid SR1200 a month! Why she bothers is beyond me – by claiming the new unemployment benefit she could receive double the amount from the government. The same friend told me that the school receives subsidies from the government for each Saudi that they employ. Cutting back on teacher salaries is one way they can improve profitability. She and others like her can only make ends meet by private tutoring in her own time. How the additional hours are likely to diminish her effectiveness in her main job is questionable, but her energy levels are hardly likely to be enhanced by the extra workload.

Surely there is a case for a blanket minimum wage for teachers, whichever sector they are working in? If this were to work, however, another practice would need to be stamped out. This is the misuse of visas issued by the Ministry of Labour. As long as it is possible for a person to be brought in on a work visa as a clerk, say, to work as a teacher, it will always be possible for employers to get around any minimum wage stipulation.

An additional factor is that the education system would be in great difficulty without the many foreign teachers it employs. Most of these are from neighbouring countries like Egypt and Jordan. No problem with that, provided that the teachers are of the requisite quality. This is especially the case in the private schools, but according to one source, 20% of the teachers in the state system are of foreign origin. The population is growing so fast that local teachers are unlikely to be able to satisfy the demand, especially in outlying areas that are not popular with teachers from the main urban centres.

So if we accept that the system will have to continue using foreign teachers for years to come, would it not be sensible to adopt a new approach to the training and hiring of those teachers? Why not take a leaf out of other government departments and GCC countries that are protecting themselves against food shortages by buying agricultural capacity in countries such as Cambodia and the Phillipines?

If the Saudi government were to set up education colleges in, say, Egypt and Jordan, it would be able to control the quality of the teachers it recruited from those countries, and ensure that they were trained to deliver the Saudi curriculum – hopefully in the meantime suitably upgraded – to a measurable standard. In this way, everybody wins. Employment for Egyptian and Jordanian nationals, higher teaching standards and happy kids. The same standards could be put in place in the Saudi education colleges. Result: a new breed of teachers operating to consistent standards. The same colleges could also be used for re-education of teachers already in the system.

This would not be the same as outsourcing production. It would be owning the means of production, but in another country where raw materials are plentiful.

But the primary concern is the standard of Saudi teachers. Again, Tatweer is attempting to address this with teacher education programmes, but if Abdul Rahman Al Sultan is to be believed, their  process thus far has not yet made a serious difference.

I’m sure that Tatweer’s Western consultants will also have advised them that re-training and leadership development is not enough. To improve teaching standards there needs to be the ability to remove those teachers who have little potential to improve. And firing people from government jobs is not easy in the Kingdom. So motivated head teachers who want to improve their schools are in the same position as football coaches who are expected to take their teams up the league tables without being given funding to buy new players. Some can do it, but many others give up in despair.

Another much-heralded aspect of the Tatweer programme is investment in technology. Electronic whiteboards, modern networks, laptops for the students and so on. All fine, but technology is no substitute for talent. It’s the teachers that count.

So the story seems to be – judging from the various conversations I have had on the subject – that the outlook for education in Saudi Arabia is not as gloomy as the Arab News’s columnist suggests. But much remains to be done, and there is plenty of scope for creative solutions.

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