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Saudi Arabia needs a sea change in higher education

Newer fields of study must be encouraged to meet employment market demands

Saudi higher education students at King Saud University Reuters
Total demand for higher education in Saudi Arabia is predicted to reach 2.75 million places in 2030, up 40% from 2022

Higher education is seen as a pillar of economic growth in Saudi Arabia, part of the efforts to diversify its economy as outlined in Vision 2030. 

If the kingdom’s transformation programmes and its Saudisation drive are to be fulfilled, a sea change in curricula is needed.

This means a shift from traditional education offerings towards areas such as artificial intelligence, robotic sciences, nuclear energy and renewable energy. 

These newer fields of study need to be encouraged to overcome a mismatch between degree topics and the rapidly evolving demands of the employment market.

Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s largest single education market, with almost two million students enrolled in higher education in 2022.

At the moment only 5 percent of the kingdom’s students are registered in the private sector. The remainder are enrolled in public or semi-public institutions.

This imbalance is due to ease gradually, as the government seeks to increase the participation of the private sector. Ultimately, the government aims to shift from acting as a service provider towards the role of regulator and facilitator. This shift presents huge opportunities for the private sector.

Saudi student mobility trends are likely to have a significant impact on provision. In 2022, nearly 50,000 students from the kingdom were studying abroad, a 50 percent drop compared to over 100,000 students in 2019, according to Unesco data.

This figure represents an even more significant drop when compared to 2013/14, when almost 200,000 Saudi students were pursuing higher education abroad, with the majority (87 percent) fully funded by the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme.

This decline, and the shift towards study back home, provides an opportunity for international private universities looking to expand in the kingdom, especially those institutions which currently host Saudi students.

Based on the latest census issued in May 2023 the Saudi population is expected to increase to 40 million by 2030.

This implies that total demand for higher education will reach 2.75 million places in 2030, up 40 percent from an estimated 1.97 million places in 2022. This means additional demand of more than 800,000 new places by 2030.

It is important that regulators who are looking to ensure quality education for “everyone” remain cognisant of income disparities and help the large number of families who may not be able to afford private education. 

Moreover, attracting and retaining high-calibre lecturers and professors is likely to be a big challenge. Top-notch teachers are often lured by an abundance of opportunities as much as by straight remuneration.

Tourism talent

The hospitality industry in the GCC region has grown phenomenally over the past decade. Inbound tourist arrivals reached 60 million in 2019, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 4 percent during 2015-2019.

While Saudi Arabia has historically been a centre for religious tourism and pilgrimage, the kingdom is rapidly developing as a leisure destination.

Destinations such as AlUla, Qiddiya and the Red Sea Project are coming into line with the kingdom’s Vision 2030, which places emphasis on developing the hospitality and tourism industries.

Thanks to these mega-projects and the establishment of Riyadh as a regional hub an additional 200,000 rooms are foreseen by 2030, with a further 100,000 rooms to be established in the holy cities. This will create more than 230,000 additional jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

Negative cultural perceptions will need to be tackled to make the field more attractive for international workers. 

Healthcare professionals

One of the major, yet often ignored, requisites for providing quality healthcare services is the availability of human capital.

Without qualified and specialist staff, even the best medical facilities with the most advanced medical equipment are inadequate.

An additional 29,000 to 47,500 hospital beds will be needed by 2030 to cope with the increased population of around 40 million by 2030. This is based on the kingdom’s current and world average of 2.26 and 2.7 beds per thousand people respectively.

There will be additional demand for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and allied health professionals – and given the kingdom’s Saudisation drive, demand for local healthcare talent will be even higher.

At present 63 percent of doctors, 47 percent of dentists, 57 percent of nurses, 18 percent of allied health professionals) and 61 percent of pharmacists – a total of around 223,000 medical professionals – are expatriates.

What is more, the kingdom is adopting new medical technologies, resulting in demand moving away from traditional training to advanced medical education.

Additional subjects such as AI, data analytics, robotic medical sciences and genome sequencing will be the new order of the day.

The authorities need to plan for these outcomes. There are also great opportunities in higher education, healthcare and hospitality in Saudi Arabia for those willing to grasp them.

Mansoor Ahmed is an economist and strategic advisor in healthcare, education and public-private partnerships at Colliers Mena

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