“The new system is achieving a qualitative leap in Saudi higher education,” said Abdulrahman Saeed, a professor of psychology at Umm Al-Qura University, in Mecca. “This will contribute to the development of the research and educational process by increasing the volume of research spending by developing the universities’ financial and human resources.”
The kingdom now spends about 193 billion Saudi riyals ($51.5 billion) on education, equivalent to 19 percent of the total state budget for 2020, according to Saeed. The higher education budget is about 9 percent of the total, equivalent to 95 billion riyals ($25 billion).
Saeed believes that the intent of the new system is not just to reduce state spending on universities but also to transform universities from being institutions completely dependent on the state into institutions capable of developing their own financial resources and achieving administrative and academic maturity.
“These are serious attempts to break out of the guise of a rentier state dependent on oil, into a country capable of producing various resources,” he said.
Features of the New System
The new system granted universities independence in setting their financial, administrative and academic systems and regulations, and allowed them to seek sources of self-financing. It also authorized the opening of branch campuses in the kingdom for international universities, with the aim of increasing competition not only among local private universities, but with public universities as well.
The change also included the establishment of a Board of Trustees, which bears the responsibility for governance and ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of the education provided by the universities, as it will control all of the university’s academic and administrative work, similar to what is in place in international universities. The board will supervise the nomination of a president for each university, the establishment of new colleges, in addition to a university council that is concerned with awarding academic degrees, appointing faculty members, approving university admission policies, and approving scholarship plans.
Another feature of the new system is reducing the powers of the University Council and transferring many of them to the Board of Trustees. The powers of university presidents have also been reduced, as this job will be purely administrative based on the direction and control of the Board of Trustees.
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The new university system has also reinstated the Supreme Council of Universities, which was responsible for university education before its cancellation in 2016. The council is responsible for approving policies, strategies and general directions for university education.
The Universities Affairs Council, headed by the Minister of Education and the membership of the ministries of labor, civil service and economy, determines the degree of readiness of universities that are suitable for implementing the new system, based on a number of indicators and criteria within three areas that include academic, administrative and financial aspects. The three universities that have been selected so far will have a one-year grace period during the transition to the new system, while the remaining universities will have two years to put the new system in place.
The new system opens the door for universities to establish and invest in companies or contribute to them, and to establish endowment programs from grants. It also grants them the right to charge fees to develop their revenues, such as imposing tuition fees for postgraduate programs, diplomas, training and educational courses, fees from non-Saudi students, and fees for doing scientific research or consulting services and opening branches abroad. At the same time, foreign universities are allowed to work inside the kingdom and enroll foreign students.
Many education experts agree on the importance of the new decision, but say it will take time to judge its efficacy.