According to University World News, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is aiming to transform its higher education system. Ruwayshid Alruwaili writes in the issue #389 of the higher education news website that with the recent appointment of Dr. Azzam Al-Dakhil as the new Education Minister, dramatic changes have taken place in the further education system of the world’s largest oil exporter. The biggest was “the merging of the two ministries – the Higher Education and Education ministries – into one ministry called the Education Ministry.”
Alruwaili writes that this “surprising move” has generated a number of fears among academics, specifically the one of a stop or a restriction to the expansion of the higher education system. Alruwaili recalls also that in a recent article in the Times Higher Education, Professor Philip Altbach laid out a road map for emerging universities in Saudi Arabia to achieve world-class status where he “cautiously stated that bureaucratic and administrative structures might stand in the way of this goal”.
So the question is, if this merger with the “notoriously bureaucratic Education Ministry”, a step in the wrong direction or a way to modernize the country further. For the author of the article, “although the country has invested heavily in recent years in higher education in terms of the number of its universities, student enrollment and scholarship programmes, it is feared that the merger might jeopardise the rapid growth in government spending on excellence and productivity. Some 25% of last year’s budget was devoted to education, one of the highest levels in the world. Further spending on higher education grew steadily to nearly 10% of the budget under the late King Abdullah. However, the old education ministry is known for delays in its projects and its unwise spending over the years. The concern is that the merger might slow down government spending and steer the wave of steady growth towards a bureaucratic siding.”
In addition, this merger could also create confusion regarding universities’ autonomy. Indeed recently the KSA government pushed higher education institutions towards a knowledge economy and world-class status and several practices related to productivity and autonomy were implemented but the merger contradicts this policy.
For Alruwaili it marks “a step back to the old way of doing things whereby academic institutions are seen as only about teaching and preparing students for the jobs market. Advocates of the move argue that the new ministry will be the governing body that is responsible for students from elementary stage to the university level. “