Faced with an ever-expanding education budget and disappointing results, the Saudi government continues to pursue education reform to better align workers’ skills with the needs of employers. Most new initiatives focus on giving universities the freedom – and students the incentive – to focus on subjects that serve Vision 2030 objectives, rather than seek to tackle the poor performance of primary and secondary education. The authorities face a range of challenges to reform at these levels, and some see private provision as the only way forward.

Gulf Monitor | Daniel Moshashai & Sara Bazoobandi | Saudi Arabia education


High expense, low reward – the Saudi skills gap

Demand for education in Saudi Arabia is high: the kingdom’s young and rapidly growing population will add another 1.8m pupils by 2025 and require a 40% increase in the number of teachers by 2030.[1] As part of the government’s commitment to improve education capacity and quality, education expenditure has swollen over the past decade, so that it accounts for 19% of the budget in 2020, ahead of defence and health spending.

Despite this, the education system at all levels retains many inefficiencies and does not equip students with the skills necessary to meet the needs of the labour force with students at every level characterised by a lack of critical thinking and analytical skills. Saudi school students score lower than average on international benchmark assessments, such as PISA and TIMSS, and lag behind other GCC and regional countries in performance.[2]

While a large and rising number of high-school leavers enter university, and attain a degree, graduate employment, at 74%, is low compared to OECD countries. This has led to concerns that young Saudis are not being equipped with the skills needed to fulfill current and future labour market needs, an essential pillar of Vision 2030.  Unemployment among women with degrees is particularly high, at 41%, while subjects necessary for the growth of the private sector, such as engineering, manufacturing and business administration, are still passed over by the majority of students in favour of arts and humanities degrees.[3]


Education at the centre of Vision 2030

The discrepancy between education spending and outcomes has led to renewed government efforts to overhaul the system in order to make the sector more efficient and better align the skills of youth with the needs of the modern workforce. Key employment targets include increasing the number of Saudis in the private sector, which is still heavily reliant on foreign skilled labour, and reducing the share of public sector salaries in the budget by 40%, a goal the government hopes to achieve by 2030.[4]

To do this, the government has identified several core areas of education in need of improvement – such as curricula development, teacher training, accreditation, and school capacity and access – and introduced various initiatives to address them (see figures 1 and 2). It also intends to expand the role of the private sector to cut costs, offer better value and improve quality.


Higher education – the big target

As in other sectors, reforms to education will require the rollout of both new hard and soft infrastructure. While new schools, teachers and training facilities are fairly simple to enact due to a large budget and state commitment, other improvements, such as textbook changes, attitudes to teaching and learning, and equal access, will be more difficult to implement, monitor and evaluate.

Most initiatives so far are focused on higher education, where the link to employment is more direct and certain barriers at the lower levels, such as liberalising curricula, are less problematic (see figure 2). One notable development was the introduction in 2019 of the Universities Law, which grants institutions greater autonomy to align programmes with employment opportunities and raises quality by strengthening rules around accreditation.

One of the biggest challenges at this level is gender. At the high-school level girls outperform boys, and Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of women graduates within the OECD, but this is not reflected in the labour market, as more than half of women do not enter work after graduation. This remains a significant barrier to labour market development and Vision 2030.


Compulsory education – the Achilles heel

Primary and secondary level remain the kingdom’s Achilles’ heel in education. Reforms at schools face many hurdles, particularly when they are dependent upon shifts in culture, customs and attitudes. Textbook reform is a particularly slow and difficult process due in part to sensitivities over removing ultra-conservative content from curricula. Studies also show that teachers lack training and management skills for new education methods and have an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards education technology.[5]

The state will therefore need to be consistent and persistent in its approach to reform, introducing policies which address not only the content of the curriculum but the methods by which it is taught, and ensuring strong monitoring and evaluating mechanisms are in place. Past programmes such as the Math and Science Curriculum Reform Project (2005-13),  which sought to bring core skills in line with international standards, were inconsistent and ineffective because they failed to integrate textbook changes with teaching training.


Boon or bust? Expanding private ed

With “fostering education in the 21st century” being a G20 topic this year, Saudi Arabia is divided between prioritising standardisation across education or betting on untested models for the future.

Expanding private schooling could take some pressure off the government’s pockets and contribute to the improvement of education outcomes. The stated goal is to nearly double the share of pupils enrolled in private schools this year alone, with a 25% target.[6]This is unrealistic, as there are not nearly enough private schools. However, with the sector growing at a rate of around 13% over the past several years, and local families boosting the amount they spend on education by a similar amount, non-public education is poised to become one of the hottest markets in the kingdom, especially private kindergartens and international schools.

However, the trend could also have unintended consequences for equality. Despite regional disparities, Saudi Arabia currently enjoys a rather egalitarian schooling system: nine out of 10 schools are public, and levels of student wellbeing and social inclusion are comparable to – or better than – western Europe.[7] The education ministry’s goal is to ensure quality education that is “equitable and inclusive for all.” However, other countries’ experience in privatising education have shown this remains an unlikely feat.

Daniel Moshashai is the regional analyst at Castlereagh Associates. He specialises in Iran, the GCC, economic diversification in national agendas and geopolitics in the Middle East.

Sara Bazoobandi is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the managing director of Middle East Risk Consulting, a boutique consultancy firm providing risk management and business intelligence for global clients. Sara has contributed to various global and regional Track II initiatives and research projects on political, economic, and social affairs of the MENA region and has served as an economic analyst for various international corporate organisations, policy advisory institutions and think tanks.

[1] Growth Potential of Private Education in Saudi Arabia, Strategic Gears Management Consultancy, September 2018
[2] OECD (2018) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results from PISA 2018, https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_SAU.pdf; and https://www.iea.nl/studies/iea/timss/2019
[3] OECD Education GPS – Saudi Arabia, https://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?primaryCountry=SAU&treshold=10&topic=EO
[4] Education Ministry Strategy 2017-2020, https://www.moe.gov.sa/ar/about/Documents/Strategy_of_the_Ministry_of_Education.pdf
[5] Albugami, SS and Ahmed V, Towards successful implementation of ICT in Saudi schools (literature review) (2015), http://usir.salford.ac.uk/37662/
[6] Growth Potential of Private Education in Saudi Arabia, Strategic Gears Management Consultancy, September 2018.
[7] OECD (2018) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results from PISA 2018, https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_SAU.pdf