Health & Education

Stem & Us


Stem & Us

Vision 2030's success almost entirely hinges on the development of the education sector. Approximately 1.9 million Saudi youths will enter the labor market in the next decade and, without educational reforms, they will fail to meet the private labor market's needs.

In December 2016, Saudi Arabia released its budget for 2017. The Kingdom’s expenditures were highest in two sectors: health and education. The government allocated SAR200 billion to the education sector and SAR120 billion to the health and social development sector. Together, they represent 36% of Saudi Arabia’s 2017 budget of SAR890 billon.

Emphasis on the education sector makes sense, especially now. With two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population under the age of 30 and nearly 1.9 million Saudi youths entering the market within the next decade, education will be the make or break for Saudi Arabia’s social and economic future.

In Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed bin Salman underlined the need for a diversified economy that steers clear of oil and makes way for private enterprise. But Vision 2030’s lofty goals can only be attained if the Kingdom’s education system experiences a major revamp.

As part of the Vision 2030 goals, Saudi Arabia aims to create nearly 500,000 private sector jobs and to increase non-oil revenues to SAR530 billion by 2020. In doing so, the government wage bill share is expected to fall from 45 to 40%, or to SAR456 billion.


As of 2015, there were more than 500,000 teachers in Saudi Arabia, making the education sector the country’s third-largest employer after the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. There are 25 public and 27 private universities and some 30,000 schools across the country. The education sector’s scope, however, belies its quality.

The system has long been flawed. Even Vision 2030’s underwhelming education goals may be out of Saudi Arabia’s league. The country’s secondary schools have low academic standards and churn out under-achieving students, often to fill undemanding state positions. As a result, lucrative private companies—often in the energy industry—have turned to skilled overseas employees or foreign-educated locals.
While the government hopes to minimize the need for foreign workers to fill skilled positions, it will need to take substantial measures to effectively overhaul a severely lacking education system. For Vision 2030 to succeed, Saudi Arabia must capitalize on the knowledge, skills, and expertise of its younger adult population.
In 2015, the Ministry of Education announced that Saudi universities would accept 95% of high school graduates. A few years prior, the Kingdom had approved the goals of the Afaq project, a program that aims to improve the efficiency of the higher education system in the Kingdom by developing a 25-year strategic plan. The Afaq project suggested universities limit their enrollment to 55% from highs school and 15% from community colleges. The project also insisted that Saudi universities reduce their capacity by 40% while technical and vocational training programs increase their enrolment three-fold. The 95% enrolment rate is far higher than that of other countries, including the UK (57%), Japan (50%), Switzerland (38%), Germany (36%), and Turkey (30%), according to 2012 figures.

Saudi Arabian high school schools continue to study courses at universities that do not fulfill labor market needs. With too many students enrolled in universities, there will be even more students graduating without the marketable skills required to ultimately benefit Saudi Arabia’s future. By limiting enrolment to universities, Saudi Arabia’s education sector could instead focus on quality of the education offered and on the skills being provided to students.


Part of this struggle originates as early as the K-12 level. Instead of students being introduced to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) during these years, they are versed according to the teachings of sharia law, with most weight placed on religion, culture, and history. For students to excel later in STEM subjects, they will need exposure to them at the K-12 level.

Realizing the importance of K-12 education, the Vision 2030 plan established the Irtiqaa program. The goal of Irtiqaa is to have 80% of parents engaged in school activities and the learning process of their children by 2020. The implications of this program could be significant, since it is usually families’ housemaids who tend to children’s care and interests during these years. Involving parents could shift familial dynamics and inspire more interest in children’s education among parents.

Education Reforms and Facilities

As students reach higher education, the government is attempting to provide them with marketable skills that will benefit the local economy. Investing in vocational education has been the government’s greatest weapon yet.

According to the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council, in 2015 Saudi Arabia spent USD3.28 billion (SAR12.3 billion) on opening three new universities and completing projects on several college campuses. An estimated USD640 million (SAR2.4 billion) was allocated to constructin

g new vocational and technical colleges as well as completing additions to existing projects.

Firms like the UBT Company, which focuses on investments, consultation, and operations for higher education, professional training, and knowledge transfer, fulfill the imperative for highly skilled professionals. UBT CEO Mohanad A. Dahlan told TBY, “Today the country needs to quickly and efficiently equip large numbers of young people to do specific jobs. Right now, vocational and training schools are seen as the most effective way to provide careers for the Saudi youth. That is why we are investing in vocational business and training and leveraging our existing resources in line with Vision 2030’s goals and objectives. We have more than 85,000 teachers in the region qualified to receive teacher training and self-development; we aim to serve them.”
In 2005, King Abdullah created the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP). The government-funded program sent students abroad to earn academic degrees and medical fellowships. In 2015, Saudi Arabia dedicated USD6 billion (SAR22.5 billion) to sponsor scholarship programs for 207,000 Saudi students studying abroad. But following oil revenue reductions, the program’s funds have been cut and in 2016 only 2,000 students were awarded scholarships.

In 2009, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was founded in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, where it provides research and graduate training programs in English. The university has the third-largest endowment of any university in the world after Harvard and Yale, respectively. It offers studies in biological and environmental sciences and engineering; computer, electrical, and mathematical sciences and engineering; and physical sciences and engineering.

For Saudi Arabia to improve its economy, it will have to adapt to global education and skill standards. In doing so, Saudi Arabia must grow local expertise and avoid over reliance on foreigners for jobs requiring skills and experience.

Saudi Arabia will also have to emphasize non-traditional fields of study in addition to STEM subjects, including humanities, political science degrees, and the arts in order to encourage the developmental needs of students.
The education infrastructure is in dire need of change in order to achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals, but it will take time and commitment to witness results. Improved education infrastructure can provide incentives for nationals, especially skilled ones, to remain in Saudi Arabia and build their home country. It remains to be seen how the government will step up to the challenge and effectively change course.