Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Co-ed university for Saudi elites?

Saudi Arabia is launching its first co-ed university next week. It is the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). It is a rich university with one of the largest endowments in the world. On the one hand, it is very easy to criticize this effort: The campus is expected to be isolated from the rest of Saudi Arabia - a condition necessary to provide its relative free atmosphere (i.e. men and women will be on the same campus, Saudi religious police probably won't have any jurisdiction over there, and the curriculum is expected to be more liberal and different from what is being taught at other places in Saudi Arabia). See an earlier post on this issue: $10 billion endowment for a university in Saudi Arabia.

However, there is a potential of some positive outcomes. For example, the very existence of KAUST may generate some discussion over the state of education in the rest of Saudi Arabia. After all, many of the KAUST students will have gone through the Saudi education system (some may be Saudis from abroad). But more importantly, a clerical opposition to KAUST may generate controversy and draw attention to the existing education system that has been flying under the radar. Furthermore, access to KAUST may be limited to the elites, but the university's existence may lead to pressure to open other co-ed universities in Saudi Arabia for the less affluent. But of course, who knows, KAUST may generate a backlash and Saudi education system may get even more restrictive as a compensation for the freedoms allowed on the KAUST campus. Nevertheless, the opening of KAUST will shake things up a bit in the usually static Kingdom.

Here is the story from Reuters: Saudi Education lags behind new high-tech university.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is the first institute in one of the world's biggest oil exporters outside the reach of the education ministry, where clerics opposing cutting religious content have a strong say.

And men and women will be able to mingle, a stark contrast to otherwise strict gender segregation in the Islamic kingdom.

Analysts and diplomats say the KAUST launch is a step in the right direction, but state education will remain inefficient unless the government starts a radical overhaul.

"We need to change the mindset of the teaching concept. We need to review all our educational practices... We also need to be consistent with the needs of modern education and market requirements," said Saudi columnist Abdullah al-Alami.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, a senior analyst at Political Capital in Dubai, agreed: "The bigger problem remains primary education."

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

I'm curious what subjects are off-limits and the reasoning behind this restriction? Anybody knows? Wiki tells me that it is subjects such as "engineering, journalism, and architecture". Yikes! But again if you are counting small blessings (yes, this is what we have been reduced to regarding Saudi Arabia), King Abdullah appointed the first female deputy education minister just earlier this year. You can see the glass either 1/10th full or 9/10th empty. It's up to you.

Read the full story here and here is the link to the KAUST website. Also check out this story about a Saudi comedy that brought up the topic of education reforms.

Oh - and how are women drivers doing in Saudi Arabia? Driving yet? Just checking.


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Salman, it is not the co-education or segregated one that makes the difference but the quality of education delivered. There is nothing to merry about whether it be co-ed or not, or how is it going to change a system in place...but only good quality education will.
If basic mindset doesn't change, nothing will change.

Salman Hameed said...

Oh sure. However, it matters when women, as a policy, cannot get the same education. Then such measures take on a larger significance. But, of course, quality of education matters.

Atif Khan said...

At least things are changing in that land of self-righteous people.

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