King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia for the past ten years (after effectively being regent for the ten years before that, due to his brother King Fahd’s incapacitation from stroke), died last week. There can have been very few individuals who have had a greater effect on their country’s system of higher education.
Perhaps his best-known initiative was the creation of his eponymous institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Opened in 2009 near Jeddah, KAUST made headlines because of its lavish construction and endowment ($20 billion worth – third in the world after Harvard and Yale) and its attempts to recruit star faculty from around the world. KAUST to date hasn’t set the world on fire – for all the money on offer, there aren’t a lot of serious scientists interested in moving to Saudi Arabia, even if women are allowed to drive and be unveiled within the university’s heavily guarded compound – and there is some truth to the jibe that there are more buildings than professors. But it’s early days yet, and KAUST remains an interesting strategy to try to build the elements of a knowledge economy to help the country eventually transition away from petroleum.
The outside world focused on the KAUST story because it was a big, single institution, a contained story that fit the money-to-burn Gulf Arab stereotype. But Abdullah’s agenda wasn’t simply about KAUST. Over the course of his (effective) 20-year reign, 36 new universities were built in Saudi Arabia. Enrolment in universities rose nearly sixfold, from a little over 200,000 to 1,200,000, the majority of whom are women. Gross enrolment rates went from 18 to 50. Few countries anywhere can match that kind of record. Perhaps even more significantly for the outside world was his creation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which funded Saudis to get their education in the west, primarily the United States. The Scholarship sends 125,000 students abroad every year at a cost of about $2 billion (Canadian universities collectively receive about 9% of those students).
With Abdullah’s death, many people wonder about the fate of KASP and KAUST: what will be their fate under King Salman? My guess is that KAUST is considerably more vulnerable than KASP. That may seem counterintuitive since the former has an endowment while the latter’s funding is recurring, but the politics are different. KASP benefits a lot of middle-class Saudi families, there is much demand to go abroad for school, and in the wake of the Arab spring, Gulf monarchs tend not to cut back on popular subsidies. KAUST may have its own massive endowment, but it still faces financial challenges if corporate donations slow. Saudi Arabia doesn’t tax corporations, but companies that work there do get a lot of “suggestions” about what causes they should support, and in what amounts. What causes get supported has a lot to do with the interests of whoever’s running the country; hence, a change of regime is likely to affect patterns of philanthropy. Unlike KASP, KAUST is seen to benefit foreigners as much as it does Saudis and would therefore make an easier target.
How do we evaluate such a legacy? The problem is that Saudi Arabia challenges many western notions about higher education. Though we shrink from talking openly about universities’ “civilizing” function because it’s deeply uncool in a post-colonial world, the fact is most of us in the west still implicitly believe in that function. Yet despite all these impressive increases in educational attainment – even western education – Saudi Arabia remains in our eyes a deeply uncivilized kind of place: the beheadings, the floggings, the misogyny all evoke notions of barbarity. The spread of higher education in the country has done precious little to change that. Whether that says more about Saudis or about higher education is an exercise for the reader.