Saudi Arabia: Can money buy academic excellence?

August 18, 2012

Is it possible to turn $10 billion of oil money into one of the top 10 science and technology universities in the world — in Saudi Arabia — and in just 11 years?
The answer is now “hopefully” rather than “definitely”, according to the president of the Gulf state’s flagship institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is approaching its third anniversary. In May, Choon Fong Shih promoted and defended KAUST’s record and vision in the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual lecture in London, a week before he announced he would be stepping down in 2013.

Located near Jeddah and looking out across the Red Sea, KAUST is a graduate institution that has enroled nearly 1,200 Masters and Ph D students so far. King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, founded it with a $10 billion (Rs.56,000 crore) endowment in a bid to rekindle science in the Islamic world, and the campus was constructed in just two years.

In contrast to the rest of the kingdom, where restrictive laws hold sway, on the KAUST campus women are allowed to drive, are not required to be veiled and are free to mix with men in class. One of KAUST’s stated aims by 2020 is to be “comparable to… the world’s top 10 science and technology universities” in terms of publications in prestigious journals, average faculty citations and discoveries.

KAUST has been working hard to entice top academics from around the world with generous salaries and tailor-made labs. To date, it has attracted 102 faculty members, and this number will grow to a maximum of 220. However, it can offer only fixed-term contracts rather than tenure owing to the country’s employment laws.

According to Thomson Reuters, KAUST’s publication count almost doubled between 2010 (214 papers) — its first fully operational year — and 2011 (412 papers). It would have to hit roughly 5,000 to be on a par with research powerhouses such as University College London, but KAUST’s mission statement says the institution focuses on “impact rather than quantity”. In a region where young and often unemployed graduates have swollen the ranks of protesters and rebels who have toppled four autocrats since the beginning of 2011, KAUST’s role in creating meaningful jobs for Saudi Arabia’s ballooning young population is more important than ever, Shih emphasises.

He repeatedly refers to KAUST as a meeting point of cultures and a United Nations in miniature — an allusion to the student body’s international composition, in which Saudi students constitute a minority of 30 percent. About the same proportion come from the Americas and Europe, another 30 percent from Asia and the Middle East, and 10 percent from Africa.

But with a new emphasis on training the native workforce, Shih wants 50 percent of the student body to be Saudi. The country hopes to achieve this goal by sending locals to Europe and North America as undergraduates and then bringing them back to do postgraduate study at KAUST.

Shih will be creating at least one new job opportunity in another way: on May 19, just over a week after his lecture, he announced he will step down as president in November, 2013 when his contract expires. The other succession hurdle KAUST faces is that of its patron, King Abdullah, who is in his late eighties and has been in poor health for the past two years (according to media reports).

The monarch has irked conservatives by personally backing and endowing the institution. In 2009, he dismissed Sheikh Saad al-Shithri, a member of the country’s highest clerical body, who publicly objected to KAUST’s mixing of the sexes and said its curriculum should be vetted by Islamic scholars.

Abdullah’s successor is Crown Prince Nayef, widely perceived to be more conservative and closer to the kingdom’s orthodox clerics. “You have to understand there is a deep respect for traditions, for royal decree and royal charter in the kingdom,” says Shih, implying that what has been started by Abdullah will not be undone by Nayef.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education)

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