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DUBAI: Saudi students will soon have greater access to top-quality higher education following a series of agreements allowing international academic institutions to open branches in the Kingdom.

Agreements were signed with Australia’s University of Wollongong, and American schools Arizona State University and Cintana Education to establish new campuses in the Kingdom, making their world-class programs available to Saudi students.

The deals were announced during the Human Capability Initiative conference held in Riyadh on Feb. 28-29.

According to a 2023 report by the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University, the Kingdom’s traditional education system is failing to prepare the workforce for the demands of the modern labor market, resulting in “a wide skill gap.”

By establishing these campuses, the Saudi government hopes to create a workforce aligned with Vision 2030, which sets out to diversify the Kingdom’s economy, wean it off a reliance on hydrocarbons, and develop high-skill industries.

It is also hoped that by attracting foreign universities and fostering more local talent, the Kingdom can realize its goal of becoming a regional education hub and a leader in scientific research.

During the Human Capability Initiative, the Kingdom also launched “Study in Saudi Arabia,” a new visa initiative aimed at attracting foreign students. 

The visa is designed to make it easier for international students to study in the Kingdom, thereby creating a global learning hub for more than 132,000 foreign students, academics, researchers and professors. 

By promoting this exchange of talent through collaboration with the world’s leading universities, the Kingdom aims to enhance knowledge creation, and foster cross-cultural dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world.

Also during the conference, the Saudi Ministry of Education announced it will contribute to revolutionizing education in lower-income countries by officially joining the Global Partnership for Education with a substantial $38 million contribution to equip younger generations with the necessary skills for jobs of the future. 

Groundbreaking education partnerships were also struck between Saudi Arabia and some of the world’s biggest sector leaders, including Porsche, Hyundai, LinkedIn, and IE University, leveraging the power of international collaboration to accelerate human capability development. 

The Saudi ministries of education and investment entered into the new strategic partnership with Arizona State University and Cintana Education after signing a memorandum of understanding at the Human Capability Initiative conference. 

The collaboration aims to establish a new university and an affiliated school in Riyadh, offering internationally recognized education standards, fostering research, and introducing innovative programs.

A date has not yet been set for the opening of these new institutes, which will feature specializations in fields such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, economics, and include the training of educational staff.

Australia’s University of Wollongong was issued with its license at the end of February by the Saudi ministries of education and investment as a step toward establishing a local branch in collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Digital Knowledge Company.

“This is the first investment license awarded to a foreign university and is a requisite first step to permit foreign companies to legally operate and conduct business activities in Saudi Arabia,” the Australian university said in a statement.

The university stands out for its academic excellence, being ranked in the top 1 percent of universities globally, according to the 2024 QS World Index, making it as a significant addition to Saudi Arabia’s educational sector.

The University of Wollongong in Saudi Arabia, or UOWS, will be the second branch of UOW in the Arab Gulf states after the University of Wollongong in Dubai was established in 1993. 

Several Arab Gulf states have established partnerships with leading international institutions.

In the UAE, New York University established NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010, while the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi established a campus in 2006, bringing the French institution to the Gulf. 

In Qatar, Carnegie Mellon University, a private research facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened a branch in 2004 and began graduating students in 2008.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts has also been operating in Qatar since 1998, becoming a popular art school, with students from Qatar, the wider Middle East, and abroad. 

The opening of foreign universities in Saudi Arabia follows a bylaw passed in 2019 that established the Universities Affairs Council, replacing the Higher Educational Council, which allowed foreign universities to establish branches in the Kingdom.

“It will raise the standards of local universities,” Tagreed Al-Saraj, an education and entrepreneurship consultant, told Arab News after the decree was passed. “There will be much more competition, which is needed.”

The move was also welcomed by students. “It’s a positive and progressive step, and it will give a chance to those who can’t study abroad to study at such universities at home,” Abdan Alabdan, a Saudi student who was on a government scholarship program at York University in Canada, told Arab News.

Yousef Al-Benyan, who became Saudi Arabia’s minister of education in September 2022, is responsible for approving plans to establish branches of foreign universities in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Education Yousef Al-Benyan. (Supplied)

In early February, Al-Benyan and his accompanying delegation met with senior officials and key investors in Chicago and Washington, where they visited several educational institutions and universities to discuss opportunities to invest in education in the Kingdom.

His visit reflected the Kingdom’s plans to enhance and develop scientific, education and research cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the US, particularly in early years education, and for students with special needs and people with disabilities.

Another goal of the visit was to attract foreign direct investment in public and graduate education in the Kingdom by providing opportunities and facilities to investors.

During the visit, Al-Benyan said students reflect the human, cultural and social values of Saudi society.

Besides attracting foreign universities to invest in the Kingdom, the Ministry of Education is also keen to promote innovation through international cooperation on the development and adoption of ed-tech.

Speaking at the Global Cybersecurity Forum in Riyadh in November, Al-Benyan said teachers must be equipped with the digital skills to educate current and future generations, including a strong understanding of artificial intelligence technology and its applications.

Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s new partnerships with US and Australian universities, the Kingdom is on track to build its own world-class institutes, train experienced staff, and foster generations of high-skill workers for the industries of the future.

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