Saudi Arabia's education system came under a critical spotlight at the opening session of day two of the Jeddah Economic Forum on Monday. The panellists in a lively and at times outspoken analysis of the structure and output of the system both criticised it for teaching theoretical and impractical skills that had little relevance to the real-world jobs market and the needs of the private sector.
Dr Hamad Al Sheikh countered with a comprehensive description of the plans and projects under development within the education ministry that indicated that there was reform in hand.
Dr Abdullah Dahlan, chairman of the board of trustees at CBA private college in Jeddah contributed the outcomes of his practical experience that had demonstrated the need for serious reform and a new structure for education that met the competitive needs of the modern world.
He believed that the education authorities were only concerned with certificates and degrees. "They are not concerned with public education - the students, teachers and kids are just means to achieve certain ends," he said. "If we have a good education system, we would be good at everything including planning and the economy, building humans and even the survival of leaderships and nations.
His researches had revealed that there was an education crisis in the Arab World where 45% of people above 15 years old in the Arab World were illiterate and those under 25 years old had on average only five years of education whereas elsewhere it was 13. "Average expenditure is only eight percent of GDP, although Saudi Arabia has the highest. I have a total belief that we have a problem with education and this has had its impact on employment."
This he said had contributed to the belief in the private sector that Saudis did not have the skills they needed for the private sector.
The leadership has deployed billions to support employment but the private sector is the prime suspect at not employing Saudi graduates. Their prime excuse is that Saudis are not qualified, and did not have the skills we need in the private sector.
"Only 18% of Saudi university graduates are scientific graduates. Eighty two percent are graduates of the theoretical disciplines that are not needed by the country or the private sector. The main reason for the failure of Saudi university graduate students is the mainstream public education system which depends on learning by rote and does not develop the curriculum, concentrates on theoretical not practical. We now have high-school graduates who do not have the ability to study at university," he concluded.
The private sector did not believe in long-term investment and, he said, "They focus on short term quick return investment. They do not think of investing in education and I call on them to do so, for we have a national responsibility to help the state."
Malaysia, said Dato Nor Rezan Bapoo Hashim Special Advisor on Education Kazanah National, has a holistic approach to education and has found that the child develops faster if the teacher is good. While the educational structure is highly ordered and bureaucratic, the approach to teaching is flexible and focused on making children thinkers, not simply rote learners and absorbers of fact. "That is no good for the jobs market," she said.
"We have brought in people to change the methods of teaching to make sure that we deliver the goods," she said. "The most important thing in teaching and learning is to engage the child - not just feeding."
The high flying graduates of the system have been encouraged to return to teaching after working for some time in the private sector perhaps as lawyers, doctors and other professionals.
"They train for two years to become teachers and have changed the nature of teaching," she noted. She cited one experiment that saw a group taught by these returnees as improving their English skills by 15% and maths skills by more that 35% in just one month. "Wee cannot be conclusive yet, but the results look positive," she said.
Dr Hamed Al Sheik, Deputy Education Minister for Boys at the Saudi Ministry of Education reviewed the history and structure of the current education system in the Kingdom.
He expressed the intention to build a knowledge based society that was, "a contributor to human wealth."
He said that globalisation had eliminated barriers between people and barriers to world knowledge. "It has forced states into competitiveness - Saudi needs to be competitive, and we need to match the educational skills of the international market," he opined.
Fort the future he said that he sought major strategies for the development of education."
"Our schools lack administrative structure - there is isolation around teachers, no incentives for teachers or students. The school we seek will encourage students and teachers to seek a high level of community participation," he said.
He presented future programmes including development of English language skills, the establishment of an independent assessment organisation - and initiatives for private sector input to public education, an initiative for the improvement of teachers qualified from Saudi universities and an organisation for the promotion of teachers through assessment.
Dr Jari Lavonen Professor of Physics and Chemistry Education at the University of Helsinki avowed that the most important part of the education system were the teachers.
The Finnish example devolved power within the system to the lowest levels - classroom and individual school. "Trust between teachers and of teachers is a very important element in the system," he said.