Saudi Arabia’s higher education sector to undergo transformation

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Following the rollout of the Vision 2030 initiative, the higher education landscape in Saudi Arabia is undergoing a transformative phase to align outcomes with the requirements of the employment market, a Colliers report outlined.

Analysis by the Canada-based professional service company found that the economic transformation and diversification programs triggered by the strategy, coupled with the ongoing Saudization drive to boost job opportunities for the Kingdom’s nationals, has led to a shift in the jobs market.

Roles in the artificial intelligence, robotic sciences, and nuclear energy sectors are increasing, along with jobs in the renewable energy industry.

Mansoor Ahmed, executive director of Middle East and Africa development solutions at Colliers, noted that demand is also expected to shift toward research and development studies, in a reflection of the changing market dynamics.

Higher education provision needs to be shifted to overcome the“mis-match” between the degrees, skills and requirements required in the employment market, he added. 

Colliers expects further significant increases in roles in the tourism sector, thanks to the Kingdom’s major investment in projects in this industry alongside its reshaping of regulations to boost visitor numbers to Saudi Arabia. 

Other initiatives as part of Vision 2030 include the setting up a Social Development Bank with a budget of SR22 billion ($6 billion) to support the establishment of more than 70,000 small-size enterprises by the end of the decade, to promote and support businesses in the Kingdom. 

Colliers expects the demand in each of these sectors to be focused on sub-specialties rather than traditional degree courses. 

Current landscape indicators 

According to the report, out of the 3.3 million Saudis aged between 18 to 24 in 2022, 2 million were enrolled in higher education institutes in the Kingdom. Some 95 percent of these students attended public sector institutions, indicating a heavy reliance on the state for higher education as these are free of cost and generally perceived to offer better quality courses compared to private institutions.

The report added that students at public universities had a higher probability of finding a job after graduating.

However, current enrollment distributions in these establishments lack alignment with the requirements of the employment market, with a significant number of students studying humanities, Islamic studies and behavioral sciences. 

Mansoor Ahmed, executive director of Middle East and Africa development solutions at Colliers. (Supplied)

Breaking the figures down by gender, the enrollment of female students is higher compared to males. 

A closer look however reveals that while universities have a higher proportion of female students at 54 percent, the share of male students is significantly higher at institutions offering technical, vocational and military courses, encompassing 86 percent of the student body. 

To meet the demand of the Kingdom’s ongoing economic transformation and to bridge the education and skills gap, a shift is needed from these traditional fields of study to emerging areas such as renewable energy, tourism and hospitality.

Increased tourism demand

The hospitality industry in the Gulf region has grown significantly over the past decade, and the Kingdom now has a target of hosting 130 million tourists a year by 2030.

Based on Colliers’ estimate, there are currently around 640,000 hotel rooms in Saudi Arabia, with approximately 500,000 staff employed in this sphere. These numbers are set to rise thanks to developments at the Red Sea, Al-Ula, and NEOM, as well as the establishment of Riyadh as a regional hub. It is estimated there will be an additional 200,000 rooms by 2030, leading to the creation of over 230,000 additional jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

Currently, a significant proportion of staff serving within tourism and hospitality in Saudi Arabia are expatriates, Colliers highlighted, with less representation of local professionals especially in technical roles. This creates an opportunity, or “rather a necessity,” to cultivate local talent and skilled and trained hospitality professionals, to meet the snowballing demand for manpower.

As part of the Kingdom’s Saudization drive, the government has mandated that at least 30 percent of the staff in this sector are Saudi nationals, with all front desk and managerial roles assigned to those from the Kingdom.

Given the forthcoming supply and the government’s vision of enhancing the hospitality and tourism sector, the Ministry of Education and Technical and Vocational Training Corp. has undertaken an initiative to establish dedicated hospitality academies and introduce tourism-related programs in public universities. 

However, enrollment in the field of study is still low. Based on recent data, nearly 5,500 students were enrolled in tourism and hospitality-related courses across higher education institutes in the Kingdom representing only 0.3 percent of the total enrollment in HEIs across the country. 

In Saudi Arabia, there is a lack of technically qualified staff with major shortages in culinary, kitchen, and sales, Colliers added. Very few job applicants have hospitality-related qualifications and are mostly graduates and diploma holders in other fields.

Saudis are becoming keen to seek roles in the field of hospitality as demand grows. However, a lack of skill and preference to directly get into managerial and front office roles is a challenge as candidates generally lack training for these roles.

One of the main challenges being faced is that the profession, and more specifically for technical roles, are perceived to be of low social status amongst the local population, the report noted.

Considering the forthcoming growth and consequent demand for skilled manpower in the sector, tourism and hospitality-related courses will gain further traction in the region, especially amongst the local population in Saudi Arabia, the publication added, as the sector would provide high employment probability, owing to the considerable and growing demand to meet requirements of employers.

However, the challenge of perception would need to be eliminated to make the field more attractive.

Opportunities for growth

The heavy reliance on the public sector for higher education is expected to change gradually as the government seeks to increase private sector participation, Colliers outlined. 

In a bid to change its role from a service provider to a regulator and facilitator, this change presents new opportunities for the private sector in what is the largest market in the GCC. In Colliers’ opinion, the private sector in the Kingdom, similar to the UAE and Egypt, “should open branch campuses of international universities in the Kingdom, especially targeting those universities which currently host most of the Saudi students in their country of origin.”

However, it is important that regulators look to maintain a balance between public and private sector provisions, it added, to ensure quality education for “everyone,” remain cognizant of the income disparity and to facilitate the large number of families that may not be able to afford private education. 

In addition, a transparent and stable regulatory environment is essential to encourage private investments in the education sector.

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