Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer
The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is the second major effort to provide opportunities for young Saudi students to pursue higher education abroad. It is a multi-stage scholarship grant that allows undergraduate and postgraduate students to be educated in foreign universities, mostly in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Australia. The first such program was in the 1970s and it reached its climax in late 1980s when more than 20,000 Saudi students were studying in the United States alone.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education, there are currently about 140,000 Saudi students in 19 major fields studying overseas and officials expect more than 200,000 Saudi students to be enrolled in foreign universities by 2020. The Saudi government invests SR9 billion in the program each year, providing full funding for both undergraduate and graduate programs and medical fellowships in reputable universities around the world.
A comparison of the two major scholarship programs reveals that the first one occurred when the Kingdom was going through sustained rapid development and modernization and required manpower to support the process. Those who received the scholarships went abroad without knowing exactly what was in store for them or what they were going to study. Therefore, a substantial number either failed or specialized in fields that were not needed in the Kingdom. At that time, the rules and regulations relating to scholarships for studying abroad were still evolving. Objectively speaking, there were a number of shortcomings during this scholarship program. This does not mean that the effort was a failure; in fact, the graduates of this program are now playing a major role in running the affairs of the country.
In contrast, the second scholarship program is different for a variety of reasons: Expectations are clearer now in terms of what is expected of those who pursue higher education abroad. Rules and regulations have been established and important fields of study have been identified. The number of countries where students can pursue study abroad has been increased to 46.
On the surface, this is all well and good. However, some problems still exist. They can be tackled only by implementing a comprehensive series of orientation courses. Currently, students who are about to leave for their chosen destinations are asked to attend a three-day orientation course to be informed about their host countries. This short session is inadequate. It is impossible to cover a wide range of issues in three days. Students need to be educated and trained in several aspects. They need to learn the basics of the English language or of the language of the country where they will study. Instead of spending a year or so in the host environment learning the language, a six-month intensive language course here in the Kingdom would help improve their language abilities.
Saudi high school and university graduates are familiar only with the Saudi educational system, which is likely different from that of the country where they will study. Therefore, they need to be fully informed about the educational system of the host country. This can be accomplished through workshops and seminars where Saudi graduates or experts can give lectures on various aspects of the educational system of particular countries.
This orientation course should also include other aspects to be fully comprehensive. Saudi secondary graduates lack the essential educational skills needed to ensure their success in their educational endeavors abroad. They need training in time management and study skills and practice in how to conduct small research projects and give oral presentations.
They also should know how to present and defend their academic arguments and views. They should be trained in critical and independent thinking. The Saudi educational system merely expects students to memorize the information presented to them. Educational systems abroad, especially Western ones, encourage and expect much more.
In short, along with the gesture of offering scholarships for study in a foreign university, the authorities should extend all possible help to Saudi students so that they can take full advantage of their opportunity to study abroad.
The writer is a Saudi academic who can be reached at email@example.com.