Why KASP is Flawed?

King Abdullah Scholarships Program (KASP) is an impressive undertaking. More than 70,000 Saudi students have been sent to many different countries around the world to continue their education. The program is fully paid for by the government, and it is said to be designed in a way to cover the demands of the job market in the country. Although it has been deemed mostly successful, the program has some issues. These issues, however, are usually dismissed by officials at the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) as minor.

For example, 1073 students on KASP have been recently sent home for reasons related to their behavior, religious observance, or academic performance. And there is a fourth reason related to the nation that I don’t quite understand. The ministry says this is such a small number compared to the overall number of students who study abroad, but I think the fact that they had to return more than a thousand students indicates a problem with the selection process.

A friend of mine was recently traveling to the US. On the plane, he met with 15 Saudi students going on scholarships. Only one out of the fifteen could actually read English, and was able to fill out the customs form.

I think some of the problems with KASP have to do with the philosophy behind the program which I believe is flawed. Limiting the program to a small set of technical and medical majors just to supply to the demand of the job market is not the right strategy to develop a modern state. Yes, our country needs engineers and doctors. But we also need artists, philosophers, linguists, sociologists, and graphic designers.

Unfortunately, MOHE is highly allergic to criticism. When a student wrote a blog post about the Saudi Cultural Commission in Canada last year, he had to take it down few hours later. Mohammed al-Khazem, who wrote a book about higher education in the country, says MOHE is seeking attention at the expense of doing what is really important. That is, to help the 20 universities in the Kingdom to become better institutions.

There are high hopes that KASP will transform Saudi Arabia. The students who studied abroad are expected not only to come back with degrees, but also with a change in mindset that will push the country to the next level economically, socially, and culturally. But there is also fear that these high hopes might turn out to be false. We sent thousands of students in the ‘70s and ‘80s to study abroad and when they came back they did not change much. Is it going to be any different this time?

18 thoughts on “Why KASP is Flawed?

  1. Thanks for considering artists as important people! :D

    But what about all the female students who, once they are back, are not allowed to get a job?

  2. Change will never come through one intervention. For us to change the mind set of our youth, we need change on many levels. Starting from our home.

    I agree with you they shouldn’t have limited the types of disciplines. In my opinion i think the problem with scholarship programme is it weak link with innovation. Instead they should fund projects and attach studies with it….

    Many thanks for your post

  3. As someone who is dually trained to specialist level in the humanities and medicine, I can understand an initial focus on subjects core to filling professional and science gaps in a developing society, but then broadening the focus as those gaps are filled.

    Ideally those benefiting from a scholarship return to their home countries and share their expertise whether as practitioners of a profession or also researchers,educators, administrators and public servants. This has happened with other countries, and an example in Saudi would be the current Minister of Health who benefited from overseas training to become a world leader in the separation of conjoined twins, and now is essentially the Surgeon General of the country.

    Another problem for all countries is that the people funded don’t always return home, and in medicine tend to ultra specialize. This results either in a brain drain or in a surfeit of subspecialists and a lack of general practitioners, general internists, and general surgeons.

    The ultra specialization seems to be the case of Saudis on scholarship in Canada though most do return home and hopefully contribute to building expertise there. This is a phase in the transition away from employing foreign doctors and fully training one’s own.

    At the very least the group studying abroad should come back with expertise to share and benefit others. I read an article once in Al Ahram on the first Egyptian to qualify abroad as a specialist OBGYN, who did return to his country and made a major impact in saving the lives of women and fetuses who otherwise would have died in pregnancy or labour and delivery, and improved the skill level and practices of midwives, obsgyn nurses, general practitioners, and other obgyns who came along after him. This is one excellent role model, as are others in other countries, including notably in my field of psychiatry.

    I would be interested if anyone has information on the employment of women scholarship students when they return.

  4. My observations are:
    1. There is a granted 1.5 years of English offered to some levels (under graduates and Masters), and sometimes to PhD’s so English is not really an obstacle to training
    2. Reasons other than the academic competency can play a role in failure, as culture shock, family problems (esp. females), etc.., these can’t be simply predicted ahead…
    3. Since humanities and philosophies are not practiced at all as serious professions in KSA, so what’s the point of having people sent to these disciplines? Religion here dictates the world view and presumably the literary output (look at the volume of books on religious teachings at any book store)
    4. people who study abroad change to some degrees, but this change doesn’t propagate to the society at large, because most learn that change esp. coming from the West is not good and unaccepted early on, so most people tend to keep the changes unannounced -for safety reasons-, in short, the environment doesn’t encourage the adoption of new ideas and change particularly those pertain to women issues and human rights…
    Remember that most Saudis come here already developed and mentally conditioned, it would take a real honest/ adventurous person to critically think and examine the different concepts and beliefs and enact a change if any…


    • As someone who does psychotherapy with uni students, including foreign ones, and who supervises grad students, I would agree that other factors contribute to failure, and would add that: graduate studies are categorically different than undergrad and not for everyone, no matter how bright they are; students are often required on the application for acceptance to the program to pick topic and superviser without the benefit of “local uni knowledge”, and often find these were not a good fit for them. They can be fairly far into their studies/years on scholarship before this becomes obvious, and not be sure that they can change or that it would be advisable to do so. Also they face the challenges of all young adults about life stages and the pressures coming with them: career preparation, romance, marriage, and children–all of which are harder to negotiate for women, though challenging to men too.

      Preparation in humanities and philosophy makes better professional whatevers as recruiters and employers have discovered. It also sets a base of people within the country who have been exposed to alternate views and can transmit these sotto voce if necessary, and even if only to those in their immediate sphere–or via blogs!

      Since there are academic departments of foreign languages and literatures in
      Saudi universities it is good to have Saudis well-trained to be their professors. This elevates the level of study in such departments, and due to ongoing research gives prominence to Saudis and Saudi themes in international academic circles, eg on topics not usually covered in the media, or perhaps even within Saudi commonly.

      Many students from highly homogenous and restrictive countries change profoundly over the course of a scholarship period which can be as long as 7 years and happens at formative time whether for undergrad, grad, or postgrad, ie late adolescence/ early adulthood. At the very least they share this evolution with immediate family, friends, and trusted contacts, even if some do “revert” on return. Often the change is seen in expectations of, and opportunities given to children including daughters, rather than with choice of wife, lifestyle, etc.

  5. I agree with you completely on the English competency problem. Another problem is that there is very little done to condition the new students to the inevitable culture shock. This year they made the students go to a compulsory English crash course, and a two day event where representatives of MOHE and Saudi cultural attaches introduced the students to what life will be like abroad. It’s a small step, highly chaotic, and not very effective. But it signals that MOHE, while denying there are any problems, are aware of their shortcomings.

    • It also signals potentially to the students that there will be a culture shock. Those who have traveled to or lived in Western countries previously will be more prepared, but are still likely to encounter a certain amount of culture shock.

  6. I just wanted to add something about the cultural shock not the one the Saudi students are facing during their residency in the host country, though it is the one they are suffering from after their coming back to their country. Nevertheless; we cannot sell the advantages of the scholarship program short.

    • Reverse culture shock can be very profound and usually catches the person unaware, and their family and friends too.

      My own experience has been that reverse culture shock is worse than culture shock for just those 2 reasons. The first time I was very unhappy until I attended a psychiatric lecture on “immigrant syndrome” and felt I was in good company even if it didn’t make sense given that I was native born. Since I was back in my home city people who noticed anything just thought it was incomprehensible. I once had a store clerk say “What country DO you live in?”.

  7. I believe the problem with these scholarships is that people take it for granted. For example, dream and hope to leave the kingdom not to further education but to party and so…
    I know someone who had an offer to study in Imperial College(Argubely best medical school in the UK)and she was turned down by KSAP due to the fact that the fees were high and they couldn’t cater for it. What does this suggest? However, on the contrary, you get people from villages who have zero ambitions, not multilingual.. etc.. remain studying foundation for 10 years and thus the government costs are high… They get these scholarships just because they know someone ‘was6a’ and travel to study abroad and sadly return to follow the same footsteps of the average saudi and not make a notable differnce in society. Disclaimer: I am not against those who have potential but lack langauge or something. I am, nevertheless, against the system; who you know (connections) not individual merit.
    Al-7amdolillah though 3ala the ne3ma

  8. Hello i think the change i mean good change should come from inside not from outside we should change our mind here in saudia arabia then we can adapt with any another culture or idiology and culture thank you

  9. i agree with you because i meet big saudi proph studied in uk i told him i want to study english at ksu but he band me because he said you can not study english because you are “blind english is hard subject for you you are blind go and study any thing alse … ” he studied in uk england just see his mind and kind of phelosephy he has he is not allone there are of cource others like him

  10. This is a great post that spoke the mind of many, and I am one of them. Since its start, the program selection criteria are not that clear to me. For instance, about 80% of the people I know or heard that they got the scholarship were not academic achievers throughout their undergraduate studies … so what is the point of sending them anyway!!

    The comparison with the 70’s and 80’s program is very interesting and thought stimulating. Most of those who got the higher degree by that time are teaching in universities right now. But how many of them did publish a reputable research, how many of them did build an international reputation? … I am afraid the answer won’t be that pretty!!

  11. While I cannot speak directly to the academic track record of Saudis hired in the 70’s 80’s, in general where there is the type of faculty building and newer universities and university programs the emphasis is on teaching and administration, which takes time and energy from research.

    Research as a major promotional criterion for almost all North American academics is more a phenomenon of the 90’s. Until then, and still in some positions in some universities it was/is possible to advance and get tenure without a major research contribution.

    Hopefully the new wave of Saudi scholarship graduates will keep up with current demands and contribute well to the academic and scientific evolution of the country.

  12. I think this post is a bit misinformed, and has jumped to conclusions based on smatterings of info from here and there.

    1. As already mentioned in the comments, most Saudis who come to the US initially enroll in an English program before starting their university studies. This varies from 6 months to 2 years.

    2. I don’t know about this batch of scholarships, but while at various universities in the US in the late 90’s to mid 2000’s, I can assure you that their disciplines were not as narrow as you think – many were in education and related programs, for example.

  13. “Yes, our country needs engineers and doctors. But we also need artists, philosophers, linguists, sociologists, and graphic designers.”

    yeslam fammak , man write on !!
    keep on writing , keep it coming , i light up reading your stuff , our likes are not few , may the day come when our voices are actually heard,

    and it will! never stop ya Ostaz.i won’t stop either, not stopping might inspire the change needed, write on….

  14. I agree with the fact that the selection process needs to be reviewed. I’m one of the high school students who were accepted for the fifth year, which is this one, and so far i’ve been studying medicine for a good 2 months. What i hate is that in order to get a scholarship, all the government needs is good grades, and a decent score on two aptitude exams. Now i’m with 49 other students, who are supposed to be the absolute cream of the crop as far as scholastic abilities go, and truth be told, 8 out of 10 are them simply won’t make it. Being a graduate of a highly flawed system where all you need to pass your high school exams with flying colors, or what passes for flying colors, are to memorize your books word for word ( or rub them on your body, for added luck), and go into an exam and literally pull a “copy paste”. And then the ministry says that the students who don’t make it through the foundation year and into the main college, have only themselves to blame. Can you blame them? There was no interview process, no seeing if the person could handle the stresses of encountering culture shock, no FIXED level of english they would have to have in order to apply for the scholarship(IELTS of TOEFL.) For all the benefits that KASP has, i think all that money could be put to much better use, if they’d only make sure it went to the people who truly deserved it, and could make something out of the opportunity. It’s the fifth edition now, they’ve had ample time to learn from the mistakes of yesteryear, and according to the ministry,the program is going to go on for another five years. Now if only they don’t fuck that up more than they already have is all I can hope for, for the country’s sake, and all the people who deserve the chance to study abroad, but just don’t have the means.

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