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?