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Making great strides in education
By Aftab H Kola

Jeddah:"The true wealth of any nation is its people, for it is their ability to manage the existing resources and to identify and develop new ones which determine the prosperity of the economy and the health of society for the present and future generations", wrote the present Information Minister Dr. Fouad Al- Farsi in 1994. And last eight years have seen massive educational expansion in Saudi Arabia with the Govt laying great emphasis to educate their people. During the last decade bold decisions have been taken to implement educational programmes designed to eliminate illiteracy.

Illiteracy was rampant in the Kingdom with only some maktabs playing the role of schools. King Abdul Aziz bin Abdel Rahman As-Saud, the country's founder, realising the importance of education, initiated an extensive programmes to establish schools in the country in 1945. By 1951 the country had 226 schools with 30,000 enrollments. Today the country boasts of 4000 intermediate schools and close to 2000 high schools (from 16 high schools in 1970). In the Kingdom there are four levels of education below higher education level. The first stage is the pre-school level and then there is the elementary level which imparts education for children from the age of six to twelve. Thirdly, the intermediate level caters to children from 12-15. And fourthly, the secondary level which caters for children from 15 to 18 years and is take-off point to join higher education. The higher education is now given great importance by the Saudi authorities. The objectives of Saudi education policy are to ensure that education becomes more useful, to meet the religious, economic and social needs of the country and to eradicate illiteracy. The Ministry of Education, established in 1954, sets the over-all standards for the country's education system. The General Presidency for Girls Education administers the girls' schools and colleges and sponsors literacy programmes for women. It may be surprising to note that of the 5.5 million students enrolled in Saudi schools at present nearly half of them are females.

While the study of Islam remains at its core the modern Saudi education system provides free quality education in diverse fields. In recent years the budget allocation for education every year is about 25% of the total budget.

Realising the immediate need to create a pool of highly qualified Saudi citizens who will manage Saudi's social and economic and developmental programmes the Govt has allocated adequate resources in this direction.

The Kingdom now has eight major universities besides a string of other institutes of higher learning. The oldest and the largest of these is the King Saud University spread over an area of 2224 acres of land in Riyadh. With an enrollment of over 55,000 students managed by a competent faculty of 1600 the university has carved a niche in the domain of higher education. The graduate disciplines offered by the university are arts, science, pharmacy, administrative sciences, engineering, agriculture, education, medicine, dentistry, applied medical science, architecture, urban planning, computer and information science, agriculture and vet medicine. At the post-graduate level the university currently awards masterís degrees in Arabic language, history, geography, social studies, English language and archaeology. The university stimulates scientific research by making its centers available to research students. The King Abdul Aziz university in Jeddah, founded in 1967, is yet another large university with more than 40,000 students on its rolls. The university awards masterís degrees in earth sciences, economics and administration, education, humanities, marine sciences, meteorology, environment sciences, etc. Other universities include the Umm-Al-Qura university, Madina, Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic university, Riyadh, King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dahran and the King Faisal university, Dammam.The King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology is the country's apex research center and has grown into an institution capable of making significant contributions through comprehensive scientific and technical studies.

For those Saudi students residing abroad the Kingdom has established educational institutions in many parts of the world like the United States, Italy and Britain. Also, King Fahad, who pioneered the development of the education sector as Minister of education in the 50s, gave great importance to holy Qur'an memorisation schools. There are now more than 500 of them. There are about 160 teachers training institutes for females. Focus has also been paid to retarded pupils, as there are 180 schools for them.

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