The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe and spans roughly 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. Like many countries, the first schools were established as a way of ensuring religious education, but colleges teaching core subjects began as early as the mid-1800s.
The General Education Management Center was established in 1925; less than a decade later, Saudi Arabia created a free, public system of education from kindergarten to university studies, followed by a private and extended public schooling throughout the early 1900s. Government funding dramatically affected higher education in the 1980's, and university enrollment increased 95%. Female students are now admitted to schools with the same standards as males, and they follow the same basic curriculum, but it has not always been that way. Formal education for women and girls began after middle-class men appealed to the government, wanting to marry educated Saudi women. In 1970, more than three times as many male students were enrolled in education in Saudi Arabia; as of 2000, the numbers were almost equal between the sexes. Before 2003, the General Presidency for Girl’s Education supervised primary and secondary education for girls, and the Ministry of Education oversaw the education of boys.
When oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s, the Ministry of Higher Education was created to address the increased need for a skilled and educated labor force. During the next 15 years, thousands of Saudis studied in the USA. In 2004, foreign investors were allowed into the private education market, and the Ministry of Education began a 10 year reform plan to correspond with the 25 year reform of higher education scheduled to start in 2007
The Kingdom’s education system faces many challenges, primarily as a result of increasing numbers of students and rising technological needs for educating and training them. Sixty percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 18, the median age of a Saudi national is 21, and the country’s education system has reached critical mass. Education is free at all levels but is not compulsory for any of its 5.7 million students in all levels of the education sector. The government provides students with free education, books, and health services. University students also receive financial assistance and housing, and female students often receive free transportation. The Higher Commission for Education Policy and the Higher Education Council merged in 2004 to from the Supreme Education Council to oversee all higher education. The school year generally runs from September to June, in two 17-week semesters.
The government has recognized that its education system is overtaxed. Almost a third of secondary school graduates have no ability to continue their education because there are not enough schools. As a result, scholarship programs to study outside the Kingdom, rapid building and opening of new schools at secondary and tertiary levels, increasing capacity at existing schools, and foreign university licensing are all being implemented as a way of addressing the growing population's educational needs.
Primary and Secondary Education
Primary education consists of 6 years (ages 6-12), which is followed by three years of intermediate education (ages 12-15), and three years of upper secondary or vocational secondary education (ages 15-18), for a total of 12 years of combined primary and secondary education. Secondary education is further divided into five streams: general (academic), commercial, vocational, agricultural, and religious.
After completion of secondary education, students are eligible to pursue study at a wide variety of post-secondary education institutions: 1-2 year higher technical institutes, 2-3 year technical colleges, 2 year junior/community colleges, and university education, including 4-5 year undergraduate programs (B.A. and B.S. Degrees) and professional and postgraduate degree programs. Master's degrees require 1-2 years of study, while the Ph.D. requires a minimum of 3 years of study plus qualifying examinations and defense of a dissertation.
Medical education is offered at state of the art facilities. Both Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degrees are offered. A comprehensive list of professional degrees in the health professions can be found with the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties.