Edition 91 - November 2008

Female brainpower à la Saudi Arabia

The foundations for the world’s largest women-only university, the Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University for Girls, were laid by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on 29 October in Riyadh.  Opening its doors in 2010, it will offer courses in medicine, pharmacy, management, computer sciences, languages, etc. – all subjects for which other Saudi universities enforce strict gender segregation. In quantitative terms, the Riyadh University will have a capacity for 40 000 students. Currently, there are only private all-women colleges in Saudi Arabia. The Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University will be the first public university of its kind.

Beyond the criticism from the most conservative Muslim ranks, two main questions arise:

  1. Will this all-women institution really help to overcome the gender gap or will it reinforce the divide? and
  2. Will the labour market be able to absorb the new number of graduates? 

Saudi Arabia still has the lowest female employment rate world-wide. While women make up for 58 percent of the student body, only 16 percent of the Saudi workforce is female. Segregation and the state policy of male supervision confine them to jobs in women-only environments, such as education and health.

But what is particularly interesting in Saudi Arabia’s higher education landscape is the role of advocate and benefactor King Abdullah: In September 2009, his privately funded King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) will open its doors to both men and women (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, November 2007). KAUST is a milestone for an understanding that all European countries share, but have not been able to implement as boldly: who invests in education today, will reap the benefits tomorrow.

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