Riyadh’s Princess Noura University – More than Just an Educational Flagship
I’ve just got back from a brief trip to Riyadh. Though I normally drive from Bahrain, I chose to fly this time, and so had an opportunity to admire the spectacular new campus of the Princess Noura University, which is close to the airport. Last time I passed by was 18 months ago. At that time it was a building site. Now it’s complete, and it is truly massive.
It also so happened that today was the grand opening of the campus by King Abdullah. As the Arab News reports:
Apart from administrative buildings, the new campus includes a 700-bed university hospital, 15 colleges, a central library, a conference hall, laboratories and three research centers for nanotechnology, information technology and biosciences. It also comprises staff housing units, student hostels, primary, intermediate and secondary schools and recreational facilities.
King Abdullah laid the foundation stone for the university in October 2008. Designed to accommodate more than 50,000 students, PNU has been described as a milestone in the history of women’s education in the Kingdom. The university has a high-tech transport system with automatic and computer-controlled vehicles linking all important facilities on the campus.
Interesting that the capacity has increased by 10,000 from the reported number when I last wrote about the campus. Also that the Arab News article quotes a UNESCO report that women make up 58% of the total student population of Saudi Universities.
So the same question applies that I asked in my earlier piece: given the male working population of Saudi Arabia massively outnumbers the females, where are the jobs for all these graduates? Since a similar proportion of the students studying abroad under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program – the most commonly quoted number for these students is in excess of 100,000 at any one time – are women, the question comes up again. In another article in the Arab News, Aliya Al-Shalhoub, originially writing in Al Riyadh newspaper, takes a very downbeat view of the prospect of persuading the women of Saudi Arabia to take up a quoted figure of 500,000 jobs said to be available to them:
It is quite strange that the total number of Saudi workingwomen represents only 16 percent of the total workforce in the Kingdom. At the same time, the nation’s expenses on women’s education is 53 percent more than that of men. This problem continues to remain without any substantial change for several decades. Here the question is: How is it possible for us to make job opportunities for unemployed Saudi women available and attract half a million of them to the employment market?
From my personal viewpoint, I do not see any possibility for this. This is not because of our inability to create employment opportunities, but because of the so-called red lines prevailing in the job market. I regret to point out that I see these red lines still vivid. We are unable to take up jobs of sales staff in lingerie shops currently held by some 300,000 foreigners, because of our social and economic cautiousness. Meanwhile, our young women are staying indoors in their houses.
The maintenance and electrical departments at our women’s universities, colleges and schools are not in a position to make available training programs and eventually job opportunities for our young women. It is also highly regretful that women are barred from taking up vast job opportunities available in various fields such as medicine, law and various other services related to women. Most of these positions are being held by foreigners, while Saudis watch this situation remorsefully.
In my earlier post I asked whether the massive tertiary education programme for women was King Abdullah’s way of levelling up the playing field for the women of Saudi Arabia without forcing a confrontation with the conservative elements in society. Certainly the King’s interest in PNU is very strong, as the Arab News emphasised.
Looking at the situation again, I had another thought.
It’s pretty clear that many of these graduates will not find jobs any time soon. As I understand it, there simply aren’t enough to go round – or, as Aliya Al Shalhoub points out, too many red lines getting in the way – even though the PNU curriculum focuses on areas that the government clearly believes are appropriate for women – medicine, dentistry, nursing, information technology, kindergarten education languages, translation and pharmacy.
But then I recalled a conversation with an educationalist in Bahrain who told me that many female Saudi graduates have no intention of working. They actually believe that by getting a degree they will improve their status and thereby their chances of marrying well.
That I can understand, given that Saudi Arabia is so family-oriented. However, there is the danger that if the bias in favour of women undergraduates continues, a number of the women will have to settle for men who are less qualified than they are. I’m sure that they would be happy to accept the situation provided that they are marrying a good man. But since there is such a strong cultural imperative for husbands to be the masters of their families, is there a chance that some of them might feel a wee bit insecure marring a woman with better qualifications than he has? The Arab News has reported in the past on this issue. It could intensify in the future.
A Westerner might think that all those education dollars producing thousands of well-qualified housewives is a waste of resources. I’m not so sure.
It will take more than a generation before the traditional Saudi family structure – where the man works and the woman stays at home with the kids – changes significantly, even though the number of women in the workforce is steadily increasing. But if more and more mums are graduates, the chances are that those who don’t delegate the upbringing of their kids to their housemaids will promote the benefits of education to their kids – boys and girls alike. They will be better able to help them with their homework and perhaps, just perhaps, they will take the view that education in the home is as important as what their kids learn at school. And that their contribution can help overcome some of the inadequacies of the current primary and secondary systems in the Kingdom.
I’m not suggesting that the present generation of young female graduates will turn into tiger mothers in the Chinese style, and obsessively drive their kids to succeed at all costs. And I’m sure that that there are many mums, graduates or otherwise, valiantly supporting their offspring today. But I do feel that the more mums there are who cherish the education they have received, the more they will encourage their kids to go down the same route.
So perhaps Princess Noura University will be good for Saudi Arabia in more ways than one.