Why Saudi Arabia’s commitment to distance learning matters

The Saudi government intends to invest heavily in improving online/distance learning opportunities for Saudi citizens. This development could have far-reaching implications for colleges and universities around the world.

In a recent story in the Saudi Gazette, a top government official indicated the coronavirus epidemic provided the impetus for rethinking remote learning in the Kingdom. The official said, “We need to focus more on investing in the positive results achieved in distance education and developing its programs and plans in future.”

I am department head and associate professor of Communication at Robert Morris University. Our university has benefited from a strong Saudi student population, and the annual Saudi National Day on our campus brings together our faculty and students to celebrate this important event on the Saudi Arabian calendar.

A drive to enhance distance education would have an impact on our campus, just as it would for any U.S. college or university. 

Arab News recently reported the Saudis spend more money on education than any other nation. Those dollars include a commitment to creating leading international universities; so far, one — King Abdulaziz University — is ranked among the top 250 universities in the world. Suffice to say, the Kingdom’s leaders want more of its domestic institutions appearing on such lists.

Without question, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has designs on increasing Saudi Arabia’s presence in the international education arena. Remember, too, the Vision 2030 project is based, in part, on improving the overall quality of education within the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia sends about 37,000 of its college-aged students to U.S. universities; only four other nations send more to America. Those students pay full tuition and fees, as do all international students, and those dollars are significant especially at smaller colleges and universities.

If the Kingdom determines in the future remote instruction has made sufficient strides to allow for those Saudi students to major in online programs, imagine the financial repercussions. The Kingdom could demand lower tuition rates for its students by, for example, demanding they pay what domestic students do. It could consider other nations as destinations for its students, whose spending power would remain inside the country. 

At the aforementioned Saudi National Day celebration on my campus, I’m always impressed by the enthusiasm of the Saudi students as they talk about specific regions or cities throughout the Kingdom. The educational and cultural program they provide serves as an important reminder of how valuable thy are as ambassadors for their country. My university, like all U.S. higher education institutions, has been made better because of the Saudi presence on the campus. It will be incumbent on us as administrators and faculty to ensure vital partnerships continue between our two nations as the Kingdom explores how to strengthen distance learning throughout the country.

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