Saudi Arabia: changing times, new opportunities
Mesma director Louise Doyle looks at how the UK can work with education companies in the Middle East
The changing face of Middle East education heralds new opportunity for astute UK companies able to provide specialised niche services to Arab markets. One firm looking to ride the new wave of opportunity is online self-assessment and improvement planning software specialists Mesma, whose director Louise Doyle, fresh from a fact finding visit to the region, explains more.
Across the Middle East, the speed of change can seem breath taking at times. Shifting social mores, the blurring of cultural divides and aspiring ambition combine to provide a potent mix that’s propelling the region ever forward at unparalleled speed. The dynamic economies of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar might be the ones currently in the ascendancy but it’s also the older, more established regional players, notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), that are moving also to meet the challenge posed by the younger tyros of doing business in the modern global economy.
KSA is investing billions to assure its position as a strong, vibrant and educated force – one capable of playing a significant role in a fast evolving geo-political landscape that’s built on the talents of a resourceful and skilled workforce.
However, there are issues to address. The current skills base in the KSA is essentially one founded on an immigrant workforce.The government has an extensive programme of activity designed to train Saudi nationals with the knowledge and skills necessary to meet its own requirement for a future workforce. Furthermore, 40% of young Saudi Arabians under-30 are unemployed. The case to create more jobs in the private sector, up-skill the workforce and unlock the challenges of women’s ability to work in a highly conservative and religious society.
According to the Saudi Skills Standard (SSS), less than 10% of the Saudi workforce participates in technical and vocational training. So to catch up with countries in the developed world, it needs to increase this number by almost 50%. This will be achieved over the next few years through a massive expansion of colleges, student places and targeted employability initiatives. But simply increasing the number of young people in training is not enough. It will be critical to ensure the training is high quality, bespoke and delivered to meet the needs of employers.
High value opportunity
We are seeing the investment in vocational education provision ramping-up to meet future needs and the UKTI has identified the Saudi education and training market as a high value opportunity for British companies. There has been a number of significant business opportunities already secured recently by UK education and training providers in deals worth more than £1 billion – for instance, UK providers already operate many vocational and technical Colleges of Excellence (CoE) for men and women across KSA.
New vocational colleges, built and operated by British consortium through the KSA’s Colleges of Excellence (CoE) programme, are springing up across the country. Now well into its second phase, the initiative represents a significant investment in technical and vocational education and training in Saudi Arabia. There are now 36 state-of-the-art colleges with more expected to come on stream including a cluster of three women’s colleges in the north of the country, in the towns of Al Jouf, Arar and Qurayyat.
The new, purpose-built facilities provided by the Saudi government, will cater for up to 500 students per college in the first year, rising to 2,000 per college within five years. Students will focus on English language training in the first year, before specialising in vocational areas including healthcare, business, IT and finance, hair and beauty, fashion design, and agriculture. Subject areas have been chosen by the government to support growing employment needs in distinct parts of the country.
Activate Learning will develop the colleges’ curriculum and management in partnership with GEMS Education Solutions, an international educational consultancy already delivering education in Saudi Arabia, and Moulton College, which will provide particular expertise in the agricultural programmes. In time, this is expected to include the development of the learning company model, which sees students at further education colleges immersed in real-world, commercial operations as an integral part of their studies.
There’s also significant potential for future business – worth in excess of £100 million to British companies – while opportunities exist across all sub-sectors including schools, vocational education and training, higher education and CPD/professional training. Moreover, UK education and training expertise is highly prized in the KSA across a range of industry sectors.
The SSS, a relatively new body, is the organisation charged with overseeing much of this rapid development in KSA’s education provision, ensuring skills standards are applied and training quality is monitored with integrity and objectivity. Its also tasked with ensuring that qualifications derived from National Occupation Skills Standards (NOSS) are fit for purpose as well as external assessment, and inspection and review.
For niche specialists like Mesma and others this all heralds significant commercial opportunity. The remit of the SSS is broader than that of the UK’s Ofsted, gearing up to meet its responsibilities for both delivery and inspection of curriculum – and of course, easy-to-use and cost efficient self-assessment and improvement planning is a beneficial part of a process to establish an effective institutional review method to assess the quality of training received by trainees.
SSS framework compliance
Demonstrating a robust, ongoing process for self-assessment and improvement plan is a key part of the SSS framework and a strategic internet-based tool like Mesma, which can be controlled remotely from the UK and offers multi-site connectivity, can provide college operators in the KSA with the confidence that their assessments are in line with the latest SSS framework.
It meets evolving requirements in the KSA with software that helps providers better prepare and be ready for inspection regimes. The whole process of self-assessment is improved managed and completed utilising easy-to-use tool and features incorporated within the software before being linked to robust improvement plans giving overall system control and monitoring. Quality assurance reports, policy documents, processes and guidelines as well as other important documentation can all be stored online in one place within Mesma for quick and convenient access and reference from any location. The system can also monitor activities allocated to other staff to track progress and completion, providing the confidence that assessments are in line with the SSS frameworks.
There’s clearly unbridled opportunity in the KSA on the back of the government’s renewed ambition and new investment. The chance is there for a new generation of smart, go-ahead, dynamic young companies to overcome the challenges, and reap the benefits, with exciting new products and services which meet the education requirements of this most exciting and rewarding of countries.