With higher education booming in Saudi Arabia and the number of institutes of higher learning expanding each year, one might wonder at the necessity of scholarships for students to attend postgraduate education. Students hardly seem to require incentive to attend university, as attendance seems very high already.
Obviously, we want students to attend university programs. In fact, enabling students to do so builds capability within the society. Ever since Saudi Arabia built the first college in the Gulf region in 1952, our society has been promoting a highly educated public — a product of a different sort of education from the primarily religious one that most people would have gotten prior to that time.
However, far from being redundant in the face of already booming enrollment, the current scholarship program introduced by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah promises to be a profound asset to our entire society. A scholarship rewards students who achieve high scores, and, most importantly, it makes education accessible to those whose families would not be able to pay for it. As such, scholarships can function as a social equalizer.
Students from all backgrounds are able to boost their potential in society by partaking of higher education. The next generation of youth can then augment their socio-economic position. In short, funding for education is a social equalizer, more so than any other mechanism.
At the same time, the system of scholarship establishes a meritocracy. Because they represent a type of funding awarded on merit, scholarships are a built-in incentive program for students. It is well known that a bit of healthy competition goes a long way toward improving overall standards. There is, therefore, every chance that competing for scholarships may boost students’ performance and motivation.
It is also very important to note that this new scholarship program provides funding for Saudi students at Saudi universities. It functions as an adjunct to a previous system of scholarships established in 2005, which was aimed at educating Saudi students outside the country. That program provided educational and living expenses for students to study abroad.
While some of the objectives and results may have been the same — that is, that previously established system would likewise build capacity and ability within the society, and perhaps enable social mobility — it should be noted that it also prioritized learning that was acquired in the west.
At that stage, supporting education abroad may have addressed some weaknesses in our own post-secondary system. Now, however, it is time to bolster it. It is time to rely on our own strengths without the need to constantly make reference to outside culture.
The new system of scholarships is one way of achieving this. The funds allocated are very well spent if they can successfully increase attendance and achievement at our Saudi universities.
(The writer is a columnist at Arab News, where this article was published on Dec. 17, 2012)