The higher education systems in the United States and Saudi Arabia share a number of common traits, while also exhibiting characteristics that are unique to each system. It is also possible to find points of difference and comparison within each system when comparing individual institutions. Such differences notwithstanding, it is possible to examine the systems within each nation for the purpose of comparing and contrasting them to that of the other nation. Not surprisingly, the higher education system in the United States reflects aspects of the American social, cultural, and political environment; the same can be said for the higher education system in Saudi Arabia. By comparing the way each nation approaches the development and implementation of higher education it is possible to learn something not just about those systems, but also of the countries in which they operate. According to Eckel and King (n.d.), the higher education system is built on several fundamental philosophical principles. First among these philosophies is the Jeffersonian notion that government should play a limited role in the lives of citizens, specifically in such areas as education, religion, and freedom of expression. With this in mind, the U.S. federal government plays a smaller role in higher education than do the national governments of many other nations.
The U.S. economic system of capitalism has long played a significant role in the shape and function of U.S. society, and this is true where higher education is concerned. The faith in free markets and competitions has served as a significant influence on the U.S. higher education system; in this framework, schools compete for students and offer a diverse range of different programs, degrees, educational settings, and other opportunities. The involvement of the government in higher education is limited, with the states rather than the federal government, being the most influential government force in education. This is in contrast to many nations where central planning and government ministries oversee education at a national level.
Another notable aspect of higher education in the U.S. is that it is not reserved for the elite members of society. For much of human history higher education, when it was available, was only offered to a limited segment of the population. This was true to some degree even in the early history of the U.S., but by the 20th century that began to change. Social and economic advancements in the mid-20th century created a growing middle class and opened up greater opportunities for women and minorities as well. These opportunities meant that more people could afford to access higher education, and even led to the development of community colleges, a set of institutions that are unique to the United Sates. These changes aligned well with the notion of America as “the land of opportunity” and the higher education system in the U.S. “reflects essential elements of the American character (including) independence…ambition…and competitiveness” (Eckel & King, n.d.).
As of 2001 there were approximately 6500 different institutions of higher learning in the U.S. (as measured in participation with student financial aid programs); of these roughly 4200 were colleges and universities and the remaining number were vocational and trade schools. That same year approximately 16 million students were enrolled in these educational facilities and institutions. Within these numbers the aforementioned diversity of U.S. educational systems can be seen. Over 1000 of these schools offer two-year degrees (these are primarily community colleges), and students often transfer to other colleges or universities to obtain four-year degrees after attending community college. Schools within the U.S. higher education system offer courses and degrees in a die-ranging and diverse set of fields, from liberal arts degrees to health-care-related degrees (such as nursing) to various science programs and other courses and degrees. What primarily distinguishes the U.S. system is its diversity, its lack of direct government control, and its availability to a broad sector of the country’s population.
Juts as the U.S. system of higher education has been shaped by the nation’s character –while also reflecting that character- the same can be said for the higher education system in Saudi Arabia. Also similar is the way that the Saudi system is based on a number of core philosophical and ideological characteristics. According to Smith and Abouammoh (2013) these are “a focus on the teaching of Islam, a centralised system of control and educational support, state funding (thus education is free at all levels in Saudi Arabia) and a general policy of gender segregation.” In short, the most notable difference between the higher education system in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is that the former operates in a more market-based and competitive manner while the latter is operated primarily through a system of central planning at the national level.
There are some notable elements of comparison between the two systems; the most significant of these is that both systems have evolved in recent decades to be more inclusive and widely available. This is particularly noticeable in the Saudi system in terms of accessibility for women. As recently as 1970 there were as few as seven women enrolled in universities in Saudi Arabia; currently more than 60% of university students are women, and these women are engaged in studies of a wide variety of different subjects and fields. Despite this increasing access for women, the Saudi system of higher education continues to maintain strict gender separation, with the exception of “some medical schools and universities” (Smith & Abouammoh, 2013). There are both public and private universities in Saudi Arabia, but the national government is firmly engaged in the oversight of all the nation’s educational institutions. The government of Saudi Arabia is committed to the advancement of the nation’s university system to ensure that the nation meets the challenges of the future, especially as the global demands for oil and energy evolve in the coming decades.
In both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia the higher education systems offer insight into each country’s society and reflect the practical and ideological characteristics that define it. The system in the United States mirrors many aspects of that nation’s social and economic structures, where schools compete to offer the best programs, to attract the best students, and in many cases to even to generate revenue. The nation of Saudi Arabia operates its educational system through a system of central planning directed by the government. This allows the nation to direct and focus the resources and academic goals of the entire system and to ensure that higher education in Saudi Arabia functions in accordance with social and religious requirements. Each system has, in its way, expanded in the modern era to become more inclusive, a trend that will likely continue. While each system has its own advantages and its own flaws, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have developed world-class systems of higher education that reflect the greatest aspirations and ideals of the two nations.
- Eckel, P. & King, J. (n.d.). An Overview of Higher Education in the United States. American Council On Education, [Accessed: 18 Mar 2014].
- Smith, L. & Abouammoh, A. (2013). Higher Education in Saudi Arabia: Achievements, Challenges and Opportunities. Higher Education Dynamics, 40.