Saudi Arabia began focusing on higher education when the country entered a new era of rapid development in the early 1970s.
In 1975, a separate Ministry of Higher Education was established. The Ministry launched a long-term plan to make sure that the Saudi educational system provided the highly skilled manpower the Kingdom needed to run its increasingly sophisticated economy.
One of the plan’s first objectives was to establish new institutions of higher education throughout the country and expand existing ones. By 2014, there were 25 major public universities, a large number of vocational institutes, and a growing number of private colleges.
Another objective was to establish undergraduate and postgraduate programs in most disciplines at these universities and colleges. As a result, Saudi students can now get degrees in almost any field in the Kingdom, and only pursue specialized study abroad if necessary.
Currently, about 1 million students are enrolled at Saudi universities and colleges, compared to 7,000 in 1970 – a dramatic improvement. Of those, over half are female. Women attend all major universities, as well as numerous all-female colleges and private women’s universities.
Saudi students also have the opportunity to pursue specialized graduate and postgraduate degrees abroad. Supported by government scholarships, thousands of Saudi students enroll in universities outside the Kingdom.
The oldest university in the country is King Saud University in Riyadh. When it first opened in 1957, just nine instructors taught 21 students. Today, 65,000 students pursue degrees at the faculties of art, science, commerce, engineering, agriculture, medicine, dentistry, nursing, education, computer science and information science. The university offers doctorate programs in many fields and is particularly known for its engineering and medical schools.
The largest university in the Kingdom is King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, with over 70,000 students. It was founded privately in 1967 by a group of Saudi businessmen who believed strongly in the importance of education for national development. The university grew so rapidly that in 1971, its founders petitioned the government to take over its operation.
The Islamic University at Madinah, founded in 1961, is renowned as a center for Islamic studies, with graduates from over 100 countries.
Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh (founded in 1974) and Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah (1981) have highly regarded Islamic law, history and Arabic literature departments, in addition to programs in the arts and sciences.
Imam Muhammad bin Saud University offers programs in Islamic and Arabic studies at its branches in Japan, Indonesia, Mauritania, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates.
The Eastern Province’s King Faisal University, founded in 1975, offers a range of programs, including medicine and architecture, at its campus in Dammam. The Hofuf campus is especially respected for its outstanding agricultural and veterinary sciences programs, its experimental farms, and advanced research in agriculture and animal husbandry.
Other universities in Saudi Arabia include the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, one of the oldest (1964) and considered on par with the best in the world in that field; and Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University (founded in 2007) the world's largest university for women with an enrollment of over 52,000 undergraduate and graduate students.