At the time when Saudi Arabia emerged as a state, from 1926 and on, the educational facilities were very limited. Only Islamic madrasas offered instruction, from primary to higher levels. First in the late 1940's a school system shaped after secular Western-style schools, was established. Even if a great part of the teaching hours were devoted to Islamic studies, the ulama (religious leaders) protested strongly.
When Saudi Arabia opened its first university, in 1957, this was also the first in the whole Gulf region.
Education is segregated between the sexes at all levels, but in general it is the same curriculum for boys and girls. Traditional Islamic education is an alternative, but open only for boys.
Education is free at all levels. Primary education is not compulsory in Saudi Arabia, and until the 1990's a substantial part of the young did not attend schools. In the 2000's, this is changed, and close to all boys and girls attend school for a full 9 years.
Private institutions operate at all levels in Saudi Arabia, systems that are encouraged by the state. These institutions are funded over the state budget, and pupils at private schools complete their schooling by taking public exams.
Expenditure on education was estimated at 6.8% of GDP in 2004, which by 2008 would involve a per capita cost of $1,400 spent on education.
Despite decades of wealth, literacy rates are far from impressive. Illiteracy is linked to age, gender and geography.
A great portion of the illiterate belong the population above the age of 65; among the young illiteracy is only marginal.
Many illiterate live in rural areas, and in particular the less developed regions; percentage-wise the number of illiterate in Riyadh are about 1/3 of those in the mountainous Jizan region, in the kingdom's southwestern corner.
Gender differences are greater than in other Arabic countries; while there in Saudi Arabia are about twice as many illiterate among women, neighbouring Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates have a balance between the sexes.
National campaigns against illiteracy among adults have been undertaken by Islamic organizations, without these efforts illiteracy would have been substantially higher.
Kindergartens from the age of 3 is offered for free, and are voluntary. These institutions represent no defined pedagogical program, and are not organized to prepare for entrance into school.
Figures from 2007 show that between 10 and 11% of kids attend kindergartens, and it is about as common for girls as for boys to attend.
Children start school at the age of 6, receiving elementary education for 6 years. The curriculum consists of Arabic; Art education; Geography; History; Mathematics; Islamic studies; and Science. Home economics is taught to girls only; Physical education to boys only.
There is today almost an equilibrium in attendance between the sexes: all boys attend school, 4% of girls do not.
Upon completing the 6 years, pupils must pass examination to receive the General Elementary School Certificate, which qualifies for intermediate school.
Intermediate education follows from the primary, and is a 3 year program.
The curriculum consists of the same subjects as in primary school, but now English is introduced. Similar to primary school, Home economics is for girls only, Physical education for boys only.
Upon completing this level, pupils must pass examination to receive the Intermediate School Certificate, which qualifies for secondary education.
Also at this level there is an equilibrium between sexes, but with slightly larger differences: about all boys attend, 8% of girls do not.
There are also vocational programs for those not entering the intermediate. These offer 1 to 1.5 year courses specializing for work life in several fields. Upon completing, participants receive the Vocational Training Certificate.
Secondary education follows directly from the intermediate, offering 3 year programs.
At this level, pupils choose between different branches: General; Islamic; and Technical. Several hours a week are devoted to Islamic studies.
Islamic studies involve the disciplines of memorization of the Koran, interpretation and understanding and the application of Islamic regulation in everyday life.
About 2% of all boys do not attend this level, compared to 14% of girls.
At General, there is one curriculum for all the first year. The two following years, pupils will specialize into either scientific or literary. Entry into the scientific is competitive, requiring at least 60% score in subjects from the first year.
Shared subjects are Arabic; Islam; Biology; Chemistry; English; Geography; History; and Mathematics. Similar to lower schools, Home economics is for girls only, Physical education for boys only.
Upon completing this course, students will pass the General Secondary Examination, called Tawjihi, to receive the General Secondary Education Certificate (Shahada al-Marhalat ath-Thanawiyya), which qualifies for university studies, or other higher forms of education.
Training at the Islamic branch, which is only for boys, aims at a career in the ulama, the religious clergy. The curriculum here has its main focus on Islam and Arabic. In addition, Arabic literature; English; General culture; Geography; and History. Completing the course, and with the passing of an examination, pupils receive the Religious Institute Secondary Education Certificate, or Shahada ath-Thanawiyya 'al-¢ama li-l-Ma'āhid 'al-¢ilmiyya, by which they can enter higher religious education.
There are 3 types of technical secondary education available: Vocational; Commercial; and Agricultural.
The Vocational branch offers several fields, like Architectural drawing; Auto mechanics; Electricity; Machine mechanics; Metal mechanics; and Radio and television. Pupils share some common subjects, like Arabic; Chemistry; English; Mathematics; Physical education; Physics; and Islam.
The Commercial branch includes these subjects: Arabic; English; Bookkeeping and accounting; Commercial correspondence; Economics; Financial mathematics; General mathematics; Geography; Management and Secretarial; and Islam.
The Agricultural branch offers these subjects: Agricultural economics; Agronomy; Animal husbandry; Farm management; Horticulture; Marketing; Plant nutrition; Applied Biology; Applied Chemistry; Applied Mathematics; Applied Physics; Arabic, English; and Islam.
Upon completing any of the technical secondary courses, a secondary school diploma is received, either Secondary Vocational School Diploma; the Secondary Commercial School Diploma; or the Secondary Agricultural School Diploma.
Saudi Arabia has today 25 universities, of which 7 are located to Riyadh. Sexes are segregated, but how varies from one institution to the other. Most have colleges reserved for women, but a few do not allow female students. A woman-only university is in the making: Riyadh Women’s University.
There are two traditions of education in Saudi Arabia: Islamic-style and Western-oriented. Two universities focus on Islamic studies: The Islamic University of Medina; and Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
Admission is from the results of the General Secondary Education Certificate Examination (Tawjihi), but some faculties have a specific entrance exam in addition to the Tawjihi.
Some of the Saudi universities do remarkably well on international rankings. Webometrics rank King Saud University of Riyadh, founded 1957, the best in the Arab world, and number 197 in the world. Other institutions in the top 1000 are King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, Dhahran, at number 303; Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, Riyadh, at number 636; and King Faisal University, Dammam, at number 993.
Most complete, basic studies take 4 years; Engineering and Veterinary medicine take 5 years; and Medicine 8 years. Humanities and social studies are by far the most popular. Several courses do not allow female students, like Engineering; Journalism; and Architecture. The teaching language is largely Arabic, but English is used for instruction in many courses.
Most universities offer Master's degrees, which in most fields are 2 year programs following the basic degree. A few fields require 3 years Master's: Sharia (Muslim law); Arabic; and Social sciences. Part of all Master's programs is the writing of a thesis.
In 2006, ca. 30% of all in each age group began studying at universities; students as a whole represent about 2.5% of the whole population. Surprising perhaps, women make up the majority with 58% of the student mass.
There are two types of teacher training programs. Primary teachers receive their education at teacher colleges, while secondary teachers attend one of the established universities, where they follow a 4 year study to obtain a Bachelor's degree.
Technical; Commercial; Public administration
Saudi Arabia also has numerous technical colleges, higher technical institutes and higher institutions for financial and commercial sciences, offering higher education at levels roughly equivalent to that of the universities. Admission is by a relevant diploma from specialized secondary school.
Technical programs take 3 years; financial and commercial programs 2 years; and public administration programs either 2 or 3 years. For technical studies, the best students may continue with an additional year.