Education in Saudi Arabia


CountryProfile_SaudiArabia-thumbnail [2]

In the January 2012 issue of WENR we offered a guide to obtaining and evaluating authentic secondary credentials from Saudi Arabia [3], focusing specifically on the secondary level because the vast majority of Saudi students in U.S. higher education are enrolled either at the undergraduate level or in English-language programs.

In this article we offer a companion piece focused on the Saudi higher education system, recognizing that while Saudi graduate students in the United States account for just 21 percent of total enrollments (versus 43 percent among all international students), in absolute terms that still amounts to over 9,300 students. This makes Saudi Arabia the fifth largest source of international graduate students in the United States after China, India, South Korea and Taiwan.

Academic Mobility

In our 2012 article, we highlighted the fact that Saudi enrollments overseas have been growing exponentially since the 2005 introduction of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Program [4]. We noted then that in the United States alone, tertiary-level enrollments among Saudi students had jumped from 3,448 in 2005/06 to 22,704 in 2010/11 [5].

In the two years since we compiled that profile, the movement of Saudi students overseas has not abated. In 2012, the King Abdullah scholarship program was extended with the aim of helping a further 50,000 Saudis graduate from the world’s top 500 universities by 2020. According to data from the Institute for International Education, in the 2012/13 academic year there were a total of 44,586 tertiary-level Saudi students in the United States, an almost 100 percent increase from 2010/11 and a 12-fold increase from 2005.

The most recent data [6] from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s SEVIS database show that there were a total of 70,366 active nonimmigrant Saudi students (including dependents) in the United States in July 2014 on F, J or M visas. This compares to 61,944 at the same time in 2013. Saudi government data pegs the 2013/14 number of Saudi students and dependents in the United States at a significantly larger 106,858. Of those 89,423 were reported to be on government scholarships. The same data show that there were 20,252 students in the United Kingdom, 18,926 in Canada, and 13,002 in Australia, with just under 200,000 total Saudi students at institutions abroad (75% male) across the world.

By level of study, 120,000 students are at the undergraduate level, 47,500 at the master’s level and 10,400 at the doctoral level. The King Abdullah scholarship program will continue to prioritize fields designated as important to progressing the Saudi “knowledge economy,” such as medicine, engineering and science. Approximately 70 percent of scholarship students currently study in subjects related to Business Administration, Engineering, Information Technology and Medicine. The top fields of study for Saudi students in the United States last year were: Intensive English (27.2%), Engineering (21.1%), Business/Management (17.1%), Math and Computer Science (7.4%), and Health Professions (5.6%).

Saudi Education System Statistics

According to figures from the Central Department of Statistics and Information [7] (CDSI), in 2013 the Kingdom was home to 25 public universities, enrolling a total of 1,165,091 students, among whom 1,064,880 were studying at the undergraduate level. King Abdulaziz University [8] had the largest total enrollment (177,234), followed by King Faisal University [9] (134,942), and Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University [10] (97,331).

As a demonstration of the resources that the Saudi government has invested in university education over the last decade, CDSI figures show that new public enrollment at the bachelor’s level has risen from 82,075 students in 1999/00 (31,524 male, 50,551 female) to 339,836 in 2013/14 (176,332 male, 163,504 female). At the master’s level, new entrants rose from 1,640 in 1999/00 to 10,844 in 2013/14, with total enrollments at the master’s level growing exponentially in recent years from 11,007 in 2008/09 to 19,952 in 2009/10 and 37,753 in the last academic year.

System of Education


The Saudi school system is 12 years in length, with six years of primary schooling, three years of intermediate education and three years of upper secondary.

Secondary graduates entering the Saudi higher education system do so from one of three streams:

The General Academic branch is subdivided further into Scientific and Literature streams. The vast majority of secondary credentials evaluated by WES are in the scientific stream as these are the students who generally receive government scholarships to study in North America.

At the end of their third year, students take the General Secondary Examination administered by regional Directorates of Education. Completion of the Academic branch results in the award of the General Secondary Education Certificate (Tawjihi).

Students follow national curricula and examinations that are administered and supervised by the secondary schools under guidance from the Ministry of Education.

For a more in-depth look at the Saudi secondary system, please see the 2012 WENR article: Obtaining Authentic Secondary Credentials from Saudi Arabia [3].

Higher Education

The main language of instruction is Arabic. However, there are some private higher education institutions that use English as the medium of instruction. English is also the medium of instruction in most medical fields. English language is a compulsory subject in the higher education preparatory year.

The academic year within the higher education system runs on a two-semester basis from September to June, with an optional summer session.  In the technical and vocational sector, most institutions operate on a three-term calendar.

The university system is patterned on the U.S. structure with two-year associate degrees, four-year bachelor degrees, and two-year master’s degrees.

Administration & Funding

Policy, funding, administration and regulation of the tertiary sector are through the Ministry of Higher Education [11] and the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation [12] (TVTC). Many other government agencies are involved in education including the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense.

The Ministry of Higher Education is responsible for policy development and funding for the higher education sector. TVTC is an independent body responsible for all aspects of technical and vocational education in Saudi Arabia, including the licensing and accreditation of private institutes. The Saudi Commission for Health Specialties [13]oversees (accredits and licenses) all health-related private institutes as well as health-related programs in the public sector. It is also responsible for professional licensing for all healthcare practitioners.

In May of this year, the Saudi government approved a five-year plan worth more than 80 billion riyals ($21.33 billion) to develop Saudi Arabia’s education sector. This comes in addition to already approved allocations of 25 percent of the Kingdom’s overall budget for 2014, among the highest in the world and the largest line item on the national budget at US$56 billion.

The 2014 education budget includes provisions for the creation of eight new colleges, facilities and campuses at newly opened universities. An estimated $1.39 billion has been allocated to finance new vocational and technical projects, while $5.9 billion was allocated to fund overseas scholarships for close to 200,000 Saudi students and their families, up from the $5.8 billion (SR21.6 billion) earmarked in 2013.

Institution Types


Public universities are typically larger than private universities, and are comprised of many colleges and faculties. Some are single sex, although co-educational universities operate with segregated classes. Most research activity takes place at large public universities. Public universities operate under royal decree and there are currently 25 operating across the country [14]. In April of this year an additional three universities [15] were issued royal decrees.

Private universities tend to be much smaller and focused at the undergraduate level in specific disciplines. Private universities operate under licensure from the Ministry of Higher Education. There are currently nine licensed private universities [16] in Saudi Arabia.

The number of universities operating in the Kingdom has grown significantly in recent years, with many new universities created through mergers or upgrades of colleges or regional campuses.

Junior Colleges/Community Colleges

Community colleges have lower entry standards than universities, offering two- to three-year degree programs in a range of fields. They are often attached to public universities and have established articulation pathways to Bachelor Degree programs.

Girls’ Colleges

Girls’ colleges tend to be specialized institutions offering limited fields of study, many specializing in education. The colleges offer Associate Degrees and Bachelor Degrees. Some colleges offer a few graduate programs. Undergraduate programs at girls’ colleges tend to require higher credit loads than other programs, and therefore do not follow the standard credit/semester system described below.

In 2005 a number of girls’ colleges merged to form the Riyadh University for Women, now the Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University [17]. All other girls’ colleges are affiliated to a local university. Previously they were under the auspices of the Girls’ College Presidency, an arm of the Ministry of Education.

Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) Technical Colleges & Institutes

Industrial and Vocational Institutes award labor-market-focused certificates and diplomas and admit males only. There are currently 70 institutes across the country, according to TVTC data.

Colleges of Technology award a range of qualifications from certificates to bachelor’s degrees. They admit males only and are highly competitive. There are currently 35 such colleges in major cities around the country, according to TVTC data.

Higher Technical Institutes for Girls offer diplomas in many different specializations. They are often very competitive to get into, some colleges admitting just one in 20 applicants.

Private Colleges

The vast majority of technical and vocational institutions in Saudi Arabia are private, and they represent half of all technical and vocational enrollments. Entry tends to be much less competitive than for the public colleges and institutes outlined above. TVTC classifies four types of private college:

Requirements for Admission to Higher Education

Broadly speaking, applicants for admission to higher education are required to have completed secondary education and hold a General Secondary Education Certificate. Entry to specific programs is based on the secondary stream completed, scores acquired in the General Secondary Education Certificate, and performance on aptitude (qudrat) and proficiency (tahseeli) tests.

Satisfactory completion of studies at any level does not necessarily qualify a person to enter studies at the next level.  Entry requirements may be set based on grades or other criteria to ensure that applicants have a reasonable chance of success. Entry to Higher Diploma programs require a minimum Bachelor GPA of 2.00 out of 4.00, while Master’s programs typically require a GPA of 3.00. Entry to Doctoral programs requires a Master’s GPA of 3.00.

Credit Hours

Based on contact hours, the Saudi credit system suggests 15 credit hours per semester as a full-time undergraduate load, and 30 credit hours in an academic year. A maximum of 18 credit hours can be recognized for studies in any one semester.

Credit hour calculations are based on a formula in which one 50-minute lecture, or two or three 50-minute laboratory or tutorial sessions over a 15-week teaching semester are regarded as one credit hour.  Most classes are worth three credits.

Higher education programs in professional fields often include periods of fieldwork or internship. These may or may not be assigned credit hours.

Qualifications Framework & Quality Assurance

A National Qualifications Framework (NQF) for Higher Education [18] was established in 2009 by Saudi Arabia’s National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment [19] (NCAAA), the nation’s main higher education regulatory and quality assurance agency.

The NQF is intended to ensure consistency within the Kingdom in the standards of student learning outcomes regardless of institution attended, and also for the purposes of international equivalencies. The framework is based on credit requirements and the learning outcomes that each program is expected to develop.

The NQF is also designed to provide appropriate points of reference in academic standards for institutions in their planning and self-review process, and also for external reviewers from the NCAAA performing program accreditation and institutional reviews. Positive institutional and program accreditation decisions from the NCAAA are valid for seven years.

All qualifications awarded by public universities and private colleges must comply with the National Qualifications Framework.

National [20]


Level I

The Associate Diploma requires the completion of a minimum of 30 credits following at least one year of full-time study. Programs are either professionally focused and offered in administrative and para-professional fields or they focus on general education as an introductory postsecondary program. Holders of the Associate Diploma typically use it as a basis for further study towards a higher qualification.

Level 2

The Diploma requires two years of full-time study and is offered in administrative and para-professional fields specific to a particular profession.

The Associate Degree is awarded after a minimum of 60 and a maximum of 90 credit hours of full-time study. Associate degrees are designed to develop both the knowledge and skills for employment in an administrative or para-professional field, and to also offer the foundation of general and theoretical knowledge that provides the basis for further studies leading to a Bachelor Degree.  Associate Degrees in professional fields must consist of at least 50 percent specialization subjects.

The Advanced Diploma is an intermediate degree between Level 2 and Level 3 that is not included on the NQF, but requires at least 90 credit hours and may be awarded as an early exit qualification in a Bachelor Degree program.

Level 3

The Bachelor Degree is awarded after a minimum of 120 credit hours, normally following four academic years of full-time study. Undergraduate curricula offer a wide range of general education and elective courses along with degree specialization, much like in the U.S. system. Students often also take a non-credit-bearing preparatory year before starting their bachelor program, especially those pursuing engineering degrees.

Degrees in professional fields are typically longer than four years. Architecture, Pharmacy, Medicine, Veterinary Science, Dentistry, and Engineering usually require five or more years of full-time study.

Level 4

The Higher Diploma (or graduate diploma) is awarded after completion of a minimum of 24 credit hours, normally requiring a bachelor’s degree for entry and taken over a period of at least one academic year.  The program offers advanced academic or professional training in an existing specialization.

Although intended as a final qualification, students completing a Higher Diploma may proceed to further study at the Master’s level, but may be required to meet special admission requirements or complete additional theoretical or applied studies before doing so.

Level 5

The Master’s Degree is awarded after a minimum of 24 credit hours of coursework plus a thesis (8 credits) in a research degree program, or 39 credit hours for coursework plus a significant project.

Master’s Degrees normally involve at least one year of coursework and up to three years of advanced study following completion of a Bachelor Degree. Typically programs will be structured with one year of coursework and one year of thesis work, or two years of coursework with a major research project.

Level 6

The Doctor of Philosophy requires a minimum of 30 credit hours of advanced coursework plus a major dissertation normally taken over two full-time academic years following a Master’s Degree.

An alternative program structure with greater concentration on independent research is available in selected fields at some institutions involving a minimum of 12 credit hours and a more extensive dissertation.

Grading Scales and Equivalencies

There is no national standardized grading system in Saudi Arabia. The two scales below are the most common:

grading-scale_saudi1 [21]grading-scale_saudi2 [22]

There is also a 0-4 grading scale in addition to the 0-5.

Required Documents Checklist

World Education Services requires the following documents from Saudi students when evaluating secondary, undergraduate and graduate credentials:


Higher Education

The Cultural Mission of the Saudi Embassy in the United States [23] also sends documents as a service to Saudi students getting ready to apply to U.S. universities. However, it is unclear exactly what authentication measures are undertaken by the Mission, so WES policy is to accept documents from Saudi Arabia only.

big [24]Sample Documents

In the attached file [24], we provide annotated samples of the following documents:

  1. Dual-language General Secondary School Transcript, with envelope.
  2. Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (88 credit) Associate Degree transcripts in English from College of Telecom and Information at Riyadh, with dual-language degree certificate and courier envelope.
  3. King Saud University English-language transcripts for BSc in Chemical Engineering (164 credits), with dual-language degree certificate, explanation of grading scale, and courier envelope.
  4. Taif University dual-language transcripts for a Bachelor Degree in Home Economics (minor in Education), with dual-language degree certificate and envelope. As is common with programs run by girls’ colleges the credit allocations are higher than in other undergraduate programs.
  5. King Abdulaziz University MSc Degree in IT (31 credits) with English transcripts, dual-language explanation of grading scale, dual-language degree certificate, front and back of envelope.
  6. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals Doctoral Degree in Mechanical Engineering, with English-language coursework and thesis transcripts (33 credits + dissertation), explanation of grading scale, dual-language graduation certificate, front and back of envelope.

It should be noted that higher education documents when sent out of country are either dual language, with one side being English and the other Arabic, or just in English. Documents issued for domestic use are in Arabic only.

The way transcripts are structured from university to university in Saudi Arabia is not consistent. Every transcript will not look the same; however, the content should be very similar with course credit load and course codes similar to the United States.


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