The Ministry of Education has set an ambitious and focused strategy for universities in Saudi Arabia. Aligned with Vision 2030, the objectives include extending the impact of the higher education sector, aligning graduate and post-graduate skills with the job market and producing globally recognized and impactful research. With the transformation of the higher education system, there will be a paradigm shift from current ways of working to an autonomous system.

Higher education systems around the world have grown into sizeable and complex organization. Especially those that operate independently have absorbed a range of university activities, with diversified sources of income sources and significant budgets. Such organizations require effective governance, leadership, management, and strong financial sustainability. To move toward such a system, it is critical to shift the mindset from only delivery of education to being in the business of education. A system of autonomous universities also brings the need for a level of diversification and distinctiveness so that each university within that system assumes its role, and thus a redefined autonomous higher education pattern of provision is created. 

Building an autonomous system for higher education has already been done by some countries, others are in the process of transformation. Driving forces of this transition have been the evolving nature of economies and labor markets, government policies, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution and digitization, creating productive, and innovative organizations that are in the business of education. In countries where such an education system was established, the universities became characterized by high levels of autonomy, competitive or incentivized government funding, and more market and demand-led offerings – both from the perspective of students and employers. 

Universities in Saudi Arabia are at a crossroads. The new mandate to transform universities into autonomous organizations presents some challenges on one hand, but many opportunities on the other. Universities will now be given more possibilities to drive their own strategic intent around who and what they want to be known for, and drive their purpose forward within the academic ecosystem. In this newly created autonomous market, the Kingdom’s universities must challenge what they currently do and develop a strategic intent to deliver this into an operational reality. This will lead them to become distinct and relevant places within the international higher education landscape.

Ziad Zakaria
Senior Director
KPMG in Saudi Arabia

There are global lessons from the transition to university autonomy and how many universities are repositioning in a competitive marketplace. This paper aims to explore some of these trends and to illustrate our thinking around the issues raised in the shift from supply to demand-led strategies, digital ways of working and the age of the learner as a customer. We will present a framework to help universities redefining who and what they will become to rise to distinctiveness.

The journey to an autonomous, self-reliant and a resilient higher education sector will not be without challenges. It will take considerable effort, flexibility and resilience by leadership at all levels within the ministry and the universities. If the objective is to achieve Vision 2030 and its ambitions for the education sector, we must turn policy and strategic intent into operational reality.