KUWAIT—In 2015, Khalid al-Morshedi, 26, received a grant from the Saudi government to study engineering at a private university, something he had always dreamed of. But that dream soon turned into a nightmare.
“By the end of my first academic year, all internal scholarships had been suspended,” he said. “I have become forced to pay university tuition fees myself.”
Al-Morshedi pays about 60,000 Saudi riyals (about $16,000) a year in tuition, besides extra expenses for books and transportation. That compares with a per capita GDP in the kingdom, one of the richest Arab countries, of nearly 20,000 riyals ($5,300) a year, according to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority.
“University fees are on the rise,” al-Morshedi said. “Along with the rising cost of living, my parents will no longer be able to support my university studies.”
The situation is similar for Bandar al-Harbi, a 23-year-old third-year medical student at a private university. Al-Harbi pays around 85,000 riyals ($23,000) a year in tuition. “I was a distinguished high-school graduate,” said al-Harbi. “However, I would not have gone to university without the government support.”
Al-Harbi said the government assistance was “stopped for a short period to be evaluated, according to officials. But the suspension has been going on for more than two years.”
The scholarship program started in 2010 under the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The Council of Ministers decided then that the state would pay the tuition for 50 percent of the students admitted to private universities and colleges in the kingdom for the next five years. After that period, the program was to be reviewed by the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Finance.
In 2015, the government decided to suspend the program to review the results, with promises to resume the grants shortly. But so far, the program has not been reactivated.
The suspension affected not only new students, but also those who had received scholarships and were still in school. This left many students facing financial problems.
In an attempt to raise awareness about the issue and press officials to restore the scholarships, many students have started campaigns on social media under hashtags that, in English, would translate as “The Affected People From the Suspension of Internal Scholarships” and “Internal Scholarship Cessation.”
The Ministry of Higher Education has not issued any official response to students’ demand. Some ministry officials said there was a possibility of resuming the program, but under new conditions related to students’ final high-school grades and their actual need for the grant.
“The aim of the program was to ease the pressure on public universities as the number of students with high-school diplomas increased annually,” said a ministry source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “However, the number of public universities has risen to 28 in recent years, which ends the reason for the internal scholarship program.”
Abdul Rahman Altrairi, a professor of psychology at King Saud University, a public institution, agrees with the government’s intentions. “There must be conditions for scholarships to reach those who are in deep need and support the most distinguished students,” he said.
He also said the scholarships should be limited to specific scientific disciplines that are expensive to study, not all disciplines.
Al-Altrairi also explained that scholarships are aimed at encouraging students and promoting competition among them, and should not be considered a right.
The scholarships’ suspension comes at a time of economic strain in Saudi Arabia. Over the past two years, the kingdom has seen a decline in its rate of economic growth and and an increase in the cost of living. The changes stem from a sharp fall in oil prices on the world markets and an increase in military spending as a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states continues fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The kingdom has taken a series of steps to counter this decline, including slashing spending in some years and imposing revenue-raising measures like a higher value-added tax, higher prices for fuel, electricity and water, and higher visa fees for foreign expatriates living in Saudi Arabia.
Although the kingdom continues to fund its external scholarship program for Saudis who go abroad to study, the program has witnessed a drop in student numbers over the past two years as well. The number of new students studying abroad dropped from 17,341 in the 2014-15 academic year to 11,619 in 2015-16, a decrease of nearly 33 percent. The budget for overseas scholarships has also been cut, from $16.5 billion in 2017 to $14.7 billion in the new budget for 2018. (See a related article, “Slowed Saudi Education Spending Felt in U.S.”).
Meanwhile, some universities are trying to find solutions to sustain students’ financial support. For example, Effat University, a private institution for women, offers installment plans for paying tuition and has a support office for financially challenged students. But such assistance is not available at all private universities.
As the government keeps silent about the next step for the internal scholarship program, students’ financial struggles continue. Some have even been forced to drop out.
“I have to pay 70,000 riyals (about $18,500) to the university this year, and I cannot afford it,” said Shawq Saleh, a third-year dentistry student at a private university.
Saleh’s brother quit his studies this year because of his parents’ inability to pay their tuition. “I cannot continue studying, and I do not want to drop out,” said Saleh. “I am about to lose my future.”