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Social Responsibility in Saudi Arabian Universities

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“One central aspect of the social responsibility of universities is the development of productive and responsible citizens. Encouraging broad-based participation in civil society and the development of skills and attitudes to do so is of central importance to higher education”.

The above statement is part of a comprehensive Riyadh declaration issued at the end of two days (April 16-17, 2013) of deliberations on the theme of ‘Social Responsibility of Universities’ amongst Saudi Arabia’s scholars, students and administrators, along with international experts. UNESCO Co-Chairs on Community based Research and Social Responsibility of Higher Education (Drs. Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon) were amongst the group of experts. The statement reflects the spirit of deliberations going on in the rapidly expanding higher education system in Saudi Arabia.

The Ministry of Higher Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took a bold step to organise such deliberations. The Riyadh declaration is a forward looking document for the country’s rapidly expanding system of higher education in that country. The conference and its declaration can be a beacon to address some of the major challenges that the country faces today. One of these is the status of women in the labour force. More than half of the students in institutions of higher education in Saudi Arabia are women; a modern women’s university, recently opened in Riyadh, has 40,000 students enrolled. But, what do these women do after completing their studies? Women’s participation in labour force and economic activities is culturally restricted. The top leadership of the country is trying to change the society in a manner that educated women can contribute to the social, political and economic development of the society as a whole.

But centuries of traditions and cultural practices require attitudinal changes, in addition to legal and policy reforms. Just recently, a woman law graduate has been ‘allowed’ to register as a lawyer trainee in the courts; but, other lawyers, judges and court administration has to come to terms with this new reality before women lawyers can practice in courts. Changes in attitudes of both women and men are required as demonstrated in the history of many other societies.

Another interesting aspect of this conference in Riyadh was the exhibition of educational providers; nearly 450 universities were attending to recruit students for their Courses. A large number of these universities came from Australia, Canada, UK, USA; many universities from China, South Korea and other European countries were also present. No university from India thought it fit to attend.

However, the exhibitors of the conference were ‘selling’ their universities without any reference to the theme of the conference: ‘social responsibility’. If anything, there was a huge disconnect between the exhibitors for recruiting Saudi students and those deliberating upon the issues of meaningful community engagements by universities. Many universities present in the exhibition are known to have been pioneers in social responsibility and community engagement; but the ‘products’ being marketed by them in Riyadh did not include these features at all. How ironical?

Nonetheless, the initiative of Saudi Ministry of Higher Education to convene such an international conference is indeed a bold and forward-looking step; such conferences should be organised by other countries, notably China, India, Brasil, South Korea, Turkey, Mexico, Nigeria, etc. This theme is particularly relevant in societies where rapid expansion of higher education system is taking place. Riyadh declaration on Social Responsibility can become a source of inspiration for Ministries of Higher Education of these countries as well.

Rajesh Tandon   April 19, 2013

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