PUPILS in the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia are about to enjoy the dividends of last year's sharp rise in petrol prices. For the first time in many years, the Saudi budget is in surplus and the government has earmarked nearly 25 per cent of public expenditure for education.
When King Fahd announced his budget, he promised that education would receive "the greatest attention". The figures look encouraging: 800 new schools will be built; an extra 27,000 new jobs are to be created in education and health; and 17,000 new university places made available.
This development programme is long overdue. Despite the country's massive wealth, educational expenditure has remained static over the past decade while the number of schoolchildren has doubled. About half the population is aged under 16.
The government was forced to pump cash into the education sector by chronic graduate unemployment, officially estimated at 15 per cent, though many Saudi economists believe the real figure is closer to 25 per cent.
Employers complain that Saudi graduates lack the ight skills for the job market. Western diplomats say the problem has been highlighted by the government's campaign to encourage employers to recruit Saudi workers in preference to expatriates.
But, as a senior executive in a major American oil company in the region said:"I want to give jobs to Saudis, but too many of the graduates I see have spent the past four years studying different ways of interpreting the Koran. Then they come to me asking for jobs for which they are just not qualified."
Although moves are under way to reform the school curriculum, the education system as a whole still places great emphasis on Islamic studies. Children spend at least a third of their time in class learning and memorising extracts from the Koran.
Educationists argue that reform of the system needs to begin in class with an emphasis on technical and vocational subjects and cognitive rather than rote learning.
One teacher commented: "There is a chronic shortage of places on technical and science-based courses, but it's a vicious circle. The government finds it difficult to put on more courses because we don't have enough teachers around who are qualified in those subjects."