A win for women in Saudi Arabia

Country announces plans for its first female-only colleges

Stephen Exley

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In The Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Saudi Arabia was ranked 131st out of 135 countries for the level of equality between men and women. The segregation of the sexes is still strictly enforced, and municipal elections next year will be the first occasion on which the country's female citizens will be allowed to vote.

But Saudi Arabia's women have taken another step on the road to emancipation with the announcement that the first four women-only vocational training institutes are to be set up.

One of these will be the Nescot Consortium Jeddah Female College of Excellence, which will open in September. The college will be run by a consortium of three UK further education colleges led by female principals - the North East Surrey College of Technology (Nescot), Highbury College Portsmouth and Burton and South Derbyshire College - along with the University of Hull and Birmingham City University.

After beating competition from 500 other providers across the globe, the consortium has signed a pound;75 million deal to run the college, which has already been built by the Saudi government. It is one of 10 single-sex "colleges of excellence" being opened, of which four are exclusively for female students. By 2020, the number of institutions is planned to increase tenfold to cater for 450,000 learners across Saudi Arabia.

Nescot principal Sunaina Mann told TES that the group now has barely two months to prepare the campus for an initial 600 learners. It is aiming to attract 2,000 female students within the next five years.

But although it is hoped that the project will achieve lasting social change for women in the country, there is still some way to go. Ms Mann admitted that the contract-signing ceremony in Riyadh was "quite a culture shock". She had to be granted special dispensation by the governor of the city to appear on stage to sign the contract.

"The risk-management people were freaking out because there was a woman on stage. But somebody put their foot down and insisted I stay there," she said. "There's a real culture shift happening."

The college will provide free qualifications in business administration, information and communications technology, fashion, jewellery design and beauty - subjects chosen specifically for Saudi Arabian women who want to work from their own home.

"If their husbands or fathers don't want them to go out into a workplace, this means they can still work," Ms Mann said.

The other operators chosen to run the new colleges, as part of the 4 billion riyal (pound;690 million) deal, are Laureate International Universities (US), TQ (UK), Mondragon (Spain) and Algonquin College (Canada).

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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