The primary, secondary and tertiary education sector in Saudi Arabia

13 May 2021 5 min. read

In its ‘Saudi Arabia Education Report’, consultants from Knight Frank provide an overview of the Kingdom’s growing and transforming education sector. Shehzad Jamal, Head of the firm’s Education practice, outlines the current state of the primary, secondary, and tertiary education segments. 

Primary and secondary education

In Saudi Arabia, as at 2019, there were a total of 38,150 schools, up 16.5% from 2015. In comparison to other developed nations and relative to its population, Saudi Arabia has a significantly higher number of schools. This is largely due to schools being segregated based on gender, where schools must maintain segregated premises from grade one onwards.

Of the 38,150 schools, 80.3% of these schools were public schools, which provide state funded education and are based on a curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education. Private schools, which account for 12.5% of all schools, are fee-paying schools, which also undertake a Ministry of Education approved curriculum.

Schools by Sector, 2015-2019 + Students by Sector and Nationality, 2019

Saudi nationals and Arab expatriates make up the vast majority of the student body at such private schools. Foreign schools, are schools that offer international curriculums such as American, British or Indian, accounted for 6.2% of schools. These fee-paying schools have grown in number by 42.1% since 2015.

As at 2019, schools in the Riyadh region accounted for 22.8% of all schools in the Kingdom, followed by the Makkah region, which accounted for 19.0% of all schools. The Riyadh (38.9%) and Makkah (29.4%) regions accounted for 68.3% of the country’s total foreign schools. This is underpinned by the concentration of high earning professionals in Riyadh, who value quality education and can afford private education. More so, this cohort prefers private education, and primarily the international curricula or curricula of their home country.

Saudi Arabia’s total student population has increased by 6.2% in the four years to 2019 to reach 6.18 million. The public and foreign school sectors have seen their respective student populations grow by 5.8% and 37.0% over this period. However, over the same period, the private schools sector has seen its total student population decrease by 3.5%. As at 2019, the number of students studying in public, private and foreign curriculum schools account for 82.5%, 11.1% and 5.9% of the total student population respectively. 

Universities and Colleges by Region, 2018

The Riyadh, Makkah and Eastern Province regions account for 24.2%, 23.2% and 14.3% of Saudi Arabia’s total student population respectively. Whilst the Jawf region recorded the highest growth rate of 14.5% in student numbers across all of Saudi Arabia’s 13 regions, from 2015 to 2019, the Makkah region saw the highest absolute increase with over 96,000 more students enrolled in 2019 compared to 2015.

Tertiary education

The tertiary education sector in Saudi Arabia encompasses three main verticals, universities, colleges and technical and vocational institutions. In total, Saudi Arabia has 60 universities, with 70.0% of these being public universities. Colleges and universities in Riyadh, Jeddah, Buraydah and Madinah account for 28.3%, 18.3%, 13.3% and 11.7% of the total number of colleges and universities in the Kingdom respectively. 

There are a total of 18 private universities in Saudi Arabia, seven of which (38.9%) are located in Riyadh. Of the 42 private colleges in Saudi Arabia, 10 are located in Riyadh and both Buraydah and Jeddah are host to seven private colleges each.

Breakdown of Students Currently Enrolled in Private Universities in the KSA by Majors, 2014 – 2018

In the five years to 2018, the total number of students in higher education has increased by 8.3% and currently stands at 1.62 million. The total number of students in higher education has fallen from its peak in 2017, where there were 1.68 million students, by 3.6%. The proportion of students studying in public universities as at 2018 stands at 85.5%, compared to 4.8% studying at private universities and 9.6% of students choosing to undertake a technical and vocational course.

In public universities, the take up of Business Management as a major has increased by 61% in the four years to 2018, where this major accounted for 30.1% of all student enrolments, up from 19.8% in 2014. Arts and Humanities ranked as the second most subscribed to major, where 24.7% of all students enrolled undertook this major in 2018. This is despite the total number of students enrolled in this major declining by 12.7% from 2014 to 2018.

The Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics major group recorded a 55.9% increase in the total number of students enrolled to reach 126,123 students as at 2018, accounting for 9.1% of total enrolment.

Breakdown of Number of Students Currently Enrolled in Universities in the KSA, 2014 – 2018In private universities, as at 2018, Health and Wellbeing majors accounted for the largest portion of enrolled students, with 35.4% of students choosing this major. This was closely followed by Business, Management and Law majors, which account for 31.9% of all enrolled students in private universities. Services and Arts and Humanities majors recorded the fastest rates of growth of 150.5% and 82.6% respectively in the four years to 2018, although the former has done this from a very low base.

Over the same period, Education, Social Science, Journalism and Media and Information and Communication Technology majors were the only three to record reductions in enrolment levels, where enrolment levels fell by 83.9%, 61.4% and 11.6% respectively. 

Other segments in the education sector include the pre-primary and the technical and vocational training segments.