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EL Middle East 2017: Saudis struggle with flagship programme

Riyadh Saudi Arabia sören2013
Jefferson Youth investigates why so many Colleges of Excellence in Saudi Arabia, run by foreign training providers, are now closing

It’s no secret that the English-medium technical, vocational, education and training sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been struggling with its flagship Colleges of Excellence programme, with many of the problems arising because Western partners failed to anticipate the specific challenges of teaching in the country. The Technical, Vocational, Education & Training Corporation – a provider under the supervision of the Ministry of Labour – runs technical colleges in the KSA and owns a 40 per cent stake in the Colleges of Excellence (CoE) colleges network.

 The CoE was set up by the Saudis in 2014 to provide the local economy with skilled Saudi technicians, thereby decreasing its over-reliance on nine million expats. Since then the programme has been beset with financial problems, low enrolment and management issues. With 37 colleges run by heavyweights from, among others, Germany (GIZ IS and FESTO), the USA (Laureate International and Interlink) and the UK (Lincoln Colleges International, TQ Pearson and many others), unconfirmed reports on social media suggest this programme, worth £1 billion to the British economy alone, may be scrapped in 2017. So what went wrong?

British media reports confirm many foreign training providers have run up huge losses in these ventures within the CoE network. The education.investor.uk website reported that Canada’s Algonquin College had become the latest institution to announce its withdrawal from the CoE scheme with an estimated loss equivalent to £3.5 million, excluding operating losses (October 2016 Gazette). British companies TQ Pearson and LCI both pulled out of managing two CoEs each, citing serious losses.

Back in March 2016 British educational website FE Week reported that, as of December 2015 Pearson was ‘in a legal dispute’ with the CoE to claw back some of its losses, citing breach of contract because of low enrolment at its colleges. Liz Tudball, Pearson English director of communications, replied to the Gazette with a statement saying, ‘Pearson confirms it has withdrawn from an agreement to run three Saudi Colleges of Excellence, with the colleges transitioning to new providers from June 2015.’

The website also reported that meeting minutes by LCI’s own management board suggested that ‘due diligence had not been effective’ prior to taking on CoEs in Saudi Arabia. 

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The Gazette’s investigation found many problems. The Technical Trainers College (TTC) in Riyadh, which has been a CoE since 2014, has been particularly badly hit. (TTC was formerly overseen by the government organisation TVTC, but since 2014 it’s become part of the CoE system.) We found two trainers who appear to have gone on to become team leaders without the mandatory masters degree – the ‘staff pages’ from TTC’s old website showing two team leaders as having a BA and Celta only.

We put this to Scott Upton, the general manager of LCI KSA. He denied the charge, saying, ‘All lecturers have masters degrees. Junior teachers and workshop technicians do not require them.’ Due to a lack of teachers, TTC timetables show that students were told to do ‘guided self-study’, which means studying alone in a classroom. Upton did not deny this but said, ‘All students have lecturers for their courses. Since LCI took over the contract all groups have dedicated lecturers.’

We also uncovered evidence that students from higher trimesters are teaching those from lower ones and often in Arabic, and have seen two emails from TTC staff members to management referring to ‘students teaching students’, with another referring to ‘reports of students in the business department teaching formal lessons because of a shortage of teachers’. Minutes of a heads of department meeting at Technical Trainers’ College seen by the Gazette state that the college had 54 per cent of students who were absent after the summer holiday period, with a further 360 students for which it had no attendance record at all. Upton declined to comment on this. Head of the TTC English Department Neil Turley was also recently removed.

The TTC is no stranger to difficulties. Previously, it had been run for seven years by the German company GIZ IS, but the management was removed by the CoE hierarchy in 2015. The Gazette spoke to Professor Werner Stueber, the previous Dean of TTC who oversaw the college’s transition to a CoE. He was too busy to comment in detail, but added, ‘I wish you success and certainly confirm that problems abound in Saudi Arabia’s professional training sector’. GIZ lost two other technical colleges, one with a tie up with FESTO in Qassim province, and another, Yanbu College of Technology, again due to its management being removed by the CoE hierarchy.

The Gazette contacted some of the stakeholders from senior management at CoE HQ in Riyadh to get a sense of the main issues surrounding the CoEs. Paul Whittle, vice-president of CoE Contracts and Dr Abdulaziz Al Amr, vice-president for strategic partnerships at Colleges of Excellence, both agreed to address our questions, but at the time of going to press had not responded.

We also contacted two British CoE teachers for their opinions. Mark Allen worked at two CoE colleges: TQ Pearson in Al Haqo in Jizan province and at LCI in Layla, Al Aflaj. He said, ‘It was interesting working at these colleges and a challenge as students lacked motivation. The schools were both far too focused on delivering education that would be successful in the UK but really lacked any thought in respect of the unique challenges faced in Saudi.’

Dr Gerard O’Reagan taught maths at the TTC for four years and identified other issues. ‘The results of assessment tests indicated the students lack the appropriate foundation in mathematics and the appropriate English language skills. They typically achieve a low A1 on the CEFR scale, which is roughly equivalent to an Ielts score of 2 in English, and their mathematical ability is equivalent to what a Western student would have in the early years of high school.’

This failure by Western course providers to understand the educational needs of local students or to take into account that many would have a low level of English lies at the root of most of the problems that the project has seen.

Jefferson Youth is the pseudonym of an English teacher working in the Gulf

Pic courtesy: sören2013