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Paul Woods on the challenges Saudi Arabia has faced with its vast new technical and vocational training college network – especially the English-medium instruction

The Saudi government has spent over $1 billion setting up a network of more than thirty English-medium technical and vocational training colleges in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, using a public–private partnership model in which fourteen top-level international providers and consortia have invested to develop programmes using facilities provided by the Saudi government.

These include Laureate (US), Giz (Germany), Aviation Australia, Mondragon/Wintec (Spain), Algonquin and Niagara (Canada), Hertfordshire, Nescot, the Oxford Consortium and ESG (all from the UK) and CINOP (from the Netherlands).

The ultimate goal is to make the country much less reliant on expatriate labour and to provide employment for Saudi citizens in areas identified as matching manpower requirements.

The Colleges of Excellence play a vital role in empowering women to take active role in the Saudi workforce, with 50 per cent of the single-sex colleges taking men and 50 per cent women. A knowledge of English is highly valued by women students, and having a vocational qualification opens doors for them to the world of work. Most of the colleges have impressive purpose-built campuses capable of accommodating up to 3,000 students, although some, especially those located in remote rural areas, have found it difficult to fill all the places potentially available.

But the choice of English as a medium of instruction has proved problematic. The model chosen involves a foundation year during which students, many of whom enter the colleges with only minimal literacy in English, study the language intensively alongside IT and employability skills, in order to then proceed to an associate diploma course in subjects such as business, mechanical technology, electrical technology and tourism. A pass in English at CEFR A2-level is a prerequisite for proceeding to technical and vocational courses, but results on the KET (Cambridge English’s Key English Test) in the first wave of eleven colleges which opened three years ago were disappointing. Only 10 per cent of students reached the required level to proceed beyond the fourth term.

In an attempt to resolve this problem, the Colleges of Excellence contracted a team of international consultants to carry out a six-month quality improvement project for English.  This included an initial needs analysis, a programme of regional training workshops for EFL teachers and managers, and the development of an overall quality strategy for English with an accompanying quality framework and standards, a quality handbook, teacher profile, toolkit for teachers and website for teachers and managers.

The results have been impressive, with the overall pass rate on KET rising to 60 per cent in the first-wave colleges in the last semester, and with men’s and women’s colleges both achieving similar results. Better recruitment practices, more appropriate curricula and materials for English, a better understanding of how best to motivate Saudi learners and the lessons of experience have all contributed towards this increase. Initial plans envisaged a further sixty English-medium colleges being opened in a third wave from 2016, but these ambitious plans have now been scaled back for the time being, partly due to the impact of falling oil prices on Saudi government expenditure plans.

Saudi Arabia can still be an attractive destination for expatriate EFL teachers, with generous tax-free salaries and allowances, although conditions in some of the more remote locations can be quite demanding, especially for women teachers.

Paul Woods has visited 117 countries (the same number as the Queen) and recently retired after 37 years as a British Council officer and now works as a freelance consultant