[RIYADH] Saudi Arabia has given a major funding boost to its higher education sector, reviving a debate that erupted late last year about the country's motives in recruiting high calibre international scientists to its leading universities.
The annual overall budget for education this year will be about US$44 billion, 13 per cent higher than last year's allocation.
The country's two leading universities, King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah and King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh, have received the largest slice of the pie, with a total allocation of US$3 billion between them.
Out of this total, KSU will receive US$2 billion and KAU US$1 billion. A breakdown of how this money will be distributed by the universities has not yet been published.
The funding decisions come on the heels of a debate started by an article in Science magazine last month accusing KAU and KSU of recruiting highly-cited researchers as members of their staff as a way of improving their international rankings.
The article claimed that, as a result of this tactic, the two universities have climbed several hundred places in international rankings in the past four years. They achieved this partly by being able to attach their names to the research publications of highly-cited researchers, regardless of whether the work involved any meaningful collaboration with the universities.
KSU is currently listed among the world's top 300 universities, according to the 2011 edition of the widely-quoted Academic Ranking of World Universities. In 2008 it failed to make the top 500.
Similarly Webometrics, a directory that lists universities according to their Internet presence, ranked KSU 186th in 2011; in 2006 it was ranked 2,910th.
The Science article ignited a heated debate among Saudi academics, forcing both universities to issue statements clarifying the motives of their recruitment programmes.
"Attracting highly-cited researchers from various international universities and research centres is … an arrangement that is legitimate and exists in many top-notch universities," said Adnan Bin Hamza Muhammad Zahed, KAU vice president for graduate studies and scientific research in KAU's statement.
He added that it was "a well-considered and sound investment for the future of Saudi Arabia".
Mohammed A. Alshaikh, the former dean of graduate studies at KSU, said in Al Hayat newspaper earlier this month that, having read the KAU's response, he doubted whether the Science article would make a significant impact.
He added: "There are clear defects in the research programmes that cannot be accepted by any local or global university mindful of its reputation."
And Mohamed Aref — science economics consultant at the Arab Science and Technology Foundation — said that, although a university like KSA is flourishing, "scientific research ethics have to be one of the most important values to the university".
In an article in the newspaper Al Ittihad earlier this month (12 January), he called on the university not sacrifice its moral integrity for any reason.