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Saudi scientists and policymakers have urged the government to plan and prioritise needs for higher education to tackle the country's shortage of scientists in critical fields.

Participants at an education forum held in Al Jouf, Saudi Arabia last week (27-29 November) said that proper planning, rather than more funding, would ensure that the mixture of science graduates meets the needs of the labour market.

Saudi Arabia has shortages of experts in petroleum, water desalination, solar energy, biotechnology and irrigation technology sectors.

The delegates, who included scientists, technologists and policymakers, called for better quality graduate training in these key areas, and to involve the private sector more closely to expand higher education research studies.

Ulfat Gabani, chairwoman of the Jeddah Council for Social Responsibility, said 68 per cent of science jobs are filled by science graduates from abroad.

Saudi Arabia needs 60,0000 pharmacists, yet only 100 pharmacists graduate every year. Likewise, engineering graduates meet only a fifth of the country's needs.

But Saudi Arabia already spends 9.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, Gabani told the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Saudi newspaper.

This shows the problem "is linked to good and sound planning", she said, "besides defining and prioritising the needs to upgrade general and technical education."

Delegates also urged the government to give the higher education sector financial and administrative independence, and to give more executive power to science faculties and university departments.

According to the newspaper Gulf News, poor coordination among educational bodies is a major handicap to the country's educational system.

The recommendations will be considered by the government, which is drawing up its strategic plan for education.

Ali Al-Ghafes, head of the General Organisation for Technical Education and Vocational Training, announced that the government is spending over US$2 billion on establishing 49 technical colleges and 142 vocational centres across the country by 2010.

Hassan Abdel Aal Moawad, a professor of microbial biotechnology at Cairo's National Research Centre in Egypt, welcomed the plans for higher education.

Developing countries have on average 313 researchers and engineers per million people, he told SciDev.Net. But in the Arab states, the figure is only124, surpassing only the African region.

"These reforms will produce technical human resources that will be the workforce for science-based economic development not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Arab and Islamic states," said Moawad.