In 2009, the country's first gender-mixed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was opened. It was a show of defiance by the king against the country's ultraconservatives, on whose support his power is partly based. When one prominent government cleric criticized the university, the king fired him. Still, it remains the only university where men and women attend lectures together.
Princess Nora University represents the kingdom's focus on beefing up separate women's schooling — and it provides the most visible contrast between campus and street life.
In 2011, a gleaming new PNU campus was inaugurated, able to accommodate 50,000 students. Along with a brand new hospital and an architecturally stunning library, it boasts a state-of-the-art sports complex with a swimming pool, gym, indoor running track and sprawling outdoor soccer fields, a major shift for a country where female athletics have long been frowned upon.
Arabesque latticework, known as mashrabiyas, over the windows provide privacy, and enclosed pedestrian bridges and four metro lines ferry girls around the 800 hectare (nearly 2,000 acre) campus, ensuring that will never be seen by male drivers and campus police outside the buildings.
Several young women on campus quietly described it as a "golden cage."
"The campus itself and the buildings are great, but the faculty is not very strong," 20-year-old Nada el-Agmy said. "I feel like I'm learning things I already know."
Though some science and business courses are taught, degrees in Teaching and Home Economics are geared toward professions perceived as feminine. At the campus bookstore, a text on Islam leans next to a book on "how to think like a businessman."
Curricula for women remain limited. No universities offer engineering degrees for women, and many courses are geared toward traditional fields such as nursing and teaching. With clerics opposed to women TV newscasters, communications and journalism degrees are rare — the King Saud University in Riyadh, for example, only began to offer one for female undergraduates this year.
In the end, increased women's rights is not the aim: The priority for the ambitious overhaul in the quality of education for men and women is to wean Saudis off the generous welfare state funded by the country's oil riches and push them into the job market, particularly outside the oil sector.
Almost a third of the kingdom's population is under the age of 15 and more than half under the age of 25. The International Monetary Fund says that across the Gulf Arab region, an expected 1 million new entrants into the workforce could find themselves without jobs by 2018 if the private sector does not expand.
Saudi unemployment is estimated at 12 percent. Yet foreign workers overwhelmingly dominate jobs in the private sector, where only 10 percent of the workers are Saudi nationals. Saudis prefer to work in the public sector, where lucrative benefits are guaranteed.
Education spending makes up more than a quarter of the state budget, at $45 million in 2012 and an expected $54.5 billion this year, according to the Oxford Business Group. Money has been allocated the past two years for 1,300 new schools, including universities and colleges.
But teaching is strictly targeted to the marketplace. There are few political courses.
"There is a big difference between manpower and rights. They need teachers and positions filled, they don't need political science people and decision-makers," said Yousef, of King Saud University.
And for women, "education itself will not change things," she said, saying women must be educated in a culture of rights. "They can be Ph.D's, but not know their rights."
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