The education system in Saudi Arabia, is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and the General Organization for Technical Education & Vocational Training. Other authorities such as the Ministry of Defence & Aviation; the Presidency of the National Guard; and the Ministry of the Interior provide their affiliates and children with kindergarten, elementary, intermediate, secondary and adult education as well, following the educational ladder, study plans and curricula formulated by the Ministry of Education. The highest authority that supervises education in Saudi Arabia is the Supreme Committee for Educational Policy, established in 1963. According to the World Bank database, public spending on education is 6.8% of GDP, and public spending on education as percentage of government expenditure is 27.6% in 2004 Education spending as a proportion of overall spending tripled from 1970 to 2000 and neither economic growth nor the price of oil had much impact on this trend in Saudi Arabia
Education is free at all levels. The school system is composed of elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools. A large part of the curriculum at all levels is devoted to Islam, and, at the secondary level, students are able to follow either a religious or a technical track. Girls are able to attend school, but fewer girls attend than boys. This disproportion is reflected in the rate of literacy, which exceeds 85% among males and is about 70% among females. Classes are segregated by gender. Higher education has expanded rapidly, with large numbers of Universities and colleges being founded particularly since 2000. Institutions of higher education include the country's first University, King Saud University founded in 1957, the Islamic University at Medina founded in 1961, and the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah founded in 1967. Other colleges and universities emphasize curricula in sciences and technology, military studies, religion, and medicine. Institutes devoted to Islamic studies, in particular, abound. Women typically receive college instruction in segregated institutions.
However, the Saudi education system is subject to extensive criticism. The study of Islam dominates the Saudi educational system. In particular, the memorisation by rote of large parts of the Quran, its interpretation and understanding (tafsir) and the application of Islamic tradition to everyday life is at the core of the curriculum. Religion taught in this manner is also a compulsory subject for all University students. As a consequence, Saudi youth generally lacks the education and technical skills the private sector needs.
A further criticism of the religious focus of the Saudi education system is the nature of the Wahhabi-controlled curriculum. The Islamic aspect of the Saudi national curriculum was examined in a 2006 report by Freedom House which concluded that "the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the “unbeliever,” that is, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others". The Saudi religious studies curriculum is taught outside the Kingdom in madrasah throughout the world. Critics have described the education system as ‘medieval’ and that its primary goal ‘is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures’.
The consequence of this approach is considered by many, including, it appears, the Saudi government, to have encouraged Islamic terrorism. To tackle the twin problems of encouraging extremism and the inadequacy of the country's university education for a modern economy, the government is aiming to slowly modernise the education system through the ‘Tatweer’ reform program. The Tatweer program is reported to have a budget of approximately $2 billion and focuses on moving teaching away from the traditional Saudi methods of memorisation and rote learning towards encouraging students to analyse and problem-solve. It also aims to create an education system which will provide a more secular and vocationally-based training.