Twenty-five years ago, fewer than two dozen students began the first year of classes at the Riyadh University College of Arts. Today there are 21,000 students.
The hills outside the capital are being carved away for a small university city. And Saudi officials are striving for this university (now named King Saud) to be known as a world-class institution.
Growth in enrollments and physical plants are also seen at six other campuses in the kingdom. The purposes of this higher-education boom, according to Higher Education Minister Hasan al-Shaikh, are:
* To create a native class of educated Saudis to govern and develop the country.
* To minimize the need to send students abroad for education.
* To foster Saudi scientific research.
In addition, these Saudi efforts are intended in part to control and guide the studies of Saudi students so as to minimize potential nonconformist behavior among liberally educated young Saudis. This is a concern throughout the Gulf, where tradition-bound royal families rule and where outside ideas - Western democracy, Eastern Marxism - are feared.
''We would like, of course, to do everything at once,'' the higher-education minister admits, ''but we are trying to make sure that all of the expansion is of the highest quality. So as we grow we are trying to ensure that Islam is seen as the vanguard for all phases of education - including engineering and medicine. I believe that science without morals is nothing.''
At King Saud University, President Mansour al-Turki explains how his administration is going about creating a world-class institution. The university now has a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio. Faculty members are being recruited throughout the world. A growing number of Saudis with advanced academic credentials are now on the staff. And the programs are being subjected to impartial outside criticism.
In order to strengthen standards, Dr. al-Turki has invited academic reviews by experts in the United States and Europe. The same board that accredits medical schools in the US spent 25 days last year examining the King Saud program and made a series of recommendations.
''We took those recommendations to heart,'' Dr. al-Turki says, ''and we have been told that now we are as strong as any medical school in the States. We've been told the same thing now about our dental school and our engineering department. Our university has a strong scientific orientation. It is not really comparable with MIT, but in the region it is strong. And we are trying to reach American standards of education.''
With a 1982-83 budget of $1.2 billion, allocated by the government, the pursuit of academic excellence is made considerably easier. Two-thirds of the budget goes to the physical plant and one-third to the advancement of teaching quality, Dr. al-Turki says. On the wall of his office is a huge photograph of the new campus that is being established. The photo is changed every few months to document the progress builders are making.
Given the location of the schools, attracting and keeping good faculty members are problems. To overcome this handicap, salaries are lucrative and teacher exchanges and visiting professorships plentiful.
Although this is a politically conservative country, controversial subjects are not shied away from, Saudi officials contend. Marxism, for instance, which is shunned by Muslims, is dealt with ''in an academic, not propagandistic, manner,'' Dr. al-Turki says. Mr. al-Shaikh says that the government understands the need to ''compare between Islam and other political thoughts.''
Still, books in any way critical of the monarchy or Islam are strictly banned from the country, and academic courses must operate under this obvious constraint.
For qualified students, education in the kingdom - or even abroad - can be a financially painless experience. Tuition, room, and board are free. Books are subsidized by 75 percent. Students receive a $300-a-month allowance and can qualify for more if needed. Students sent overseas receive similar assistance for themselves and their families.
To ensure that overseas students do not lose touch with Saudi values, Mr. al-Shaikh says, each year they and their families are brought back to the kingdom for a brief visit.
The trend, however, is away from sending students abroad. The number of new students going overseas fell from 3,000 in 1981 to 2,500 last year. An estimated 14,000 Saudi students are being educated outside the country at this writing, not including those sent privately. Says Mr. al-Shaikh: ''When you finally have high-quality universities in your country - as we now have - it is better to educate students at home. You have more control over them and over their teaching.''
Both Dr. al-Turki and Mr. al-Shaikh contend females receive the same educational opportunities in the kingdom as men. Though Islam in Saudi Arabia requires strict separation of the sexes, an effort is made to give equivalent instruction at companion universities. At King Saud University's campus for women, for instance, there are 6,000 students and room for 12,000.
''Female teachers teach females,'' Mr. al-Shaikh says. ''In some subjects, where there is not a qualified female teacher, we use closed-circuit television with a male giving the lecture. And in front of each female student is a telephone to ask questions. We are providing similar educational programs for male and female.''
That, of course, may qualify as making the effort, but female education still cannot help lagging behind male education. In practice, few women are to be found in programs such as engineering (except in the interior-design classes) or business administration. There are, however, some 300 Saudi women enrolled in medical schools. (Both Dr. al-Turki and Mr. al-Shaikh confirm that Saudi students, especially those connected with the royal family, are greatly interested in medicine.)
Female graduates, however, have little or no opportunity to use their skills in Saudi society, except in medical roles or in serving Saudi women in some capacity. This growing class of educated Saudi women is bound to exert pressure for a greater part in Saudi business and public affairs, now totally male-dominated.