Thursday, 1 January 2009

Saudi scholarship surge

Literally thousands of Saudi scholarship students are appearing in universities and EAP courses around the world

Matt Salusbury


This article first appeared in English Language Gazette January 2009

ENGLISH language schools and English medium universities around the world are already experiencing an influx of Saudi students as a result of the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP). Approximately 17,000 Saudi nationals a year join the programme and study abroad, with numbers likely to grow further in the next few years. The destination countries for KASP students transcend the English-speaking world, with English-medium universities in continental Europe and Asia as part of the deal.

According to official Saudi diplomatic sources, ‘The Programme of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz for Foreign Scholarship’ was launched in April 2006, and was based on a plan submitted by the Higher Education Council. King Abdullah’s name has been associated with numerous large-scale education projects, including the King Abdullah Institute for Science and Technology and the brand new university being built in the brand new King Adbullah Economic City in the desert.

The original King Adbullah Scholarships were for Saudi nationals to study in ‘the United States and the Asian nations’ and the US remains by far the biggest destination for KASP students, recently facilitated by an apparent easing on the US visa regime for those with passports from the Middle East. Saudi Cultural Attache to the US Dr. Mohammad Aleissa said that the King Abdullah scholarships were part of a Saudi initiative in partnership with then President George W. Bush’s administration to counter ‘some misundestandings’ between the US and Saudi Arabia post-9/11. According to Tom Green, vice president for enrollment management at East Michigan University in the US, the King Abdullah programme’s organizers ‘hope to sponsor 20,000 students by the end of 2008, and by the end of 2009 they hope to have 25,000 students in the United States.’

The Asian destinations for 3,000 KASP students in the first intake of the programme were China (200 KASP scholars were in China as of June 2008), Japan, Singapore and South Korea – presumably on English-medium programmes at universities there. Shortly before we went to press in November 2008, 138 King Abdullah scholarship students went to an intensive orientation session on Riyadh, in preparation for going out to higher education study in India.

Since its inception, King Abdullah scholarships have increased in the scope of the countries that its scholars go to, and in the range of students it sends abroad. The programme originally had a ‘cap’ restricting it to the top five per cent of students in Saudi schools, Now the cap has been removed, and less high-flying students can get on the programme based on a checklist of various demographic and academic achievement criteria, although a look at the criteria suggests that students still have to be in the top ten per cent for academic achievement. While the ministry of higher education runs the scheme, the selection of candidates is in the hands of ‘independent academic committees’ made up of representatives of various Saudi university faculties in relevant subject areas.

KASP Director Dr Majed Alharbi was in the UK in late 2007 to talk to universities, and following this, KASP students are turning up in the UK in increasing numbers. See page 6 for the impact of KASP on London’s EFL school market. A quick Gazette ring round UK universities showed that some were hoping to recruit more Saudis through KASP, while others were already keeping a close eye on the number of Saudis arriving, in case this began to impact on their mix of nationalities.

And the range of countries covered by KASP has grown. In Holland, Groningen University took 79 medical students under the programe in 2007, and the University of Twente in the north of the country has been actively recruiting KASP students. The Gazette came across university websites in Italian that mention agreements through KASP. The British Council in Saudi Arabia forwarded the Gazette an introductory document from the Saudi deputy ministry of scholarship affairs (part of the ministry of higher education) which said that KASP students are also currently studying (as well as in all the above countries) in Australia, Slovakia, Hungary, Ireland, Germany, Malaysia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, New Zealand, Canada and Spain.

There are currently a total of 40,000 Saudi students on KASP scholarships or who have completed them. The programme is currently in Phase 4, which focuses on studies for medicine, pharmacy, engineering, computer science, mathematics, physics, accountancy, insurance and e-commerce. 5000 KASP places are reserved for Masters and Doctorates courses. It’s a generous package, covering air fares, accommodation, a monthly stipend, an allowance for books and clothes, living costs for dependents and also medical and dental insurance. It funds up to a year’s ‘language preparation’ in preparation for courses of study.

The normal KASP progression route is an intensive English course followed by a university degree course. Saudi students can usually apply through the Saudi Arabia consulate of the country they want to study in. In the US, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission works with the Washington DC-based Academy for Educational Development (AED), which runs an admissions service for KASP students. AED is currently ‘focusing its efforts on placing new KASP students in intensive English language programmes’ and ‘researching academic program opportunities appropriate to each student's academic goals and admissions credentials.’ The local Saudi consulates monitor the academic progress of KASP students, and particularly their attendance at English classes, and the Saudi Gazette recently reported that 512 KASP students were ‘recalled’ due to their ‘weak performance and poor attendance records.’ The programme has now beefed up its compulsory pre-departure orientation courses.

KASP has been sending abroad middle class Saudis who normally wouldn’t get the chance to study overseas for an extended period. Many of its students are women, and these face an additional complication. Scholarship students going abroad need a mahram, a Ministry-approved male relative to accompany them for up to four years. Western immigration authorities are puzzled by the concept of mahrams and what exactly the purpose of their visit is, which leads to additional complications. Recent developments in Saudi Arabia such at the founding of the new Riyadh Women’s University and the admission of women into training for the diplomatic corps may lead to a eventual relaxation of such restrictions as the mahram requirement. Women who pay their own way when studying abroad can already go without a mahram.

KASP has stimulated demand among Saudis for study abroad in general. London and South African schools report they are receiving many more ‘young Saudis,’ including juniors, who aren’t eligible for KASP. In Australia there have been several recent conferences on the impact of so many Saudis on its EFL sector, with teachers with Middle East experience advising on how to prepare these students for university.

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