Thursday, 12 March 2009

Renaissance of the Gulf

From EL Gazette, February 2009

The numbers of Arabian Gulf nationals studying around the world continue to rise, with little sign of the global recession

Matt Salusbury


Where are students from the Gulf states of the Middle East going to study? The ‘Gulf states’ are members of the Cooperation Council for Arab States in the Arabian Gulf, which are Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, the states of Kuwait and Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE, which including Abu Dhabi and Dubai.)

Some countries have no statistics for enrolments from individual Gulf countries, and lump students from there together as ‘Middle East,’ which includes Turkey and North Africa. Australia is one such country. English Australia’s figures for the EFL sector lists 5,500 from ‘the Middle East’ in 2007, up 60 per cent on 2006. Within this group, enrolments from Saudi Arabia doubled in that year, totalling 7,300 Saudis studying in Australia as of October 2008.

Australia takes recruitment of Gulf students so seriously that a Parliamentary Sub-committee covered the issue back in 2005, urging Australia to capitalise on ‘recent restrictions to student visas and perceptions of the US and the UK as being "unsafe" and "unwelcoming" destinations for students from the Middle East and Gulf’.

New Zealand, helped by a low exchange rate for its currency and the perception of the country as a safe place, is enjoying a surge in Saudi enrolments. There were only 76 Saudi students in New Zealand in 2006, but by 2008 these had almost tripled.

Ireland’s latest (2005) figures show 300 Kuwait students, many of whom were studying in Ireland’s five medical schools. Eight per cent of all medical students are from Kuwait and four per cent of them are from the UAE, making them the fourth and fifth biggest groups in medicine by nationality. There were over 150 Emiratis in Ireland in 2005, with Emiratis outnumbering Saudis.

Ireland has seen a recent increase in Saudis on the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, Nearly 90 per cent of these are male, and they’re mostly on part-time ‘non-degree’ business or English language courses.

The Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC) told the Gazette that the number of students from all Gulf countries on student visas on Canadian campuses has grown rapidly, with nearly 70,000 fulltime students in 2006. The AUCC said that Arab students are especially numerous at McGill University and the universities of Ottawa and Toronto. The latest (2005) figures show that 23 per cent of Gulf states students in Canada were female, this proportion is 10 per cent more than a decade earlier.

In Spring 2008, Canada relaxed immigration rules on student visa-holders who settle there after a course of study, and Gulf News reported that Emiratis in particular are taking advantage of this change.

Back in 2006, the American Council of Education warned that ‘students from the Gulf States… are choosing to study in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia rather than coming to the United States.’ Their report cited year-on-year declines in enrolments from the Gulf – by one fifth in Oman’s case - and concluded ‘this is part of a larger pattern of decline among Muslim countries’ in the wake of 9/11 and the Afghani and Iraq wars. The recent ‘Obama bounce’ seems to be improving global perceptions of the US, which may encourage Arab students back there.

America’s efforts to entice students from the Gulf states include the State Department’s education arm in the region, AMIDEAST, which opened bigger accommodation with a separate teaching centre in Muscat, Oman, in the summer. Before the move, AMIDEAST’s Muscat operation was already handling 130 visitors and 200 calls a month, all enquiring about studying in the US.

AMIDEAST will open an office in Qatar soon, and is already marketing State Department-sponsored Youth Exchange and Study Program scholarships for Qataris to study in a US high school for a year. Qatar’s ‘Education City’ outside the capital Doha includes five US university campuses, compared to one British university (Herriot-Watt) and one Australian university (Wollongong) in the Gulf, both in Dubai.

America’s 1991 liberation of Kuwait means Kuwait has close ties to the US. The National Union of Kuwait Students said that in 2008 there were ‘1,500 Kuwaiti students studying at universities in the US, Egypt and the UK on scholarships from the Kuwait Embassy. Another 500 Kuwaiti are enrolled privately in American universities.’

Saudi Arabia’s gigantic King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP, see here) is focused on the US, with a target for 25,000 Saudis to be studying in the US by academic year 2009-2010.

The Gulf states don’t just send students to American universities, they (especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) are the biggest donors to US university endowment funds. This facilitates more of their nationals coming to study there.

In the UK, the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show over 3200 Saudi higher education students in the UK in 2007, up 18 per cent on the previous year. Kuwaiti and Qatari numbers were up by about the same proportion, with well over a thousand students from each state, and there were 600 Qataris. Emirati recruitment was more modest (seven per cent up, to over 2200) and Bahraini enrolments were down.

The British Council Kuwait is now starting training and accreditation for local educational agents. UK Trade and Investment recently identified ‘financial and professional education’ in Saudi Arabia and Qatar topping the list of ‘opportunities’ for export to these countries.

Scottish universities seem particularly adept at marketing to the Gulf. Glasgow’s website markets its diverse home city’s large Muslim community, with the most mosques of any city in Scotland. (The University of New South Wales also markets its tolerant and cosmopolitan home city of Sydney, Australia, and its university mosque where 400 Muslim students attend Friday prayers.) Meanwhile, London’s EFL providers are telling the Gazette they're having trouble coping with the influx of King Abdullah Scholarship Programme Saudis.

South African EFL providers report that they’re receiving more Saudis of a younger average age, helped by relatively easy visas. As we go to press, a South African mission to the Gulf states is arriving in Dubai, with the Gulf States acting in concert on agreements with South Africa on tourism, hospitality, leisure and nuclear energy technology transfer, but no mention of education yet. Talks are also about to start on a pan-African trading bloc with the Gulf states, with South Africa as a senior partner.

In Gulf countries that have no elections, national leaders are acutely aware of the need to constantly drive ‘reforms.’ Several Gulf states are committed to reducing their dependence on an expatriate workforce, and on training up their own nationals to replace them. All this will mean continued investment in English-medium education. All Saudi primary schools will teach EFL from 2009, for example, with English as the medium of instruction for all mathematics and science in the Kingdom from 2011.

But there’s still a chance that increased demand from the Gulf could stall. At the end 2008, Saudi Arabia was, according to the Guardian newspaper, ‘expected to cut back on both current spending and adjust ambitious long-term development plans in the light of the slump in (oil) prices.’ Qatari and Emirati government run investments funds have taken a pounding through exposure to US and European share price crashes. Boomtown Dubai is starting to see a slowdown, while Kuwait recently took the extreme step of closing its stock exchange for several days to stop share prices ‘haemorrhaging.’ But the same report re-assures us that even in a global recession, the existing assets of the Gulf states will ‘remain massive.’

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