March 2011 issue

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Eastern promise

Study travel out of the Middle East is growing, although scholarship and visa considerations are influencing outbound trends.
Gillian Evans reports.

For educators looking to attract international students, the Middle East is something of a double-edged sword, as it offers a number of challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, a burgeoning young population eager to seek education opportunities abroad is enticing, while on the other hand, restrictive visa processes for some countries are quashing the potential of the market.

Nevertheless, student numbers from the Middle East are on the up, in general. In the UK, student numbers from the Middle East have doubled, according to the Financial Times. In fact, over the past decade, the figure has soared fivefold.

In the USA, recent Open Doors statistics from the Institute of International Education (IIE) indicate that the total number of enrolments from the Middle East increased by 16 per cent in the 2009/10 academic year, and that this world region now accounts for five per cent of total students enrolled in US higher education institutions. While this number is up on the previous year, it was still lower than in 2003/04 when numbers peaked at 36,339. The dip in enrolments over past years is due to an increase in local universities and foreign branch campuses; tighter visa restrictions; competition from other host countries; the high costs of US education; and changes in scholarship preferences.

One Middle Eastern country that has shone for the USA has been Saudi Arabia. Student enrolments from this country increased by just under 25 per cent in 2009/10, according to IIE, making it the seventh-most important country of origin for international students in the USA, a direct result of the Saudi government’s investment in study abroad scholarships through its King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP).

Confirming the importance of the scholarships, Al-Harith Waheeb Al-Qurashi, General Manager at Educon Study Abroad in Saudi Arabia, reports that their student numbers increased by 30 per cent last year, which he believes is owing to the “market trend toward study abroad supported by government scholarships”. He goes on to say that “the KASP has largely influenced the market”. According to Al-Qurashi, because of the scholarship scheme, their most popular destination is Canada, followed by the USA and then the UK. At Clever Centre Study Travel Advisory Centre in Saudi Arabia, Rabab Farrash agrees that these three countries are firm favourites among their clients, with the UK being preferred because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia as well as the ease of university acceptance there in comparison with other European countries.

The English language skills of Saudi students are also improving as the government invests in English training at home. For example, Bell International has a contract to teach English to 6,500 students at King Saud University in Riyadh, before English-speaking undergraduate courses. Farrash reports that most Saudi students now have an intermediate to advanced level of English, but that nevertheless 70 per cent of their clients are still looking for an English language course. “[Language preparation] courses are free for students under the King Abdullah Scholarship Scheme, [which pays for undergraduate programmes],” he explains.

While the scholarships have definitely boosted the Saudi market – with a reported 62,000 Saudi students having benefited from the scholarships that have allowed them to study in 24 participating countries – visa issuance regulations have hampered numbers into some countries. Farrash relates that “visa entrance is a very important factor” in the Saudi market. “I think the UK suffered from the visa regulations [making prospective students have a language level above B1],” he says (even though government-sponsored students were exempt from this ruling).

Another country where the mobility of its student population has been restricted by visa regulations is Syria. “There are some Western countries, particularly Britain, which do not accept any students who wish to just follow language courses only and must be enrolled in universities or academic studies, and need certain conditions for admission to courses with a high level [of English] and this may not be achieved with [all] students,” relates Ahmad Yabroudi at A&A, Ahmad Yabroudi Est, in Syria. He says that the adverse visa issuance climate has meant that they have searched out new markets.

Fellow Syrian Samaan Saad, at Saad Education Consultants, reports that their enrolments decreased by 50 per cent last year as a result of the “very tight [visa] entry procedures [and] refusal for silly reasons”. While the UK remains one of Syria’s top host destinations for its students, Canada has gained in the popularity stakes owing to its “flexible visa procedures” says Saad. He warns that the UK could continue to lose out. “Unless entry visa regulations are modified the business is in decline. UKBA should choose more efficient, experienced staff and resume interviewing applicants in addition to granting right of appeal.”

Saad reports a trend among his clientele for intensive English and foundation programmes and that there “has been a slight increase in postgraduate courses due to the setting up of private universities in Syria”. Many governments in the Middle East support the establishment of branch campuses from overseas universities. There are currently 40 offshore campuses in the United Arab Emirates, for example, more than in any other country worldwide.

With restrictive visa regulations in many Western countries, some students, for example, those from Iran, are now looking east rather than west for study opportunities. “The majority of students who choose to continue their studies in another country, when considering which country they are more interested in, will look at the possibility of getting a permanent residency after completing their studies,” explains Payman Kakhsaz from Faraznegar Iranian Consultants in Iran. “It is mainly because of the instability of the economic and political situation of their own countries.”

Malaysian schools are among those citing Iranian students as a growth market (see page 45) and Kakhsaz confirms that many Iranians were choosing Malaysia for higher education and English language programmes. “This.. has made the Iranian government ban Malaysian Bachelor degrees taken from any university in this country just to prevent the Iranian students to go to Malaysia for undergraduate studies,” he says. “However, those applicants with ability to study in countries like the UK or Australia or Canada are still able to apply to go to such countries for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.”

While visa regulations are a huge hurdle for Iranian students wanting to study in the USA, enrolment figures from Iran are growing, reversing the downward trend seen in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000, the number of Iranians has been steadily increasing, according to IIE. The latest Open Doors survey indicates an increase in enrolments of just under 34 per cent in Iranian students in the 2009/10 academic year, making them the third largest Middle Eastern nationality in the USA. But whether the traditional Western destinations can sustain Middle Eastern growth in the face of restrictive visa regulations and increased competition from non-traditional destinations remains to be seen.

Israel’s experience

“Although geographically we are in the Middle East, politically and culturally, Israel is more connected to Europe,” asserts David Adler at Study America in Israel. “That goes for the English language skills as well as the local education system.”

Anita Siegel at Lingualink - Language Training & Coaching in Israel, which specialises in language placements overseas, reports that demand for the English language has increased at the expense of other languages. “Approximately 75 per cent to 80 per cent of [our] clients look for English language courses,” relates Siegel. “There has been a steady increase in the demand for English language courses and a drop in the demand for other language courses, mainly Spanish, but also Italian language courses.”

At Campus Studies, Ronit Ron reports that although English is their biggest selling product, Canada is their top destination because of its “low cost and no need for a visa”.

Like in most other destinations, visa restrictions play a pivotal role in destination choice. “[Visa policy] has definitely given the UK an advantage over the USA,” says Siegel. “Many clients shy away from going to the USA because of the limitations of the visa. Some clients opt for Canada instead of the USA, others for the UK. The USA would probably be the number one destination for Lingualink’s clients if it weren’t for the difficulties to get a student visa or the limitations set by the visitor’s visa.”

Siegel adds that students who were considering longer courses of over three months in Australia have now turned to the UK and Canada owing to “the increase in the financial requirements for a student visa for Australia”.

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