By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

Earlier this week I published a report from the Gulf Education Conference and Exhibition, a two-day event that I had the pleasure of attending recently.

Agents, presidents of universities from the Gulf region, staff from UK institutions, ambassadors, foreign ministers and even a Saudi princess gathered for an enlightening conference, themed around the question of what higher education will look like in 2020 in the region.

There were a number of interesting and lively debates on topics including: what should be the language of instruction across the region; matching education to the skill demands of the labour market; how to integrate online provision and Moocs; and the merits of public and private provision of higher education – issues that pretty much apply to most of the world.

In terms of study abroad, it was pointed out that centuries ago scholars from Europe would gravitate towards the Arab world for their higher studies. I also learned that there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of universities in the region, from 14 in 1953 to over 600 now.

The Gulf countries send tens of thousands of students overseas every year, but the Secretary General of the Association of Arab Universities, Dr Sultan Abu Orabi, told me that many countries are eager to receive international students in return, extolling the virtues of the exchange of ideas and culture this would inevitably bring. The UAE has been the headline grabber in positioning itself as the regional education hub, hosting more than twice as many branch campuses as any other nation in the world (another fact I gleaned from the conference), but other countries have a diverse international student population as well, he said, including Jordan with over 40,000.

Openness to international students is not uniform across the region unfortunately, and there were calls for the more closed governments to establish student visa regimes, “Education should not have borders,” argued Dr Orabi. The usage of agents is similarly uneven, both across and within nations, but there certainly are agent relationships in place, and this is something we look forward to exploring further in Study Travel Magazine.

The organisers of the Gulf Conference announced this week a new event focussed on Libya. The Libya Higher Education and Development Forum, taking place in London from June 3-5, will focus on raising educational standards in a country that is investing heavily in study abroad scholarships and educational partnerships with the UK. At a press launch attended by STM, Dr Abdelbasiet Awad Gadour, Libyan Cultural Attaché to the UK, said, “As part of the forging of these positive partnerships with the UK academic community, we also hope to place some of our gifted PhD students here in UK specialist institutions; as a nation we are absolutely committed to raising the level of our own workforce and maximising the talent we have. We aim to sponsor more than 16,000 scholarships this year at UK institutions.”

These are dynamic times in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region, with inbound and outbound study abroad potential, and it is pleasing to see agents involved in these high-level events mapping the future.

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