- - Renewed opportunities for TNE provision in the region
- - Significant growth potential from Egypt
- - We are entering a new stage in the development of economies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
- - Impact of third country nationals domiciled in the UAE on student flows
In the first of a series of exclusive articles for IDP, Dr Janet Ilieva and Martyn Edwards explore current trends in international student mobility and also the effect of demographic and socio economic developments within selected Middle East countries .
The past 5 years have seen significant turmoil in the region with a number of countries undergoing prolonged periods of civil war as a result of the 2011 Arab Spring, or in the case of Iraq, extreme violence that began even earlier following the invasion of 2003.
This series of conflicts has led to a much publicised refugee crisis, which has spread not only to neighbouring Gulf countries but well beyond the region to Europe. The biggest implication for future demand for education is the high proportion of children among the refugee population, which the World Bank estimates to be 36 per cent. Displacement of children among the refugee population is likely to continue to affect future demand for higher education from the affected countries in the next 10 – 15 years.
Source: UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency 2016
Since oil was first discovered in commercial quantities at Dammam in 1938, it has become synonymous with the fortunes of the Middle East. However, this heavy reliance also means that the wealth of the region is adversely affected by persistently low oil prices. The World Bank calculates that the GDP in the region is currently at 40% of its potential.
Source: NASDAQ 2016
A significant number of MENA countries have traditionally had high levels of government funding for international student mobility. Continuously low oil prices have affected demand for international education through reduced government spending resulting from heightened fiscal deficits. The highest proportions of government funded students are observed in Saudi Arabia (68 per cent of the total students), Kuwait and Oman (64 per cent respectively). Just under half of the UAE nationals are also government funded (46 per cent). The overall proportions, as shown on the chart below, appear low, mainly because of the high number of expat students with UAE residence (62 per cent), mainly from India and Pakistan, who are self-funded. Any continued pressures on government finance will affect student mobility from the countries with the highest proportions of government sponsored students, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.
New entrants to UK universities 2014/15 from the Middle East by funding source
Source: HESA 2016
To better understand the market dynamics across the selected MENA countries, we have studied their growth since 2006. The impact of the global financial crisis is difficult to evaluate because of the civil unrest that unravelled in the aftermath of the financial crisis. However, the countries with the strongest government support for overseas education were not immediately affected.
Recent studies show that 54 per cent of the Arab students studying overseas do not return to their home country. Some of the key reasons include “political instability”, “social injustice”, “lack of freedoms”, “absence of appropriate environment to conduct research”. An interview for Al-Fanar Media with Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at the École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, cautions about the longer-term consequences of brain-drain:
“… most Arab students studying abroad don’t return to their countries as a result of several economic, scientific and political reasons, which is threatening the future of higher-education development and scientific progress in the Arab world.'
Source: HESA 2016
A key characteristic across the selected Middle East countries is the high level of transnational education (TNE) provision. Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the top destinations for UK TNE. Furthermore, Oman and Egypt had a double digit growth in both onshore and TNE recruitment in 2014-15 academic year.
The decline in student numbers from Egypt in 2009 and through 2010 appeared as a response to the global financial crisis. A closer look at the data shows the declines were concentrated in postgraduate level of study and were fully attributed to reduced government funding for overseas study. Student demand bounced back in 2011-12, however, the growth was mainly fuelled by privately funded undergraduate students. Our analysis of the HESA data shows the proportion of undergraduate students reached 44% in 2014-15 (up from 24% in 2010-11). Whereas overall this indicates a significant structural change in demand, it is worth to note that private demand for postgraduate education continued to rise. However, the proportion of government sponsorship for postgraduate students dropped from 52 per cent (205 students in 2006-07) down to 10 per cent (45 students) in 2014-15.
Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the highest numbers of international students in UK higher education. This section explores in greater detail the shifting landscape in these two countries.
Oil turbulence has led to greater ministerial scrutiny on spending commitments. Austerity measures were introduced in Saudi Arabia in December 2015 but overall eligibility criteria for the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP) had been tightened even before this. There have been notable structural changes in the distribution of Saudi scholars to the UK that can be traced back to 2010-11:
- - The proportion of first degree students out of the total students almost halved from 30% down to 16%;
- - The largest increases were in entry to research programmes, the proportion of which increased from 18% in 2010-11 to 28% in 2014-15 and postgraduate taught programmes increased from 52% to 55% respectively;
- - Parallel to an increasing support for postgraduate studies, there was a growing concentration of KASP funded students into Russell Group universities while the proportion of Saudi students into other university mission groups declined.
Source: HESA 2016
Source: HESA 2016
Our analysis shows that the decline in Saudi students in 2011/12 was solely driven by a squeeze in government funding which led to:
- - Reduction of 990 government funded postgradaute entrants, whereas decline in self-funded students was just 20 students; and
- - Government funded undergraduate entrants dropped by 60% (685 students). Declines in self-funded undergraduate students were less pronounced (a drop of 25 students).
Source: HESA 2016
Interestingly, numbers to the UK from the UAE did not dip until 2012-13, so slightly later than other regional sending countries. A reasonably high proportion of UAE nationals are also government funded: 46% of the total UAE student population. And this perhaps reflects the reputation that the UK has for the quality of its higher education providers, making it a destination of choice for sponsors.
Source: HESA 2016
While there was a steady increase in the number of Emirati nationals, the decline was mainly driven by a temporary drop in the numbers of Indian students domiciled in the UAE. It is quite likely this may have been caused by changes in UK post-study work regulations and the competitive appeal of other English-Language speaking destinations that are perceived to have more favourable immigration conditions. India and Pakistan are the most popular nationalities for non-Emirati students studying in the UK with UAE domicile.
The overall growth in UAE domiciled students to the UK in 2014-15 was mainly attributed to increases in the number of Indian and other third countries nationals domiciled in the UAE. The proportion of UAE students dropped from 29 per cent in 2006/07 down to 21 per cent in 2014-15.
The continuously low oil prices have also affected non-Gulf regions through the remittances of overseas workers. The World Bank identifies India and Pakistan as the largest remittances recipients from Saudi and UAE. Remittances from both UAE and Saudi Arabia were highest to India (US$ 23,082 million) and Pakistan (US$9,768 million) in 2014.
Our analysis of the selected Middle Eastern countries shows economic, political and societal pressures on international student demand from the region. While the global financial crisis might have impacted the student demand initially, continued political instability in the region, persisting low oil prices and tighter government budgets have put students under pressure from all directions. Displacement of young children as a result of the refugee crisis is likely to have a long-term impact on the local education systems. A lot of the countries are already established transnational education destinations and are catering to the needs of non-traditional university goers, whose numbers are likely to continue to grow. While TNE provision and wider international engagement will continue to play a key role in the region, will they rise to the challenge and meet the continuously growing and changing needs of the world’s most disturbed region?
NEXT: Part 2 - Middle East 3.0
In our second instalment, discover the future potential for student mobility from the Middle East region as governments look to diversify their respective economies away from oil and up-skill the next generation of graduates.
About the Authors
Janet Ilieva is the founder and director of Education Insight. An economist with almost 20 years of international experience in education research and policy analysis, she is particularly interested in TNE data. She was the Head of Economic and Qualitative Research at HEFCE while the research reported on here was conducted, and authored both the 'Transnational pathways to HE in England' report and its preceding study 'Directions of travel.'
Martyn Edwards is Head of Marketing and Business Development for IDP, UK & US. Prior to joining IDP, Martyn has worked for the British Council and held senior international recruitment roles at the University of Nottingham and Loughborough University.
 This analysis focuses on the following countries, which were selected on basis of their relevance to the UK higher education. Given the complexity of the higher education in Turkey, the current list does not cover Turkey at this stage. The country list includes: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE).
 In order to capture the most recent developments, the growth is based on full time entrants only. Indexed methodology is applied to allow better comparisons across countries. http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2015/11/many-arab-students-go-to-the-u-s-but-rarely-is-the-reverse-true/