US English programmes reporting declines in Saudi enrolment this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) in the US are reporting notable declines in Saudi enrolment this year
  • Four in ten respondents to a recent English USA survey reported declines of 30% in Saudi student numbers over the past year; 20% reported drops of more than 40%
  • Programme directors are also reporting substantial drops in applications and inquiries this year, foreshadowing further enrolment declines to come
  • Looking ahead, many IEPs are taking steps to carefully control costs but many are also looking at expanded recruiting activities in other markets to help offset the declining Saudi numbers

International enrolment in US Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) has fallen off noticeably over the past year, due in part to changes in the Saudi scholarship programmes that have sent so many students to the States over the past decade.

IEP is an education segment that draws from a smaller number of sending countries and that normally fluctuates more than the overall foreign enrolment base in the US. And enrolments have shrunk at many US schools in the past year according to a recent survey conducted by English USA, the largest IEP-support organisation in the US. Nearly 80% of respondents reported enrolment decreases when comparing January 2016 student numbers to those of one year ago, and 86% see signs – in particular, fewer enquiries or applications – of further declining enrolments from Saudi Arabia to come.

A changing scholarship programme

The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), initiated in 2005 and since renamed “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Programme,” has led Saudi Arabia to become the fourth-biggest provider of students in US tertiary education, with nearly 60,000 now studying in various degree-granting levels, according to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

The scholarship – under which virtually any Saudi of school age has been able to receive a full scholarship and healthy monthly stipend for study abroad – has had an even bigger impact on IEPs. Since 2010, Saudi Arabia has been the top sending market for English study in the US. The most recent Open Doors survey noted that 32,557 Saudis – or 25.8% of all IEP students – were enrolled in the English programmes responding in 2014. China followed with 14.5% and then Brazil next at 11.2% of total IEP enrolments. Even so, that leading percentage for 2014 was down from a peak high percentage that saw Saudi students account for 30.3% of all US IEP enrolments in 2013.

Also of note, Saudi Arabia has provided a higher proportion of IEP enrolment than has typically been the case for the lead sending market over the past 15 years. For example, South Korea was the leading sender from 2005 to 2009 but never accounted for more than 23% of total enrolments. Similarly, Japan, sending leaders from 2000 to 2004, provided a peak high of just 25.5% in 2004.

Compounding that overall percentage, both the South Korean and Japanese numbers included many short-term visitors coming only for general English improvement or short programmes abroad, whereas most Saudi students enrol in IEPs in preparation for university and so undertake longer periods of language study. This explains why the gap between Saudi Arabia and other important sending markets is even greater when enrolment is counted by student-weeks. Saudis accounted for 34.8% of student-weeks in US IEPs in 2014, for example, whereas earlier lead sending markets South Korea and Japan peaked at 24.9% and 23.1% respectively.

The full-pay scholarships offered under KASP had previously included up to 18 months of language training. Now, after the scholarship programme was revised in late-2015, more restrictions based on prior academic work have been put into place. At one point, Saudi officials indicated that pre-academic study (primarily, English) would be limited to six months, but that has been returned to the 18-month maximum, according to a 30 March 2016 webinar conducted by Education USA advisers in Saudi Arabia.

Under previous conditions, students could file for the scholarship while at home and be placed by the Saudi government into institutions based on their academic desires, or they could begin studies overseas (whether first learning English or directly entering an academic programme) and then, for those choosing the US, apply to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington DC for funding. Education USA estimates that about 70% of all students joined through this second “backdoor” path, many of them starting in English studies before matriculating to degree programmes.

As we reported earlier this year, the Saudi government has now moved to limit access to scholarship funding for students applying via that second path. Among other restrictions, students who have already begun studies abroad must now be enrolled in academic study at one of the top 100 ranked universities worldwide. In effect, this removes the prospect of intensive English study for most if not all of the 70% of Saudi students who had previously accessed scholarship funding after beginning studies in the US.

Survey results

Applications and enrolments in IEPs across the US began to drop during 2015. The English USA survey found that about 40% of the 136 respondents had drops of 30% or higher in their Saudi numbers in early 2016 compared to one year prior, with nearly 20% saying that their enrolment decreases exceeded 40%. Respondents said that future enrolment predictions were likewise bleak: 39.8% indicated that applications for their next term had dropped by over 30%, and 16 programmes reported declines of more than 50%.

Economic conditions, and the collapse in world oil prices in particular, are the root cause of the Saudi government’s cutbacks on scholarship spending, and the government now aims to reduce overall education spending by as much as 12%.

In the English USA survey as well as in interviews for this article, IEP directors were asked what steps they were taking to counteract the enrolment drops. Many spoke about cost control, including reductions in teaching hours for adjunct instructors, curtailing new job searches for full-time faculty, and dropping sections of classes to keep class size as economically feasible as possible. “We used to have 100 to 180 students but currently have about 55,” one director from a university-based programme in the Northeastern US said. “Our response has been to not invite back temporary part-time instructors or replace departing ones. We anticipate cutting hours starting this summer. I also had to combine two low levels into one class one session, because we didn’t have enough students in each level to justify the instructors.”

Several directors in the survey mentioned that curricular changes were mostly necessary in lower levels, where Saudi students were often even more predominant within programmes.

Beyond cost control, many directors were also planning to expand their recruiting in select markets abroad, with China, Vietnam, and Kuwait most often mentioned as countries getting new or renewed attention. Many directors are also looking to recruit more group and short-term programmes, or adding supplementary courses in GED, GMAT, or TOEFL preparation to bring in new students and revenue. Several mentioned a renewed interest in advertising, which had gone by the wayside for many IEPs during the boom years of the Saudi market. “We have started advertising on websites and publications, which we never needed to do before. Word of mouth and conditional acceptance brought us enough students,” said one director.

Despite the concerns, many respondents also expressed a rediscovered pleasure at having more diverse student populations now that the dominance of the Saudi market in IEP circles is waning. Karen Braxley, programme director at the University of Georgia, reported that her school’s percentage of Saudi students has dropped from a high of 50% to a more reasonable 30% now. Voicing a sentiment expressed by several others in the survey, Braxley said, “The programme definitely works better with a more diverse enrolment.”

The Education USA webinar presenters stressed that Saudi Arabia could still be a strong market for English programmes even with the scholarship cuts. Study abroad has now become such a widespread phenomenon within Saudi Arabia, and the expectation is that many will choose to self-fund at least portions of their overseas education if scholarship funding is no longer available. The webinar urged US schools to increase recruiting efforts in the Kingdom, to work more effectively with agents, and return to other traditional recruiting methods rather than depending on the windfall that the scholarship programme had become for many schools.

Advising a long-term approach, Jim Hamrick, programme director at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, felt that, “there will continue to be demand in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is trying shake up the status quo which means more and more Saudi nationals will be taking on increasingly diverse employment. They will need English language skills, and many Saudis need undergrad and graduate degrees in engineering, education, and the sciences. Opportunities for such degrees remain limited there, and there will be continued demand for high quality US degrees. I expect that over the long term more Saudis will see education as a personal investment and not so much as an entitlement.”



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