Adapting to the new realities of the Saudi Arabian market

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Recent changes to Saudi Arabian scholarship programmes have resulted in notable declines in outbound students, especially to major destinations such as the US
  • However, there are still significant opportunities for institutions to receive scholarship students, the demand for higher education remains strong among self-funded students, and new government policies are opening up pathways to expanded institutional linkages and exchange programmes

One of the key senders of international students to the US over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has turned from a seller’s to a buyer’s market over the past year.

In the ten years up to and including 2015, enrolments from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) across the US soared – with double-digit increases in student numbers each year since 2005 – but recent changes in the Saudi economy and in its government scholarship programmes have put the brakes on that growth.

Recent statistics from the US Department of Homeland Security show that between November 2015 and November 2016, the number of Saudis in the US on student visas dropped by 19.9%. This verification from government data backs up what programme administrators have known all too well, with precipitous drops especially noted in many intensive English programmes over the past year.

On 12 December, university admissions officials, recruiters, and other educators were provided with a further update by EducationUSA advisors based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region.

After an overview of trends in the flow of Saudis overseas (and specifically to the US), the presenters provided several tips to help higher education institutions counter the recent downturn and continue to attract students from Saudi Arabia. While their suggestions were specific to the context of US institutions, educators in other destinations can apply many of the same practices in their approach to the Saudi market.

  • Ensure that your institution – whether a university or language school – is approved by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Education. Verify that information on the school held by the ministry is correct, and report any incorrect information such as “saturation points” of Saudi enrolments.
  • Get to know staff and policies of the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission. Based in Fairfax, Virginia, SACM administers scholarships and other educational initiatives within the US for the MOE.
  • Recognise the strong and extended family relations within the Saudi culture and focus on building strong alumni networks, to take advantage of your current alumni base.
  • Make good use of social media, as Saudis certainly do. For example, Saudi Arabia is the highest per-capita YouTube user in the world and accounts for 40% of Twitter traffic across MENA. Along with such social channels, Saudis are also heavy users of messaging services, notably the “WhatsApp” service, and so much so that Kirsten Niederhauser, senior education advisor at the US Embassy in Riyadh, said, “I don’t think it’s even possible to have pizza delivered to my house,” without WhatsApp interaction with the delivery service.
  • Attend upcoming education fairs, especially the April 2017 International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education. IECHE is sponsored by the Ministry of Education, and is going ahead this year after a rather high-profile cancellation in 2016. The fair is also coordinated with several other events in other countries across the MENA region.
  • Reach out to KSA-based EducationUSA advisors in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran.

The outlook for scholarships

A few years ago, many recruiters might have scoffed at the idea of needing to follow any tips to bring in more Saudi students. Without much effort, many schools across the US reached the point where their schools were considered by the MOE to be “saturated” with Saudi students and had enrolments capped.

Saudi Arabia was the third-largest sending market for US higher education in 2015/16, after only China and India. But the downward trend in numbers over the past year suggests that 2015/16 ranking may have been the peak for Saudi Arabia’s outbound market.

The drop-off has impacted Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) most heavily, as many Saudi students needed extensive English preparation before being able to undertake university studies. The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report indicates that Saudi Arabia has been the leading source of US IEP enrolments for the past six survey cycles, after supplanting South Korea in the 2009 report.

More broadly, Open Doors’ 2015/16 yearly tally of 61,287 Saudis, just slightly larger than the previous year’s 59,945, represents the smallest annual percentage increase in more than a decade and the first year since 2004 without double-digit growth in student numbers.

The MOE’s recent changes to the Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Programme (previously the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, or KASP) was underpinned by an overall government budget reduction of around 14% in 2016. The new restrictions included changes to what the EducationUSA advisors termed “front door” scholarships, those granted to students within KSA based on academic ability and professional/workforce needs, as well as “back door” scholarships. The latter category dominated student placements overseas in the past, through which students were able to pick and enroll in virtually any accredited university in the US, whether directly in academic studies or in English preparatory classes, and still be assured of full funding via KASP.

In the upcoming 12th wave of the scholarship programme, “front door” applicants must have strong academic records and show intermediate English proficiency, with an IELTS exam score of at least 4.0. After credential reviews and a round of interviews, selected students are assured of employment after their studies abroad, which can include up to 18 months of ESL training if needed.

The 10,000 slots available to US-bound recipients is consistent with numbers in past years. The EducationUSA advisors noted, however, that generally not all slots are filled. For example, in the 11th wave there were roughly 178,000 applicants for the 10,000 slots but only around 8,000 scholarships were eventually awarded.

The big change for the 12th wave – affecting the easier path to funding which included no cap on overall numbers and no vetting process – is with the “back door” path to scholarship funding we noted earlier. Applicants are now not able to pick any MOE-authorised university but must be accepted into an institution listed as a top 200 global institution or in the top 50 of any specific academic subject.

The original policy change, first reported in early 2016, specified that such students must attend a top 100 university. This was subsequently widened to the top 200-ranked institutions in August 2016. The EducationUSA advisors noted as well that Saudi officials have acknowledged that the restriction remains problematic, even with this somewhat broader field of institutions, and may be revisited, especially given the English training needs of most Saudi applicants. At a practical level, many of the top-tier universities in the US don’t have affiliated IEPs or conditional admissions set up to provide a clear pathway into degree programmes once English proficiency is demonstrated.

This new approach to scholarship administration aligns not only with a tightening Saudi budget but also with a new MOE initiative, “Vision 2030,” which is intended to address labour market needs within the Kingdom. Nearly 50% of the Saudi population is under the age of 25, and the youth unemployment rate hovers somewhere around 25-30%. Through Vision 2030, the MOE hopes to improve teacher training, revise curriculum to focus less on rote learning, and to enable more private sector participation in education.

While the heyday of the scholarship programme and the higher numbers of Saudi in many institutions may be in the past, presenters stressed that many partnership opportunities continue to exist in Saudi Arabia for foreign institutions. Schools that are not top-tier may still receive “front door” scholarship winners, the demand for higher education remains strong among self-funded students, and Vision 2030 will likely lead to many opportunities for developing institutional linkages and exchange programmes to help Saudi Arabia continue towards reaching its education, social, and economic goals.



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