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28th Nov 2012

Opportunities expand as Lebanese choose a wider range of destinations

Drawing upon a cosmopolitan, multilingual society with strong historical ties to the West, the Lebanese student market presents an inviting prospect to international educators from around the world. Earlier this week, ICEF Monitor spoke to Mr Abbas Reda, partner and founder of student recruitment agency Neo Academia. Mr Reda shared invaluable insights about the Lebanese student market, including current developments, future trends, and areas calling for greater enhancements. Read on to discover where Lebanese students are going and why, and what you can do to attract them.

Great expectations

Traditionally, Lebanese students have demonstrated a marked preference for highly-ranked institutions in leading destination countries, particularly the US and the UK. Mr Reda explains:

"Generally we find that students value the education they receive in the UK - there is a lot of demand to study there. A UK degree opens doors for them and gives them opportunities that they would not normally have."

This selective attitude is shaped by the country's domestic higher education system: Lebanon boasts a large number of universities, many of which are highly reputable within the country, attracting intense competition for admission.

Trends in demand

However, attitudes among young Lebanese appear to be changing. Students from Lebanon are increasingly willing to consider a broader range of institutions and destinations. This shift in attitudes appears to have two major causes:

  1. an increasing interest in study abroad as a pathway to employment;
  2. a growing desire to immigrate to more stable societies.

Graduate degrees and professional advantages

Many students from Lebanon choose to study abroad for professional reasons. The most popular programmes of study for Lebanese students are professional degrees: finance, business, engineering, and law. And as Lebanese wages continue to lag behind average salaries in more developed economies, study abroad is increasingly considered a means to enter a comparatively lucrative career overseas. This is especially true for prospective graduate students, because in Lebanon, graduate degree holders earn only slightly more than employees with an undergraduate degree. As a result, prospective grad students are increasingly interested in international programmes, which they consider a bridge to eventual employment abroad – and a larger pay cheque.

International study as a pathway to immigration

In general, Lebanese students appear quite willing to settle abroad after graduation, making this group of students particularly attractive to developed countries that are struggling to attract skilled immigrants. Destinations that have attracted particular interest for professional reasons include the UK, Dubai, and Qatar. Graduates from UK institutions often report that their degree has widened their professional opportunities; Dubai and Qatar on the other hand draw interest due to a reputation for high, tax free salaries upon graduation. Mr Reda has also noticed a growing demand for study in Canada, home to a sizable community of Lebanese; their collective experiences have apparently promoted Canada's reputation in Lebanon as an open, welcoming society – thus, positive word of mouth is encouraging chain migration. His observations confirm findings of the latest ICEF i-gradate Agent Barometer, which revealed growing interest in Canada as a destination country.

The Syrian spread

Recent changes in demand have not been driven by native students alone. As the conflict in Syria intensified, Syrians began arriving in Lebanon and a fair number of them have approached Lebanese education agencies on the possibility of study abroad.

For prospective students from Syria, the greatest challenge lies in their language proficiency.

Many Syrians speak only Arabic, and due to the language barrier, study abroad opportunities are limited. To improve their prospects, these students may benefit from intensive language training.

International funding for Syrian students

But while many Syrian students face the obstacle of language proficiency, their plight may itself open doors that would otherwise be closed to them. According to a recent article by University World News, Syrian students and academics are to receive millions of dollars in funding in 2013 to study abroad. In September, the Institute of International Education (IIE), the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Syrian NGO Jusoor formed a partnership, which will provide US $2 million in scholarships and fellowships for Syrian students and scholars. Since then, the IIE has announced the formation of a consortium that includes 35 universities located throughout the Americas and Europe, which has pledged a further US $1.3 million in support.

Due to the enthusiastic response to calls for funding from the global higher education community, the IIE is confident that they will reach their goal of US $5 million in funding for 2013.

The funds are intended to provide students, professors, and senior scholars of Syria with scholarships and fellowships for study abroad, as well as safe haven until they can return home.

Why Lebanese prefer Turkey

As previously highlighted, for many Lebanese students, career prospects and social stability are increasingly important reasons for studying abroad. These motives may explain why Turkey – already a popular destinations for Lebanese – attracts an ever growing number of students from Lebanon. Additionally, Turkey offers a number of degree programmes taught in English, and Lebanese do not need a visa to study there. Due to Turkey's robust economic growth, the country offers favourable material conditions to graduates. In addition, Turkey is perceived to be an open, welcoming society. As a country with strong historical ties to Lebanon, it offers a culture so similar to Lebanon that many students have few difficulties adjusting.

Specific programmes of study

As described above, Lebanese students generally base their choice of study destination on academic reputation, economic opportunity, or political stability. In certain specialist disciplines, however, Lebanese students will choose countries with a reputation for excellence in that particular field:

  • Spain: popular among Lebanese students who want to study sports management abroad, with new programmes appearing in Barcelona and Madrid.
  • Italy: the only foreign country that Lebanese students will consider for studies in fashion.
  • Switzerland: a well-known destination for professional training in hotel management.
  • Germany: recently, Mr Reda has witnessed a surge in the numbers of students who want to study medicine in Germany – possibly due to the additional restrictions recently placed on a UK student visa, or the ease with which students can do clinical studies in Germany.

New players in Lebanon

The growing demand for Turkey and Germany appears to indicate that Lebanese students are studying in a more diverse group of countries. This development may become accelerated as new providers enter the market with attractive programme offerings at an affordable cost, and as they begin to recruit Lebanese students actively. For instance, we observed that in October, Lebanon was visited by the Australian immigration minister for the first time since 2001. Although Mr Bowen did not refer to international study specifically, he announced that he did consider his visit “an opportunity to broadly discuss Australia's migration and temporary visa programmes.”

Summer programmes

While higher education accounts for a large segment of the Lebanese education market, this outward-looking culture also sustains a strong and enduring demand for other sectors. Healthy numbers of young Lebanese continue to attend summer programmes abroad, particularly those located in Spain and the UK. This sector appeals particularly to younger learners, between 13 and 17 years old. Mr Reda expect this demand to continue for the foreseeable future.

Language schools

The language school market also appears to be flourishing. Most students continue to choose English; however, there is an increasing demand for other languages, especially German and Italian, reflecting the growing appeal of a wider range of study destinations. Due to the substantial difference in cost between domestic language schools and study abroad, many Lebanese students employ a simple strategy: they complete most of their language studies at home; subsequently, they travel abroad for a final year of intensive language study to fine-tune their language skills.

Online learning in Lebanon and the Arab world

In contrast to classroom language instruction, online language learning has very limited appeal in Lebanon. Lebanese culture has yet to embrace this form of learning, and many students are suspicious about the legitimacy and utility of online courses.

In fact, apprehensions about online learning are widespread throughout the Middle East, with many Arab governments reluctant to recognise certifications earned online. A shift in attitudes will clearly take time to develop.

Growth opportunities

With an internationally-minded population that exhibits a growing interest in a variety of destinations and sectors, Lebanon shows much potential as a source of international students – a point that Mr Reda was eager to stress: “anyone with the financial capacity to study abroad will do so.” Mr Reda believes that young Lebanese share a widespread desire to raise their standard of living, which will inevitably have a positive impact on international student recruitment:

“Young people here have the desire for a better life. This trend will continue and demand will increase, especially for emerging markets like Turkey.”

Considering the strength and potential of the Lebanese market, what are some ways that educators and providers can assist and attract students from Lebanon?

English proficiency tests and cultural factors

Currently, recruitment to English-speaking countries may be undermined by a bottleneck in the form of IELTS and TOEFL testing dates. These language proficiency tests are offered at a handful of centres throughout the country, and take place every 2 or 3 months. Available spots are filled quickly, and are not nearly enough to meet demand. Many students are invariably turned back, and are required to take the exam at a later date. The current system is particularly unfriendly to those students who decide to study abroad at a late point in time – which is, in turn, particularly inconvenient for a culture in which people are unaccustomed to making decisions far in advance.

To show more sensitivity towards Lebanese students and, ultimately, to grow enrolments, educators and service providers are encouraged to consider increasing the number and frequency of English language proficiency test dates.

The role of agents

In fact, students in Lebanon are not only liable to make spontaneous decisions – many of them are not even aware of the options available to them. In Mr Reda's experience, many Lebanese students graduate from high school without a clear idea of their future. Of those who are even aware of the possibility of study abroad, many are baffled by the application process, while others are deterred by visa requirements. To address this lack of understanding, local agencies attempt to educate students and their guardians by means of seminars, which are ultimately aimed to raise awareness about the possibility of study abroad. These seminars are one example of the way in which local agents can provide the crucial link between international institutions and prospective applicants in Lebanon. Due to their position “on the ground,” these agents know the barriers that institutions need to overcome in order to promote themselves successfully to Lebanese students. In the University World News report about funding for Syrian students, the author notes that “the initiative's success relies on ensuring that threatened Syrian students and scholars are made aware of what opportunities are available.” Perhaps the same could be said about recruitment in Lebanon as well.

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