Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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The new shape of Saudi demand for study abroad

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Saudi Arabia is changing from a market driven by scholarships to one fuelled by a growing demand among self-funded students
  • Even with that shift, many of the proven strategies for recruiting in the Kingdom remain true today as the outlook strengthens for Saudi outbound in 2022 and 2023

The total number of Saudi Arabian students abroad has declined from a high point in 2016, at which time there were more than 100,000 students enrolled outside of the country. Leaving aside the more recent effects of the pandemic, that decline is directly tied to the winding down of the landmark King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP). At its peak, KASP sent tens of thousands of students to the US, and very significant numbers to Canada, the United Kingdom, and other leading destinations as well.

The programme has now been replaced with smaller, more targeted scholarships for Saudi students, but the market continues to show its strength in the post-KASP era and appears poised as well for a strong recovery from the challenges of COVID-19.

In 2019, there were still roughly 70,000 Saudi students abroad, buoyed in part by some continuing scholarship support from government but also by a growing cohort of self-funded students.

“Saudi Arabia was always a sponsored market,” explains Ayman Abdelhafez, the managing director of Saudi agency Sindibad. “The government offered huge scholarships to students and created a great interest in study abroad. Now, even after the government has limited those scholarships, many students still want to go abroad for their degrees.”

That culture of study abroad is further encouraged by the country’s large and youthful population, and by income levels that can certainly support growing numbers of self-funded students abroad. Within a population of about 35 million, there are more than five million 15-to-24-year-olds, many of whom are preparing for higher education.

Multiple scholarships

Speaking at the hybrid ICEF Dubai event this week, Mr Abdelhafez described how the KASP programme has given way to a number of smaller scholarships for Saudi students.

“The KASP programme was the dominant scholarship programme in the Gulf region, and indeed in the world. It was a very generous programme, allowing students to study in language programmes or any other foundation studies required in addition to their degrees.”

He added that in the late-2010s, the Saudi government started looking for a different direction for its scholarship programmes and in the process made a much stronger connection between the type of scholarship support students were getting and the careers they would pursue in Saudi Arabia after their studies.

This has led to a number of targeted scholarships in specific professional fields, including, for example, health sciences, and to a broader programme called the Path of Excellence Scholarships. POE scholarship support is available to top Saudi students only, and to those who can demonstrate their readiness (via IELTS or TOEFL scores) to begin academic studies abroad without any further language or foundation study.

The top destinations for scholarship students remain the leading English-speaking destinations – notably the US, UK, Canada, and Australia – but student are also funded for studies elsewhere, including Europe in destinations such as France or Germany.

The importance of Ministry approval

This has been true in Saudi Arabia for some time, but institutions hoping to receive Saudi students must ensure that they, and their specific degree programmes, are on the list of approved study options for the Saudi Ministry of Education.

These lists are administered through the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, and the SACM is always the first stop for any institutions or schools who wish to be added to the approved list.

Getting on that approved list is a critical step in receiving both scholarship and self-funded students. “Self-funded students cannot study and get recognition for their degree unless the university is on the [approved] list,” notes Mr Abdelhafez. And the significance of this arises in turn from a broader pattern for Saudi students, in that the majority will complete their degree programmes abroad and then return to the Kingdom afterward.

A growing cohort

Going forward, it is that expanding pool of self-funded students that can be expected to drive outbound growth over the long-term. “We need to look at the market a different way,” says Mr Abdelhafez. “Let’s focus on self-funded students. This is the real market right now in Saudi Arabia, and also the most stable market. It’s not a market that gets changed by a [funding] decision from the government.”

Mansour Almudaifier, manager of the education agency Pro Student, expanded on that forecast in a separate session at ICEF Dubai.

“We are expecting 2022 to be a return to business year. We have accepted to live with COVID-19, and expect it not to impact the travel industry as it did in 2020 as most of the population is fully vaccinated.”

He added, “Students are still keen to study abroad, and full of optimism for the opportunities we have on the table for them. We expect [outbound] numbers to be back to normal, if not more, within the next two years.”

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