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Middle Eastern Students Abroad: In Numbers

Middle Eastern Students Abroad: In Numbers main image

The past decade and a half has seen immense growth in the number of Middle Eastern students completing at least part of their university education abroad. This trend has been fuelled by government sponsorship schemes, exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s huge King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which is set to run until at least 2020.

While this is both the largest and best-known such scheme, many other Middle Eastern nations – including Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Oman, Libya and Iraq – operate similar initiatives, in recognition of the long-term economic benefits of boosting access to world-leading universities and international experience. And as perceptions of the benefits of studying abroad grow, the number of self-funded international students from the region has also increased.

As the total number of internationally mobile students climbs each year, Middle Eastern nations are not only keeping pace, but increasing their proportional representation. According to the latest available UNESCO data on international student mobility (from 2012), Saudi Arabia was the world’s fifth largest country of origin for those studying abroad and Iran the tenth – accounting for 62,500 and 51,600 students abroad respectively.

Middle Eastern students in the US

In the US, the world’s leading host of international students, the number of enrolments from the Middle East and North Africa has more than tripled since 2000, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). In 2013/14, the number of students from Middle Eastern countries increased by more than 20% compared to the previous academic year, much faster than the overall rate of 8% growth.

Overall, students from the Middle East now constitute almost 10% of all international students in the US. Saudi Arabia is by far the Middle East’s leading sender; accounting for 6% of all international students in the US, it is the fourth leading country of origin (behind China, India and South Korea), while Iran is the 12th and Kuwait 21st.

Middle Eastern Students in the US

Based on data from Open Doors 2014, IIE [i]

Country of origin

2014/13

2012/13

% change

Saudi Arabia

53,919

44,566

+21%

Iran

10,194

8,744

+17%

Kuwait

7,288

5,115

+43%

United Arab Emirates

2,784

2,256

+23%

Israel

2,457

2,430

+1%

Jordan

2,148

2,109

+2%

Iraq

1,491

1,074

+39%

Oman

1,504

980

+54%

Lebanon

1,367

1,266

+8%

Qatar

1,191

994

+20%

Syria

693

505

+37%

Bahrain

467

459

+2%

Yemen

440

353

+25%

Palestinian Territories

429

319

+35%

Total

86,372

71,170

+21%

 

Middle Eastern students in the UK

In the UK – the world’s second-leading destination for international students – Saudi Arabia is again the Middle East’s largest sending nation. As of 2013/14, UK universities were hosting 9,060 students from Saudi Arabia (a slight decrease from the previous year), making it the seventh leading place of origin for non-EU students in the UK. Overall, 27,520 students from the Middle East were studying in the UK last year, constituting just over 6% of all international students in the UK. This represents a 4% increase compared to 2012/13, a growth rate slower than that seen in the US, but again above the average.

International Students in the UK

Based on data from the HESA Student Record [ii]

Region of domicile

2014/13

2012/13

% change

Other European Union (EU) countries

125,300

125,290

-

Other Europe

19,525

18,610

+5%

Africa

35,095

34,160

+3%

Asia

192,540

186,545

+3%

Australasia

2,580

2,505

+3%

Middle East

27,520

26,380

+4%

North America

27,340

26,920

+2%

South America

5,310

4,345

+22%

Unknown

285

505

-44%

Total

435,495

425,265

+2%

 

Regional hubs remain a popular choice

While Middle Eastern students are among the fastest-growing groups in leading international study destinations, the past few decades have also seen a rise in the popularity of regional education hubs such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The latest UNESCO statistics show that in 2012, 26% of internationally mobile students from Arab states stayed within the region – compared to just 12% in 1999 – and the UAE (specifically Dubai) overtook the UK to become the third-leading destination for Arab students abroad, behind France and the US.

As the table below demonstrates, there is significant variation between Middle Eastern nations when it comes to trends in students’ destinations. While more than two-thirds of Saudi Arabian students abroad are in either the US or UK, countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq see far more of their mobile students staying within the region.

Middle Eastern Students Abroad

Based on UNESCO data (2012) [iii]

Country of origin

Number of students abroad

% of all mobile students

Top destination countries

Saudi Arabia

62,535

1.8%

US (33,066); UK (9,773); Australia (5,392); Jordan (3,295); Canada (3,168)

Iran

51,549

1.5%

Malaysia (8,170); US (6,763); UK (3,372); UAE (3,167); Italy (2,975)

Syria

18,222

0.5%

Saudi Arabia (6,627); UAE (4,360); Jordan (1,990); France (1,828); Germany (1,570)

Palestine

17,637

0.5%

Jordan (7,337); UAE (3,875); Saudi Arabia (3,687); Qatar (840); Malaysia (376)

Jordan

16,825

0.5%

UAE (4,604); Saudi Arabia (3,453); US (1,997); Ukraine (1,943); UK (1,394)

Yemen

14,943

0.4%

Saudi Arabia (7,610); Malaysia (3,090); UAE (2,223); Jordan (843); Qatar (694)

Iraq

14,465

0.4%

Jordan (2,959); UAE (2,386); Malaysia (1,782); UK (1,251); India (957)

Israel

13,858

0.4%

Jordan (2,876); US (2,412); Italy (1,619); Germany (1,533); Republic of Moldova (1,433)

Lebanon

13,089

0.4%

France (4,567); UAE (1,326); US (1,308); Saudi Arabia (1,189); Italy (793)

Kuwait

10,686

0.3%

US (3,605); UK (1,816); Jordan (1,722); UAE (1,053); Saudi Arabia (671)

Oman

10,049

0.3%

United Arab Emirates (5,258); UK (1,202); Jordan (1,079); US (521)
Australia (486)

United Arab Emirates

8,526

0.2%

UK (3,089); US (2,031); Australia (1,133); India (748); Canada (255)

Bahrain

4,096

0.1%

UK (1,112); Jordan (673); UAE (535)

Qatar

3,410

0.1%

UK (1,252); US (948); UAE (434)

 

As overall international student mobility continues to grow, it seems likely that the coming years will see the number of Middle Eastern students abroad continue to climb, putting the region increasingly on the radar of universities’ international recruitment offices. At the same time, the region’s own institutions are gaining greater global recognition. The past six months have seen several consultations and pilot editions of Arab-region university tables, including a pilot ranking from QS, which was topped by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


[i] “International Student Totals by Place of Origin, 2012/13-2013/14”; Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International Education (IIE). Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors

[ii] “Data on students from overseas studying in the UK at HE providers”; HESA Student Record 2015, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Retrieved from https://www.hesa.ac.uk

[iii] “Global flow of tertiary-level students”; UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.uis.unesco.org/

Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversees the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edits the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributes to market research reports including How Do Students Use Rankings?

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