IDP Connect | Middle Eastern student demand for study destinations | UK focus Skip to main content

Achieving and maintaining a diverse international student population has shown increasing importance for higher education institutions in recent years. Looking beyond the obvious cultural, intellectual and social benefits of a diverse student body, the impact of political fallout, travel bans and global events on those institutions with an over reliance on one or two source markets has been felt most heavily. The past 18 months have proven a warning sign that in the future resilience will be synonymous with diversity in an ever-changing higher education landscape.

As institutions increasingly turn their attention to entering or enhancing their presence in new markets, information on regional variation in students’ priorities, and barriers, for overseas travel is key to success. Equally important is an understanding of the current global map of destination demand for a particular region, and what institutions can do to grow their market share.

In this article, we will share this key information for a region with significant potential growth, the Middle East. Using IDP Connect's unique data and insights from the region’s Associate Director of Destination Management Rohan Rego, this article will provide critical insight into the current state of play for Middle Eastern student demand and the unique characteristics of students from the region regarding their higher education goals.

Given the wide variety of definitions for the Middle East as a region and regarding which countries should be included, for the purposes of this article we will be focusing on the countries included in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an internationally recognised grouping. As such, the trends covered here will focus on student demand from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

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The landscape of Middle East student destination demand in 2021

The Middle East region has a strong history of students studying overseas, with a combination of large expat communities in countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, considerable state financing for international education, and less domestic institution competition for top level students than in other regions, resulting in strong demand for an overseas higher education experience particularly in the UK, USA and Canada.  

Even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its global impact on international students’ ability to study abroad, demand for an international education from the region has continued to hold fast indicating a resilient market. According to Rohan Rego, Associate Director Destination Management for the Middle East and Africa at IDP Education, “The US, Canada and UK continue to remain popular among the students in region in general" indicating that despite the pandemic, there is still strong demand from students to study abroad. 

This enduring popularity, for two destinations in particular, is born out in the IDP Connect IQ data for 2021 so far. The below graph depicts the share of searches from students in the six GCC countries on our international websites that included a Subject Search, indicating strong intent to study, for the four top destination countries. 

Share of Middle East student destination demand between Australia, Canada, UK and USA, 1 January – 1 August 2021

For most of the year so far, Canada has been the destination receiving the strongest Subject Search demand, followed by the UK in a close second. However, between the middle of February and the end of May, the gap between the two top searched destinations decreased significantly until their percentage share of demand was almost parallel, with the UK having the greater percentage share briefly in March.

Observing the relative popularity of Canada and the UK for students shown on our websites, Rohan reflected that “Canada and UK are certainly key destinations which have been popular among students from our region especially self-funded expats. Across the pandemic, students and parents have kept a close track to the communications and the developments in terms of the travel updates arising from the two destinations which remained favourable and continued to remain accessible for travel”. Rohan’s experience indicates that the policies and communication strategies of these two destinations during the pandemic have enabled them to build on their pre-existing international reputations and deliver demand throughout periods of international students’ uncertainty.

The USA’s percentage share of demand has remained fairly consistent through the year so far, although it has failed to gain ground and maintains a considerably lower percentage share of demand than the UK and Canada. In comparison, Australia, which started the year with the lowest share of demand out of the four, has seen its share of searches decline further since the start of the year. Rohan believes that the lack of growth for these two countries, despite having very different 2021 policies regarding international students, is similar. “The other destinations [USA and Australia] have been a bit over cautious in their approach to communicate to international students on how and when they plan to start welcoming them back into their respective countries.” Rohan explains, “The target audience need to have a clear sense of timelines that they can possibly factor in, so this is of importance and the need of the hour to ensure that the destinations remain competitive in this space.”

UK demand broken down

Despite Canada’s recent increase in percentage share, Rohan is positive about how the UK has positioned itself within the Middle East student market both recently and over the past few years. On how the UK’s relationship with the Middle East market has developed, Rohan commented, “The destination [UK] has been flushing out information on a periodic basis right from the announcement of the return of the Graduate Route in Sep 2019 to the latest changes to the student visa, from coming up with a clear roadmap of unveiling the lockdowns and being among the leading country in world in terms of vaccination. The universities have also had a good approach in communicating clear messages to students and being flexible in offering both online and in-person teaching in some instances. This clear action to provide information in an uncertain environment proved to be a game changer and [made the UK] an industry leader.” According to Rohan, it is both the UK’s policies and its clear communication to the market that have enabled the UK to see “growth in a pandemic year that led overall international student UK enrolment numbers to exceed 500,000 for the first time” and has meant that students in the Middle East view the UK “as a destination that truly values the talent and opportunity that it has to offer to students who come to study”. 

In the context of a growing presence in the market and positive perceptions of the UK by students in the Middle East, the destination has a key opportunity to grow in the region and further enhance the diversification of international student populations in the UK. To do so, the UK must understand its current market position regarding where demand is coming from and where opportunities for growth lie.  

The below graphs depict the UK’s regional demand broken down by source country and source city. While Saudi Arabia is the largest contributor of the UK’s demand from the Middle East at between 40%-50%, this is a less dominant share than other destination countries like Australia and the USA. When combined with the UAE, which contributes between 20-30% of demand, the two top source countries from the region make up the majority of regional demand.  

Middle East student demand for the UK by county, 1 January to 1 August 2021 

To have such a heavy reliance on two countries within a region can pose problems, however the demand also reflects population sizes from the respective countries in the group and is therefore less of a concern. That said, Rohan was keen to point out that there is significant growth potential in the other four GCC countries. According to Rohan, “While UAE and KSA remain the key countries from a recruitment point of view, there exists a significant opportunity in other GCC countries such as Kuwait on account of the government scholarships which are offered across UG and PG sectors. This opportunity cannot be ignored for destinations looking to develop their regional recruitment strategies. There exist multiple scholarship bodies in Kuwait, for example, that sponsors local Kuwaiti students, namely the Ministry of Higher Education, Kuwait University, Public Authority of Applied Education and Training to name a few. The Kuwait government is quite keen to continue to sponsor students to the universities approved to the list of distinguished universities across US, Canada UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand.” With considerable student funding and recruitment growth opportunities in some of the smaller countries in the region, the key to unlocking growth potential is local expertise. Institutions would benefit from working with IDPs in-country counsellor teams, who have both a close connection to prospective students and an in-depth understanding of government scholarships provisions.

Turning to city level demand, in line with country level trends the top two cities for UK demand, Riyadh at 20.33% and Jeddah at 19.06%, are both in the top country, Saudi Arabia. However, unlike the country level trends Kuwait City is the third largest city contributor at nearly 12%, above any cities in the UAE despite the latter having considerably more market share at a country level. Indeed, despite the UAE making up around a fifth of the UK’s regional demand, only Dubai made it into the top five cities for UK demand at just under 10%. Doha in Qatar also features in the top five cities for regional demand with 6.74% of searches for the UK originating there.

Middle East student demand for the UK by city, 1 January to 1 August 2021

These discrepancies between the country level and city level demand demonstrates the concentrated nature of student demand within the Middle East region and highlights the importance of highly tailored marketing strategies in addition to the value of an in-country presence that can connect to high-density student populations. IDP has student recruitment offices based in key cities in the region for prospective growth, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Kuwait City and Dubai, offering institutions a key opportunity to establish an in-person and in-country connection with high volumes of quality students.

As we head into a critical month for Middle Eastern student conversion and look ahead to future intakes with a focus on diversity, institutions should look carefully at how and where they present themselves in the Middle East market in order to have the strongest impact. However, to ensure the best regional outcomes, both now and in the future, institutions also need insight into the subject trends of the region, down to a city and sub-discipline level, for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. These insights are available exclusively to institutions through our IQ subscription service, which utilises the world’s largest live student database of actively researching students around the world. More information on these elite student data tools can be found on the IQ page of our website.

Identifying growth opportunities

Across all four destination countries, regional student demand is highly reliant on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Given that the populations of these two countries are significantly larger than the other four in the GCC, focusing Middle East recruitment efforts on these two countries to some extent is a strong strategy, however institutions should not become blind to the opportunities elsewhere in the region and the UK has a key opportunity to both grow and diversify its presence in the region.  

Kuwait spends heavily on improvements to its education system, their allocated budget for the 2019/20 fiscal year was around US $7 billion. 39% of the population in Kuwait is under 24 years of age, so while the country’s population may be smaller than some of its GCC counterparts many are the prime age for higher education. The UK is the favoured study of destination occupying 45% of the overall scholarships offered in 2021/22, although it is followed closely by the USA at 41%.  

Qatar also represents key opportunities for the UK in broadening its regional diversity, also offering significant scholarships for study abroad countries that focus on the US and UK as destinations. Qatar also arguably represents students with the strongest financial means, having the highest per capita GDP in the region and top 15 in the world. The combination of its wealth, scholarship provisions, and strong intent for overseas study that favours destinations like the UK and USA make Qatar a market with significant potential.  

Conclusion: Understanding Middle Eastern students for an effective regional strategy

Our student data and insights from Rohan show that the UK has a strong basis from which to grow its presence in all countries in the region. Our current position is due to the UK’s strong academic reputation, the scholarship systems and destination preferences of the GCC government, the UK’s open border and vaccine policies for international students, and a positive in-market UK perception born from consistent communication with the market. However, to further grow its position in the market in the face of strong competition from Canada and an expected USA recovery, the UK must continue to invest time and effort into communicating to the market its position and prioritise supporting students' needs and expectations.

Rohan advises that students in the Middle East strongly prioritise “having a face-to-face learning opportunity, their safety, the affordability (including scholarship opportunities), and the ability to reskill and upskill”. For students in the Middle East, the prime motivations for studying abroad are “to increase their future career opportunities, whether they are looking to stay in the destination country after their studies or return home, as well as to travel, improve their lifestyle, and to develop new skills.” This goes both for scholarship students, for whom after studying and potentially pursuing a post study work experience the goal is to return home, and the students who come from families of expats and who may seek to settle in their study destination. The UK is in a prime position to deliver on the key priorities and motivation of Middle Eastern students, so must both work to ensure these criteria are met and express these key benefits of UK study to the market.

The main barriers to international study identified by Rohan consist of “the cost of education for some self-funded students and travel restrictions from source countries to destination countries”. With travel restrictions currently among their lightest in the UK compared to other destinations, there is strong potential for the upcoming intake to have a strong late conversion in the Middle East.

Looking further ahead, maintaining communication of travel status for students in the Middle East, as well as promoting the quality, value for money, financial support and postgraduate potential of a UK education should feature strongly in UK institutions’ regional messaging, and should be supported by data-informed portfolio development that ensures regional student subject demand is being met. A subscription to the IQ Demand Tracker dashboard tools would provide institutions with live updates on the data shared here in addition to a breakdown of student trends at a subject and subdiscipline level, providing critical insight for both portfolio development and targeted marketing campaigns.

Finally, after the turbulence, challenges and uncertainty of the past 18 months, the UK must work to ensure that it is giving prospective Middle Eastern students both the reassurance they need now, and the opportunities for a bright future. To best support Middle East students and further build on the UK's reputation, Rohan advises that, “The students from the region need to feel welcomed, included, and they do look for support especially in their transition to the university. Beyond that, internship and careers prospects from a self-funded students’ and parents’ point of view are key, and so too is how their potential institutions can relay this message”. For institutions, leveraging the in-country IDP counsellor network could prove fundamental for effectively establishing a positive connection with the Middle East student market and communicating the most attractive components of courses.

IDP Connect has its finger on the pulse of international student motivations, perceptions and behaviour across the world. From our in-country teams with experts like Rohan engaging with students on a daily basis, to our live global student database of actively researching students and our advanced IQ research team, we can support institutions in responding to student needs and connecting with key international market effectively. For more information on how our data and in-country teams can support your institution’s international recruitment objectives, reach out to us today.

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Find out more details on our IQ services and how they can help you

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Ella Grimwade
Ella Grimwade09 August 2021

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