Destination search trends of students from the Middle East: A Canadian perspective 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 overreliance 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 the 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 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 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 recognized grouping. As such, the trends covered here will be focused on student demand from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

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. This results in strong demand for an overseas higher education experience, particularly in Canada, the USA and the UK. 

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 students in the region.” 

This enduring popularity, for two destinations in particular, is shown 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 an Academic Subject Search, indicating strong intent to study in the top four destination countries. 

Share of Middle East student destination demand between Australia, Canada, UK and USA, January 1 – August 8, 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. 

Observing the relative popularity of Canada and the UK for students on our websites, Rohan reflected that “Canada and the UK are certainly key destinations which have been popular among students from our region, especially those that are self-funded. Across the pandemic, students and parents have kept a close track to the communications and the developments in terms of travel updates arising from the two destinations, which remained favourable and open to international students”. Rohan’s experience indicates that the policies and communication strategies of these two destinations during the pandemic has enabled them to build on their pre-existing international reputations and deliver demand throughout periods of international student 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 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 factor into their study abroad plan. This is important and necessary to ensure that the destinations remain competitive in this space.”

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 Canada has a key opportunity to both grow and diversify its presence there.

Kuwait spends heavily on improvements to its education system; their allocated budget for the 2019/20 fiscal year was around CAD $9 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.

Qatar also represents key opportunities for broadening regional diversity with its significant scholarships for study abroad countries. Qatar also arguably represents students with the strongest financial means, having the highest per capita GDP in the region, and ranking in the top 15 in the world. The combination of its wealth and scholarship provisions make Qatar a market with significant potential.

Conclusion: tips for an effective regional strategy

Our student data and insights from Rohan show that Canada has a strong basis from which to grow its presence in all countries in the Middle East thanks to its open border and vaccine policies for international students and a positive in-market perception born from consistent communication. However, to further grow its position in the market in the fact of strong competition from the UK and an expected USA recovery, Canada must continue to invest time and effort into communicating to the market its position and prioritising supporting students, needs and expectations.

Rohan advises that students in the Middle East strongly value “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.” Canada 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 Canadian 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.” He warns that institutions must also be aware of “a decline in overall government scholarships in the region on account of decline in oil prices globally. This has put pressure on government budget allocations, which includes sponsoring students to study abroad, so they are looking at cost-effective options as well.” With travel restrictions currently among their lightest in Canada compared to other destinations, there is significant 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 Canadian education, should feature strongly in Canada institutions’ regional messaging, and should be supported by data-informed portfolio development that ensures regional student subject demand is being met.  

Finally, after the turbulence, challenges and uncertainty of the past 18 months, Canada 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 Eastern students and further build on Canada’s reputation, Rohan advises that “Students from the region needs to feel welcomed, and they look for support especially in their transition to the university. Beyond that, internship and career opportunities are key, therefore so is how institutions relay this message.”

IDP Connect has its finger on the pulse of international student motivations, perceptions and behaviour across the world. From our in-country teams of 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 markets effectively. For more information on how our data and in-country teams can support your institution’s international recruitment objectives, reach out to us here:

Ella Grimwade
Ella Grimwade17 August 2021

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