International Higher Education

Saudi Students in Canada Looking to Other Key Markets

The ongoing diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada has sparked a pronounced spike in searches by Canada-based users visiting the Hotcourses Middle East (HCME) website, a dramatic decrease in Canada’s market share on the same site and an increase of market share for other key markets.

Using the international insights tool (known for tracking the online activity of 69 million users across key student sites around the world), our data team detected the surge in searches just days after the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister posted the controversial tweet that led to the Saudi government ordering state-funded Saudi students to terminiate their studies in Canada.

HCME Users Based in Canada

We’ve taken a look at searches coming from HCME users based in Canada and compared the datasets between 22 July-5 August (predominantly before the tweet) to 6-20 August (after the tweet). Around the 7th of August, search activity on HCME increased dramatically by 384% within four days of the Canadian minister posting the tweet. This trend suggests that students from the Middle East who are currently studying in Canada were actively researching alternative study destinations around the world.

The tool also reveals that the top searched subjects on HCME at institutions in Canada for the second dataset (post-tweet) were Health & Medicine, Engineering and Computer Science & IT.

Canada Saudi

HCME users based in Canada. Note the spike in searches on the 7th of August, days after the tweet was posted.

Yausra Abbas, the Marketing Executive of HCME says: “It is not surprising that HCME is seeing an increase in sessions. Saudi students are the number one users of Hotcourses Middle East – with the current circumstances, it makes sense that they’re searching for information on alternative studying options, staying in Canada or trying to find loopholes that may allow them to continue their studies in Canada. In response, we’ll be producing an article this month on HCME that provides Saudi students with tips and ways to cope with the situation.”

Key Market Shares: HCME Users in Canada

Comparing the same datasets as mentioned above for HCME users based in Canada, there was a sharp drop in market share in searches to Canada, while other key destination markets all saw increases. Before the tweet was posted, Canada had 64.6% of overall market share on HCME (Canada-based users), but afterwards, it dropped to 22%. The most pronounced increases in market share were for the USA jumping from 9.9% to 23.5%, Australia up from 2.9% to 18.3% and the UK moving from 7.9% to 18.7%. In a matter of days, Canada has gone from being a clear market leader to being on a par with other markets.

Canada and Saudi Arabia dispute

Lexie Axel-Berg, Head of Client Partnerships Hotcourses Canada, says: “The overall response from international offices at Canadian universities has been concern for the wellbeing of their Saudi students rather than concern about the loss of recruitment numbers.

“The timing of the incident has caused big problems for admissions and recruitment teams who are trying to help their students find alternative arrangements, whether that’s by deferring their offer until the next recruitment year, or fast-tracking requests for transcripts to enable students to apply elsewhere for the fall semester.

“The reality is that it’s unlikely many of these students will find an alternative option in time for this September and will be looking to make alternative plans for 2019 – whether that’s by waiting it out or looking to apply elsewhere as our data indicates.

“It’s clear that there is a sense of grief for these affected students, who’ve been caught up in a political crisis. The sentiment from the universities and colleges I’ve spoken to is that they will be working hard to ensure that all students from Saudi, and the Middle East, who are interested in coming to Canada continue to feel welcomed and supported in their decision.”

Key Market Shares: HCME Users based in the Middle East

While the shifts in market shares are more pronounced among HCME users based in Canada, trends seen among HCME users based in the Middle East are also striking. Looking at the same datasets, Canada is the only destination that has seen a marked drop in search-based market share compared to other key destinations such as the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Canada and Saudi Arabia dispute

Highly-responsive Reactions

The correlation between the Saudi/ Canada matter and the pronounced reactions detected on HCME via the insights tool suggest that students are highly responsive to international politics and quick to change course. We saw similar reactions on the insights tool in January 2017 when the Trump administration issued a travel ban on select countries, predominantly based in the Middle East. As soon as the executive order was given, demand coming from Iran to the US plummeted within the month, while Canada saw a steep increase in searches.

Trump travel ban

Ever-evolving Playing Field

This type of real-time data reflects the fast pace of change, allowing institutions to identify new opportunities and threats, and to inform marketing strategies. For example, the US presidential election of November 2016 led to a significant  year-on-year decrease (pre and post elections) in searches to the US coming from HCME. This also meant that market share to Canada increased by almost double. While it’s hard to know what the long-term repercussions will be of the Saudi/ Canada saga, it’s likely that the US and other key markets will continue to see increased interest from the Middle East until the matter is resolved.

Aaron Porter, Director of Policy at Hotcourses Group concludes: “When politics and higher education collide, the consequences can be profound. Putting to one side the diplomatic issues, these tensions have a material impact on the experience for these Saudi students in Canada. Canada has enjoyed seismic growth from most international markets over the last few years, fuelled by the open, liberal approach from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. That their liberal, interventionist approach has caused an issue with Saudi Arabia will of course be an issue for the students concerned, but more generally it reinforces Canada as a destination as an open, liberal destination which will remain immensely popular with students from other countries.”

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