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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 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 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 as a region 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 focus 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. These factors result 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 Manager for the Middle East and Africa at IDP Education, “The US, Canada and UK continue to remain popular among the students in the region in general.”

This enduring popularity 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 – 8 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 % share of demand was almost parallel, the UK even having the greater % 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 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 the travel updates arising from the two destinations which remained favorable 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 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.” Recent Trends and their implications Over the past month, Canada has increased its market share at the expense of the UK. This decline for the UK compared to Canada may be policy related, and it may also be an indication that many students aiming for a Fall 2021 start will largely have completed their top-of-funnel research and begun their applications. This suggests that a larger share of the traffic is focused on 2022 intakes, including the January start, where the two destinations with an established course commencement period are Canada and Australia.

However, even if the percentage share increase of Canada is in part due to students looking further ahead, all destination countries should be taking steps to both grow market awareness and nurture current leads as the next several months will prove critical for the upcoming intake. Rohan notes that, “The region is particularly a late market as students tend to make decisions within a month of the intake as well. The results of the local curriculum, known as Thanawiya Al-Amma, are out around the end of July each year, which would be time to target conversions for local students. However, for other international curriculums such as CBSE/IB/A Levels, the period July-August is a key period.”

While final decision making may take place in July and August, Rohan also emphasized the importance of developing connections with students over a prolonged period in order to be top of mind when students make their final decisions. As such, all four destination countries need to be considering their future intakes now. According to Rohan, “Considering that there are various local and international curriculums being offered in the region, the recruitment could potentially kick off 12 months ahead of the actual intake. For this reason, the IDP regional Expo are positioned to take place twice a year in March/April (Spring) followed by Autumn (Sep/Oct), giving institutions a key opportunity to begin their connection and relationship with students in the region.”

USA demand broken down

Although the USA is currently considerably behind the UK and Canada in terms of share of regional demand, Rohan remains optimistic about the destination’s prospects in the region. “With regards to the US, there is certainly a lot of positives. The destination is one of the leading countries for the vaccination rollout which stands at over 50% of its population having been fully vaccinated. In addition, the latest trend we are seeing on the ground is that there has been a gradual increase in the interest for US so they are picking up momentum. However, much needs to be done by the US institutions to capitalize on this momentum if they are to further accelerate. Engagement remains the key to take advantage of this unique period.”

For the USA to effectively engage with the regional market, institution must understand where their current demand is coming from in order to identify areas of strength and growth opportunities.

Middle East student demand for the USA by country, 1 January – 1 August 2021

Of all four destination countries, the USA’s Middle Eastern international student demand is the most dominated by Saudi Arabian students, who frequently constituted over 60% of the regional demand for the country. As a result of this significant skew, despite the larger population of Saudi Arabia, the USA is arguably unbalanced in terms of where the regional demand is coming from and vulnerable to any fluctuations in Saudi Arabian demand. Over the last month, the UAE has grown its percentage share of the USA’s regional demand largely at the expense of Saudi Arabia, but these trends would need to be more consistent to reflect a more balanced regional breakdown for the US. Interestingly, despite Qatar having the larger population, Kuwait has taken up a larger percentage share of the US’s regional demand for most of the year. However, both of these countries represent an opportunity for the US to diversify when seeking greater engagement with the Middle East market.

Middle East student demand for the USA by city, 1 January – 1 August 2021

The concentration of regional student demand in a small pool of students is also demonstrated at the city level, with three of the US’s top five cities in terms of Middle Eastern student demand located in Saudi Arabia, contributing to a combined 56.61% of searches for the US. Interestingly, while Kuwait is third in terms of country-level percentage share of demand for the US, behind the UAE, the City of Kuwait contributes more student searches for the USA than any city in the UAE. This discrepancy between country level demand and city level demand demonstrates the impact highly targeted campaigns can have on securing student interest in a region. When seeking to increase engagement with the region, the US should seek to use local connections in key student hubs as well as highly targeted digital marketing to grow its presence in cities with strong demand, but also to establish itself as a destination in cities where it has less current demand but huge growth opportunity due to high student populations, such as many in the UAE and Qatar.

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. To ensure the best regional outcomes, both now and in the future, institutions need insight into the subject trends of the region, down to the city and sub-discipline level, for both undergraduate and graduate students. These insights are available exclusively to institutions through our IQ subscription service, which utilizes 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 Eastern 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 USA 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 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 and the USA are the favored destinations, occupying a combined 86% of the overall scholarships offered in 2021/22, of which the USA takes up 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 landing in the top 15 highest in the world. The combination of its wealth, scholarship provisions, and strong intent for overseas study that favors destinations like the UK and USA make Qatar a market with significant potential.

Conclusion: tips for an effective regional strategy

Our student data and insights from Rohan show that the USA has strong competition from Canada and the UK but also a strong basis from which to grow its presence in all countries in the region. After disruptions from COVID and former travel bans, the USA is now well on its way to a strong recovery through its more welcoming rhetoric regarding international students, its strong academic reputation, and an increasingly positive in-market perception. However, to further grow its position in the market in the face of strong competition from the UK and Canada, the USA must invest time and effort into communicating to the market and prioritizing supporting students’ needs and expectations.

Rohan advises that students in the Middle East strongly prioritize “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.” The USA is in a prime position to deliver on many of the key priorities and motivations of Middle Eastern students, so institutions must both work to ensure these criteria are met and express these key benefits of US 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 students are looking at cost effective options as well.” There is potential for the upcoming intake to have a strong late conversion in the Middle East. Looking further ahead, maintaining communication regarding travel status for students in the Middle East, as well as promoting the quality, value, financial support and postgraduate potential of an American education should feature strongly in US 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, the USA 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 the US’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 for self-funded students and their parents are key, therefore so is how institutions can relay this message.”

IDP Connect has its finger on the pulse of international student motivations, perceptions and behavior 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 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 at us.info@idp-connect.com.

Ella Grimwade
Ella Grimwade11 August 2021