Understanding Saudi Arabian Student Recruitment

Date posted: September 12, 2014

Saudi Arabia map student recruitment

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Saudi Arabia? If you said “oil” you wouldn’t be alone, as the largest Arab nation in the Middle East sits on more than a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, generating enormous wealth accounting for close to 90 percent of its export earnings and government revenues. However, in recent years the Saudi government has intensified its efforts to diversify the economy away from oil in order to promote sustainable economic growth and job creation, including significant investments in education. For many colleges and universities throughout the world, Saudi Arabia represents not only a prominent source of international students but also significant untapped international student recruitment potential.

Today’s Saudi education system is open to all citizens and provides students with free education, books and health services. Reformists believe the system’s traditional focus on religious and Arabic studies, and passive learning, hasn’t adequately prepared young people to thrive in the modern economy or produced necessary quantities of engineers, scientists, economists and lawyers. The $54.4 billion earmarked for education in 2013 accounted for about a quarter of total budgetary allocation and was 21% higher than in 2012, signaling an urgency to improve academic outcomes.

The ambitious King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) was initiated in 2005 (and has been extended to 2020) to provide full funding for approximately 125,000 students to study abroad each year in addition to:

  • A monthly stipend for living expenses
  • 100% health insurance for students and dependents
  • Coverage of costs for attending conferences, workshops, scientific field trips
  • Bench fees provided to institution for research materials (up to $5,000 for Master’s and up to $10,000 for PhD)
  • Merit awards for academic achievements
  • Round-trip tickets home annually.

Its stated goal is to prepare Saudi nationals for better jobs, reducing the country’s high unemployment levels, but King Abdullah also aims to create a more open society, building bridges with international organizations and communities. A recent study reported in the Saudi Gazette and ICEF Monitor found that 70% of Saudi parents prefer their children enrolled in international primary or secondary schools with international curriculums and contemporary teaching methods that develop proficiency in English and other foreign languages, no doubt swayed by news that 95% of recent international prizes had gone to students of private and international schools.

Growing Demand for International Education

In only a short time, Saudi Arabia has become one of the top four source countries of international students, alongside China, India and South Korea. International mobility for Saudi students tripled between 2000 and 2010, with 90% funded by scholarships. Besides such significant government funding and growing demand for international education, an estimated 58% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 25 – one of the highest youth demographics in the world. The US is easily the most popular destination country, currently hosting over 100,000 Saudi students in colleges and English language schools according to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM, the intermediary between US institutions and the Saudi government), a 30% increase in enrollment in 2013 over the previous year.

Saudi Arabia campus algonquinSource: Algonquin College

Receiving over 11% of all Saudi scholarship students, Canada is the third most popular destination (after the UK), attractive for its lower tuition fees and cost of living, easier visa access, multiculturalism, and its perceived safe and welcoming environment. The 16,000 Saudi students pursuing higher education in Canada is expected to increase as cross-cultural relations improve and more colleges and universities are added to the KASP-approved list. The Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau (SACB) in Ottawa welcomes all large and small Canadian institutions to contact them about exploring opportunities for collaborative success.

Whereas the first recipients of the KASP were predominantly medical students, today’s Saudi Arabians abroad are most likely to be pursuing science, engineering and business administration training. Participants in the program must study in approved fields of study, maintain high grades and return to Saudi Arabia upon completion. Saudi students have proportionately more limited English skills than other national groups and so rigorous ESL courses are an essential first exposure to life abroad.

The generous scholarship program includes 12 to 18 months of language training before embarking on an approved four-year academic program, and Intensive English Programs (IEPs) are so popular with Saudi Arabians that many language schools are having difficulty maintaining their desired enrollment diversity. For effective academic preparation, it may be necessary to expand these programs to include additional conversation practice or customized preparation for specific fields of study such as engineering, as schools like Arizona State University have done.

ieche sacb canadian saudi arabia recruitmentSource: Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in Canada

Recruiting in Saudi Arabia

The range of countries and higher ed institutions covered by KASP has continued to expand but becoming an eligible school may require persistence. Negotiations with the SACM or SACB for approval often begin at education conferences, before meeting their strict requirements, including regional accreditation, degree programs offered and percentage of international students on campus. SACM is now recommending that schools accept student bookings directly or via their organization, rather than commission-based agencies.

The International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education (IECHE) is held annually in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), providing an ideal opportunity for discussions leading to bilateral agreements, collaborations in academics and research, student and faculty exchanges, and joint programs. Delegates from Canadian colleges and universities may choose to attend the SACB’s Saudi National Day event in Ottawa on September 23rd or the annual graduation ceremony and accompanying career fair for KASP recipients.

Schools shouldn’t risk overly relying on KASP approval in their student recruitment efforts at the risk of neglecting the estimated 13% of independently funded Saudi students. When researching prospective higher education destinations, these students are more likely to focus first on geographic location and existing support networks.

Example: McGill University leverages its lofty international reputation with targeted pages for Chinese, Brazilian, Indian and Saudi Arabian students that feature helpful links, its participation at the IECHE in Riyadh, the top five reasons to come to McGill (including the number of existing Saudi international students), and persuasive testimonials in both English and Arabic.

saudi arabian student recruitment mcgill

Social Media Marketing

Internet access came late to Saudi Arabia but it has spread like wildfire in the past few years, with young Saudi students increasingly using social media, mostly on mobile phones like their peers throughout the world. YouTube is hugely popular in this nation of 31 million, with each internet user watching an average of 7 videos per day, as are Facebook (7.8 million users in 2013, 74% men) and Twitter (1.9 million active users, 73% accessed on mobiles), according to a recent study. Saudi Arabia boasts the world’s highest penetration of the microblog, and one university professor remarked, “If I send my students an assignment, I have to tweet to tell them to check their inboxes!” LinkedIn has reached 1 million users, of which 87% are men.

There are more than two active mobile phones for every person in Saudi Arabia – so mobile better be a big part of any social media marketing. A third of Saudi Facebook users are mobile only. Interestingly, only 49% of Facebook content is written in Arabic while 59% use English. Twitter didn’t even have an Arabic language interface until March 2012 but now 90% of tweets in the region are in Arabic. A bilingual marketing strategy makes sense here, where the younger generation has aspirations of English-language study and travel despite 90% of the country unable to understand English.

Cultural Considerations

The predominance of male users on Saudi social media highlights prevailing issues of gender inequality and other cultural challenges that colleges must be prepared for. Although fewer than 15% of Saudi women work outside the home, the times are changing and 73% of the eighth phase of the KASP are female, though they all need the permission of a male relative and must travel with a male companion. Education and most daily life in Saudi Arabia is gender segregated and male students abroad might initially avoid eye contact with female professors.

The collectivist, family-dominated culture of Saudi Arabia often carries over to North American campuses. Cultural predisposition to negotiation can be intimidating for some instructors when discussing marks and tight social cliques may impede personal development. A higher rate of academic dishonesty has been observed among Saudi students, particularly during English training, and schools must create and communicate strict policies to ensure fairness. An effective orientation program will address different learning expectations while introducing important campus resources to mitigate culture shock.

Although Saudis tend to group together, Lauren Cullen, Admissions Officer at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, says that they happily leave their comfort zone to try activities like skating. Khalid Al-Khudair was inspired by his experience at Saint Mary’s to initiate an award-winning recycling program that has since spread throughout Saudi Arabia and another recent alumnus returned home to establish an e-portal career gateway for women called glowork. Mike Henniger, associate director of international marketing at Thompson Rivers University in BC, which has about 400 KASP students, enthuses that there has been an “incredible” cultural impact on campus. The university trained staff about cultural issues and now has an Arabic speaker on staff.

diversity campus tru student recruitment

Partnerships and Opportunities

There remains much opportunity for colleges and universities to develop beneficial relations with Saudi Arabia and increase international enrollment. Saudis are eager to learn English overseas to the point that travel and tourism agencies are capitalizing on demand. Language is the main barrier for most Saudis to pass admissions exams and there is a need for higher quality language schools in Saudi Arabia.

Other emerging opportunities include e-learning and technical training. Saudi Arabia is one of the fastest growing countries in terms of e-learning, which is allowing house-bound women and widely scattered rural populations new empowerment opportunities. The Kingdom is meanwhile opening 27 new technical colleges this month with the help of major international service providers, allowing four million Saudi grads to enter the job market over the next ten years.

Algonquin College overcame fierce competition from over 120 bidders earlier this year for the honour of operating new female and male campuses in Saudi Arabia. Students at its campuses would first enroll in a preparatory year program for foundational courses and English language training before continuing studies in business, technology or gender-specific trade-related programs.

algonquin saudi arabia international

Along with governmental alliances, digital marketing is the most effective path to Saudi Arabian student recruitment. Multilingual microsites or subdomains with localized content that is easily digestible by parents and extended family is one potential strategy for engaging with international audiences, highlighting the admissions process while anticipating and overcoming common concerns. As the world’s top YouTube nation, targeted videos demonstrating campus life would appeal to Saudi Arabian prospects, linking to Facebook and Twitter platforms. Saudi Arabia’s young population is rapidly become one of the most internet-savvy and outward-looking of emerging international markets, providing excellent opportunities for expanding your recruitment base as it pursues its own modernization.

How has your school pursued Saudi Arabian student recruitment?