From the field: The new student recruitment landscape in Saudi Arabia

In 2015/16, Saudi enrolment in US higher education reached nearly 62,000 students. That was enough to place the Kingdom as the third-largest sending market for US colleges and universities that year after only China and India. It also marked a high-water mark for Saudi enrolment in America, a point from which student numbers have fallen by nearly 40% in the years since.
 
Even with that declining trend, there were still nearly 40,000 Saudi students in the US in 2018/19, and Saudi Arabia remained the fourth-largest sender for US higher education that year. That resilient student base reflects that no country benefited more from the landmark King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP) than the United States. Indeed, KASP sent tens of thousands of students to the US, and very significant numbers to Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries as well.
 
The Saudi government began to wind down the KASP scholarship programme in 2016, and Saudi numbers in all major receiving countries began to drop off almost right away. But as those recent US numbers suggest, Saudi Arabia remains a very important source market, and a key recruiting ground for agents and educators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
 
We explored the current landscape for recruitment in the Kingdom recently in conversation with Arwa Due-Gundersen. Ms Due-Gundersen is based in the UK and for the past two years has been a marketing manager, with a focus on recruitment for the UK and other EU destinations, with Yes Atlas. The education agency has offices throughout the region, including in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, and Kuwait City. Just this month, she also joined Regent’s University London’s Middle East and North Africa recruitment team.
 
In our first interview segment below, Ms Due-Gundersen highlights the shift in the market “from mass to quality”, and the emergence of a new wave of scholarships programmes in the Kingdom. These new programmes are most often managed by individual Saudi ministries, and typically require higher qualifications of eligible students than was the case under KASP.
 
As Ms Due-Gundersen explains, some of this scholarship activity is directly tied to Saudi Arabia’s enormous planned-city development, Neom. Neom will be built at an estimated cost of US$500 billion, with the first phases of development to be completed by 2025. Some of the new scholarship programmes on offer in Saudi Arabia now are targeting specific fields, such as tourism, which the labour market in the new city will especially require.
 
In our second interview segment, Ms Due-Gundersen looks ahead at the factors that will continue to shape Saudi demand for study abroad in the coming years. She notes in particular the strengthening ties between Saudi Arabia and China, which will soon lead to Chinese being taught in Saudi schools and, she expects, growing demand (and scholarship support) for Saudi students to study in China.
 
“Business and engineering are always the top programmes that are in demand,” she explains as our conversation continues below. “But there are now new sponsorship programmes. For example, from the Ministry of Health for health science programmes and they are accrediting more universities to help the students have a greater variety of options.”
 
Those planning to establish or expand recruitment activities in the Kingdom should pay close attention to Ms Due-Gundersen’s tips for educators in the following segment.
 
In the final excerpt from our interview, Ms Due-Gundersen also highlights the two major segments in the Saudi market: Saudi nationals, many of whom will go abroad with scholarship support and the expat market, most of whom will self-fund their programmes abroad. The factors driving demand for study abroad, the means of funding, and even choice of destination all vary, she explains, “by which client you are serving.”