Shifting Sands: Political and economic changes in Saudi Arabia and higher education in the Middle East
In my book, International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder, I make the case for how political and economic changes occurring throughout the world have, and will continue to have, an impact on international higher education recruitment and enrollment. This article will examine some of the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and the current state of higher education in the Middle East.
“Where Saudi Arabia goes, the GCC follows. Where the GCC goes, the Arab world follows. Where the Arab world goes, the Muslim world follows.”
Radical reforms within Saudi Arabia are changing the societal norms that have governed the country and its people for decades. Last year the mutawaeen (secret police) disappeared from the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah, a part of a larger policy of modernizing the Saudi state by the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). As part of the crown prince’s set of reforms known as “Vision 2030,” women were given the right to drive cars and the country’s first new public cinema since 1979 opened in April 2018 with men and women sitting together. The late King Abdullah’s motto was yawash, yawash, slowly, slowly. Muhammad bin Salman’s motto seems to be fly high and fast.
Political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla describes the Arab world as living what he calls “the Gulf moment.” And Riyadh is the center.
Saudi Arabia with its recent geopolitical outreach to both the United States and Russia is clearly attempting to align itself with countries that have the potential to help the country meet its strategic economic and military goals. In 2017 Saudi Arabia became the highest military spender in the world after the United States and China.
Economic and social changes in Saudi Arabia will be governed by the price of crude oil. Current crude prices are $80 a barrel, significantly lower than their peak of $146 a decade ago. Given a budget deficit of 9 percent last year, and plans for record expenditures this year, Saudi Arabia needs oil prices to rise to $87 a barrel just to break even. In an attempt to increase revenue, the government in Riyadh has imposed a 5% value-added tax on tobacco and sweetened drinks and has cut fuel and electricity subsidies.
The sands in the Middle East are shifting and higher education in the region will not be immune to the changes sweeping across the region.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia collectively have spent billions of dollars importing higher education institutions to the region and have created educational hubs, attracting thousands of students each year to both undergraduate and graduate programs.
The United Arab Emirates overtook the United Kingdom to become the third-leading destination for Arab students studying abroad behind France and the United States. Collectively, the top 10 Middle Eastern senders, which include Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have sent more than 40,000 students to the United Arab Emirates for study. The Emirates also attracts significant numbers of students from Kuwait, Lebanon and Nigeria. According to a report published by the Observatory on Borderless Education, the United Arab Emirates is the second leading country for international branch campuses behind China.
In October 2018, The UAE eased student visa regulations, making it easier for students to secure long-term residence and employment after graduation.
The governments of the Middle East are determined to continue to play a major role in future international student mobility and international collaborations. Innovation and creativity are the hallmarks of many of the region’s colleges and universities. And the apparent shift of international students’ enrollments from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean can only benefit educational institutions in the Middle East.
Final note: This article was written prior to the murder of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey. Since November, 2018, worldwide condemnation of the murder has altered public opinion about the Crown Prince, his stalled internal reforms, the Saudi-sponsored war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar.
The sands have once again shifted in the Middle East.
2017 -2018 International Student Enrollment in the United States
According to Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, a report presented by the Institute for International Education and the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in the 2017-18 academic year the following are the statistics of the enrollment of international students in American colleges and universities.
A total enrollment of 1,094,790 international students enrolled last year, a 1.5 percent increase over the previous year. The increase is mostly due to an increase in the number of international students participating in Optional Practical Training. OPT participants’ numbers increased by 15.8 percent from 175,695 to 203,460. Nearly half of all Optical Practical Training are from China and India.
New international students decreased by 6.6 percent from the previous year from 290,840 to 271,740. Enrollment in undergraduate programs decreased 6.3 percent and 5.5 percent in graduate degree programs. Non-degree programs, including English language training programs decreased 9.7 percent.
Total program enrollments decreased by 1.3 percent from 903,125 to 891,330.
Chinese students, who compose one-third of all international student enrollments in the United States, increased 3.6 percent. However, in the previous year, the growth of Chinese students was 6.8 percent.
Indian students, who compose nearly a fifth of all international students studying in the United States, increased 5.4 percent. However, in the previous year, the growth of Indian students was 12.3 percent.
Students from Brazil, Nepal Pakistan, Nigeria and Vietnam enrolled in higher numbers in 2017-18 than in the previous year.
Students from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Canada and South Korea enrolled in fewer numbers than in the previous year. (2017-18 marked the seventh straight year of decreased enrollment from Korean students.)
Not surprising students from countries affected by the travel ban, enrolled in decreased numbers, including students from Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.
The number of American students studying abroad increased 2.3 percent. A total of 332,727 students studied abroad for credit in 2016-17, about 10 percent of all undergraduate students. Nearly 65 percent of all American students studying abroad studied on short-term programs. The most popular countries for study abroad programs are: The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and China.
International students studying in the United States contributed $42.4 billion to the American economy in 2017. That represents an increase of $39 billion in the previous year.
There are many factors contributing to the decrease in the number of international students enrolling in American colleges and universities, including:
Uncertainty over travel bans, visa approvals and OPT options after graduation
Non-competitive tuition and fee structure
Competition from international education hubs in the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia
The statistics in this report reflect the enrollment of international students in the United States from the previous year, not the current year. There is no indication that going forward, enrollment decreases will be reversed.
There are political, economic and technological trends that have, and will continue to impact, international student enrollment worldwide.
Online enrollment will impact the mobility of international students, especially the future enrollment of Indian and African students.
Will China dominate international higher education in the near or distant future?
This question may be redundant. The question to ask may be when will China become the dominant player in international higher education. China is already a major player in international higher education.
Twenty years ago there were 3.4 million students in China. Today there are more than 26 million. In 2017 nearly 490,000 international students studied in China, an increase of 10.5 percent from the previous year. Since 2004, the number of international students enrolling in Chinese colleges and universities has increased by nearly 300 percent. China is currently the third most popular destination for international students and could overtake the UK next year in terms of international student enrollment.
China has made a long-term investment in higher education. The country’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative has enrolled, and will continue to enroll, students from the countries along the ancient “Silk Road.” Last year 317,000 international students enrolled in China were from “Belt and Road” countries and two-thirds of all international students studying in China are from “Belt and Road” countries.
China has significantly increased enrollment of African students by offering generous scholarship and employment opportunities. In 2017, 12 percent, or nearly 59,000 students, studying in China received scholarship assistance.
It is by design, rather than accident, that the number of international students continues to significantly increase each year. Chinese tuition and fees are lower than in most other universities. Tuition and fees for one year of study in China is approximately $3,200. The number of English taught programs has increased by 63 percent in the last five years and that element has attracted students from around the world.
A new visa policy allowing international students to work and remain in China after graduation is also another factor attracting a global international student population. According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, 89 percent of international students plan to pursue short-term internships and 95 percent plan to take advantage of China’s policy of allowing foreigners to work after graduation.
In 2017, China was the most popular destination for Asian and Southeast Asian international students, including students from South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Japan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Laos.
In October 2018, “The Jakarta Post” reported that there are currently 68,000 Indonesian students studying in China and the Chinese government has set a goal of increasing that number to 100,000.
China is now the leading host for international branch campuses. China has edged out the United Arab Emirates as the top host country.
In 2015, Xiamen University, in collaboration with the Malaysian government, opened up its first international branch campus abroad.
Will China dominate international higher education in the near or distant future? The statistics speak for themselves.
In a subsequent article I will examine the rise of Chinese universities in global ranking lists and China’s purchases of schools throughout the world.
Brexit and the future of international recruitment and enrollment in Great Britain
In 1900 the British Empire covered two-thirds of the world. By anyone’s estimation Britain today is a shadow of that former empire. The Great Britain of today, with its sixty-five million people and with the second-largest economy in Europe, is a divided nation with a shrinking influence in the world.
In 1973 Great Britain joined what was then called the European Economic Community. In 2017, 17.4 million British people, or fifty-two percent of voters, chose to take the country out of the European Union.
Between 2016 and 2017 the United Kingdom moved from being the fastest-growing major economy in the world to the slowest. Some of Britain’s economic growth can be attributed to its partnership in the European Union. The European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 44 percent of all of Britain’s exports. And nearly 30 percent of all of the food imported into Britain comes from European Union countries. As a member of the European Union, Britain enjoys free trade and zero customs restrictions with the 27 other members. That will no longer be the case after Britain leaves the European Union.
Current government estimates indicate that the impact of the Brexit vote will make people worse off than before the vote was taken. In the Septrember20, 2018 issue of The Guardian, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned cabinet members that leaving the European Union could cause an economic collapse in England similar to the 2008 recession. He called the level of risk “uncomfortably high.”
On March 29, 2019, Britain will leave the European Union with or without trade and customs agreements in place. On August 1, 2018, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, told his Australian counterpart: “At the moment we are heading for no deal by accident.” The director of the Asian Institute, Ian Bremmer, predicts that the U.K. will leave the European Union next March without an agreement in place. That will impact both sides, but the British people, he predicts, would be hit hardest.
Officials at the Bank of America, Airbus, Siemens and Jaguar have warned government officials that a hard Brexit exit may prompt them to shift operations out of the U.K.
It would be too simplistic to blame the current state of the country’s inward-looking and fearful view of the world on the vote to leave the European Union. The Brexit vote was a manifestation, not the cause, of the British people’s dissatisfaction with their government and their economy. Economic growth has been slow since 2015. The outsourcing of public services to incompetent private companies, the aftermath of the recession of 2008 that plunged Britain into a recession over which the British people felt they had no control, and regulations imposed on the British people by bureaucrats in both in London and Brussels all contributed to the referendum results in 2017.
The current administration’s lack of imagination and progress in resolving the issues related to the country’s exit from the European Union have created a sense of frustration and uncertainty throughout the country.
How will this situation impact international student recruitment and enrollment into British colleges and universities? Currently, international students contribute 22.6 billion pounds (29.9 billion dollars) to the country’s economy. There are 80,000 undergraduate European students and 50,000 European postgraduate students, or 30 percent of all international students, studying in Britain. These students will still be eligible to receive government-backed loans to cover their tuition and fees. Students beginning their studies in England for the 2019-20 academic year will also be charged the same tuition and fees as British students. There are no guarantees, at least none publicly stated, as to what will happen to European students wishing to study in Great Britain after 2020.
In the competitive market for international students, this uncertainty will likely result in fewer European students studying in Great Britain. Researchers at the Higher Education Policy Institute predicts that in the near future these numbers could decline by as much as 60 percent when Britain leaves the European Union.
There are other potential negatives, including:
17 percent of staff in U.K. universities are from European countries and their status to remain and continue teaching at their current universities, is unclear. In the past year more than 2,000 academics have resigned from posts at English universities.
The European Medicines Agency will relocate to Amsterdam when it leaves London in 2019. This agency brings financial and collaborative benefits to academics by supporting research projects. In an article published by World Education News, the author, Jan Petter Myklebust, reported that the Austrian Chancellor, Christian Kern, calculated that the Dutch economy stands to gain 1 billion euros (1.2 billion dollars) increase in revenue as a result of the move from England.
The uncertainty over Brexit has resulted in fewer employers recruiting graduates. One survey, reported in The Guardian, by Richard Adams and Sally Weale, revealed that several companies, including Goldman Sachs, Unilever and BP downgraded their hiring plans after the Brexit referendum vote. The same is true for accounting and professional services firms, financial services companies and investment banks.
I can’t leave this chapter without listing a few positive statistics and facts about higher education in Great Britain, including:
In March 2018, Great Britain was named the most popular city in the world for international students.
Chinese students constitute the majority of international students studying in England. One in five international students on British college and university campuses, are Chinese. There are over 100,000 Chinese students currently studying in England. Last year there was an increase of 18 percent in applications from China.
For the first time, the United Kingdom, not the United States, was the top destination for Turkish students.
There has been an increase in applications from students from Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Hong Kong, due to the drop in the value of the pound, making a British education more affordable for students from those countries.
While no one can predict with certainty what the future potential impact of leaving the European Union will have on British higher education, no one, I think, would disagree that higher education in Great Britain will change in the coming years.
Martin Sandbu, writing in the July 25, 2018 edition of Financial Times, wrote:
“It is reckless to expect the UK’s turmoil to be shortlived. Its partners in Europe above all, must hope for the best but plan for the worst. We will only know what sort of country Britain is when our UK friends have agreed what they want it to be.”
Wise words, not only for Great Britain as a whole, but for British higher education in particular.
The impact of a trade war between the United States and China future international student recruitment and enrollment
In my book, International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder, I make the claim that future international student mobility will be influenced by economic, political, sociological and technological changes taking place throughout the world. In this section of an updated white paper on my prior book and predictions, I am focusing on the potential impact of a trade war between the United states and China on the future enrollment of Chinese students in the United States.
In 2018 the United States initiated a series of trade wars with both allies and adversaries alike. In Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, the author outlines President Trump’s obsession with the United States’ trade imbalance with China, South Korea, Japan, Canada and Mexico and his desire to terminate past trade agreements and write new ones. The president considers tariffs bargaining chips in rewriting global trading rules and lists as one of his major economic successes the “new” NAFTA trade agreement reached in September 2018 with Canada, Mexico and the United States. Similarly, South Korea gave the president his first big trade deal by agreeing to accept more American imports. Japan is reviewing its trade deficit with the United States and is expected, like South Korea, to import more American products.
This report will focus on the trade war between the United States and China. Geopolitical differences and mutual distrust have been a cornerstone in American and Chinese relations for years. In August 2018, the president instructed his trade team to consider imposing 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese exports. Additional tariffs were announced in September, making the total number of Chinese goods affected by the tariffs $250 billion. China’s retaliation, also announced in August, was to impose tariffs of $60 billion on American imports.
In September 2018 the president accused the Chinese government of attempting to influence the November midterm elections by identifying the American states, in the south, Midwest and northeast that would be the most negatively impacted by Chinese tariffs. Almonds from California, steel from Pennsylvania, car parts from Michigan and soybeans from Iowa are the states most likely affected by Chinese tariffs.
The president’s imposition of tariffs on a number of Chinese exports has raised the level of tension and rivalry between the two countries. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, remarked on October 2, 2018 that the current state of U.S./China relations is a “new cold war.”
Since the imposition of tariffs Chinese stocks have fallen sharply. In September 2018, the stock market was down almost a quarter from its peak in January 2018. The Economist reports that since April the yuan is down 8 percent and there was a current-account deficit in the first half of 2018, China’s first such gap in two decades.
Like the United States, China is seeking other trading partners, including Russia, certain European countries, the countries in its “Belt and Road” project and the countries in the new Trans-Pacific partnership to increase trade. Zhiwu Chen, director of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, predicts the emergence of “different trade blocks based on geography and values.”
Global trade, like global student mobility, has been shifting eastwards and southwards for some time. Still there are more Chinese students studying on American colleges and universities campuses than from any other country. Trade tensions between China and the United States could easily spill over into future international recruitment of Chinese students. Many colleges and universities in the United states are heavily dependent on the revenue from Chinese students to meet both enrollment and financial goals. The Chinese government could impose a limit on the number of students it allows to enroll on American college campuses. This is not as farfetched as it may first appear. I was a young admission officer at Georgetown University in Washington, DC when the Iranian revolution resulted in all of the enrolled Iranian students ordered home immediately. This summer the government of Saudi Arabia recalled all of its students studying in Canada because of a statement made by a Canadian government official that was offensive to the Saudi government. I realize I am citing political events that resulted in shifting international student mobility enrollment. But I believe that economic events, like a trade war between the United States and China, could also result in fewer Chinese students studying on American college campuses. Do many American schools have a plan B should this happen?
Jack Ma, founder of Ali Baba, predicts that a trade war between the United States and China, will last two decades. A sobering prediction.