WENR, November/December 2004: Middle Eastern Students Find Options at Home and Elsewhere
By Robert Sedgwick, Editor WENR
A number of articles have appeared in the press as of late bemoaning the first downturn in international student enrollments in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Much of the concern has focused on the diminishing cohorts of students from the Middle East since 9/11 and what the implications of that decline are in terms of winning the hearts and minds of future generations of Arabs and Muslims.
The most recent Open Doors report shows that student enrollments from the Middle East fell by 10 percent in 2003-04 over the previous year. Not surprisingly, the greatest losses were from the Arab Gulf. Student numbers from both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were down 25 percent last year, and according to the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy the numbers from these two countries have fallen by half since 2001.
There was also a 15 percent decline from the United Arab Emirates last year while the number of Egyptian applications to study in the U.S. has dropped 40 percent in the last three years. Likewise, Yemen and Jordan sent significantly fewer students in 2003-04, as did Syria, Oman, and Tunisia.
Many of the articles following on the heels of the Open Doors report suggest that the downturn in Middle Eastern student enrollments is fallout from Sept. 11. Journalists and education professionals alike maintain that the homeland security crackdown
including harsher visa restrictions
and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East are discouraging Arab and Muslim students from coming here.
While this is no doubt true to a large extent, it does not explain the whole picture. The declining student numbers last year from the Middle East are in fact part of a much larger trend that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
BOOM AND BUST
International students have been coming to the United States in significant numbers since the end of World War II. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the trend really took off. The spike in oil prices on the world market following the second Arab-Israeli War precipitated a sudden groundswell in student enrollments from OPEC nations. With the money earned from petroleum exports, many of these countries created generous scholarships that sent students abroad, mostly to the U.S.
Iran was the leading country of origin at the time; in 1979 there were approximately 50,000 Iranians studying in the US. Nigeria and Venezuela were not far behind, and Libya also sent large cohorts of students. Similarly, the Arab Gulf states (mainly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) experienced an unprecedented bonanza of oil wealth and began sending more of their young people abroad to be educated. This period (mid 70s through early 80s) marked the peak of Middle Eastern student enrollments in the U.S. Indeed, the tremendous surge in the international education market was largely fueled by petrol dollars, with most of our exchange students coming from Middle Eastern and OPEC countries
Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of American hostages in 1980, which caused the flow of students from Iran to stop completely. By 1983 the number of Iranian students in the US had plummeted to 26,760.
In the years that followed, diplomatic relations soured between the United States and several Middle Eastern and North African countries (specifically Iran, Libya and Syria), and oil prices dropped in the early 80s plunging much of the region into recession.
Citing economic as well as political reasons, the Libyan government cut fellowships for study abroad and by 1985 all Libyans studying in the U.S. and other Western countries had been recalled.
The suicide bomb attack on the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerby in 1988, and a string of other incidents further complicated U.S. relations with the Middle East, and served to discourage Arab students from coming here.
The downward trend was further exacerbated by the first Gulf War in 1991 and by the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Student numbers from the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen) dropped off at this time and continued to decline right up until 9/11.
All together the total number of students from the Middle East * coming to the US for higher education decreased from 23,290 in 1991-92 to 17,240 last year.
SINCE SEPTEMBER 11
None of this is to suggest that 9/11 did not impact student enrollments from the Middle East. It did. In fact statistics for the region reported in Open Doors show that several key sender countries from the region experienced a sudden drop-off only after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. These include Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Other top sending Muslim countries outside the Middle East also recorded declines after 9/11. Last year, for instance, student enrollments for Indonesia were down about 15 percent compared to the previous year. Pakistan was down almost 10 percent while Turkey and Malaysia were both down by 1.7 percent.
A survey conducted in October by the Institute of International Education found that for 59 percent of Arab and Muslim students, the main reason for not coming to the United States last year was stringent visa procedures, which included long waiting periods.
Obtaining an F-1 student visa used to be a fairly routine process, but since 9/11 it has become so onerous and time-consuming that many people do not even bother trying. Students from Arab and Muslim countries tend to go through stricter security checks than others and are therefore apt to feel unwelcome. Many of these students could not get visas in time for the new semester at universities they had been accepted to, or they simply grew tired of waiting and went elsewhere to study.
There is also concern about escalating anti-Arab and Muslim attitudes in the U.S. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, stories — often exaggerated — of Arabs and Muslims being harassed and placed into detention centers began trickling into the Middle East. While many of the rumors have since been dispelled, there is still a growing fear of being humiliated or harassed on arrival at U.S airports.
However, stricter visa requirements, fear of harassment, or even the war in Iraq (which has generated considerable animosity against the U.S.) cannot fully account for the long-term decline in student enrollments from the Middle East.
While the changing political environment has unquestionably contributed to the drop in numbers, the fact is Arabs and Muslims have many more choices today in terms of where to study than they did say 30 years ago. New local universities, foreign university branch campuses operating in the region, online learning, and easier access to other countries all offer viable options that are siphoning students away from the US.
EXPANSION OF LOCAL HIGHER EDUCATION
The wealth created by the oil boom of the 70s enabled many governments in the Middle East to invest in domestic systems of higher education. Local provision, including the recent proliferation of private institutions in the region, has been key in retaining Arab and Muslim students, many of whom would prefer to stay at home within their own cultural milieu close to friends and family.
Rising tensions between the U.S. and the Middle East, especially since the invasion of Iraq, and the unstable economic environment throughout much of the region are added incentives for Arab and Muslim students to seek out safer and more affordable options closer to home. Increased enmity towards the West, and the resurgence of political Islam and traditional values in the region have also contributed to this trend.
Many Arab students who had planned to come to the U.S. for higher education are now enrolling at U.S.-style universities in the region. The American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, for instance, reports a 41 percent increase in the number of applications from the Arab World since 2001 and the American University in Cairo (AUC) has experienced a similar up-tick. The majority of newcomers to these institutions hail from the Arab Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Locally administered private institutions are also making inroads in Arab and Muslim countries offering yet another alternative to study abroad programs. As of this year, 40 of the149 universities in the Middle East were privately owned and operated by local entrepreneurs. In the early 1990s, AUC was the only private institution of higher education in Egypt; today there are eight private universities in Egypt. Private schools are also cropping up in Jordan and the Gulf, and have long existed in Lebanon.
BRANCH CAMPUSES AND ONLINE LEARNING
Foreign institutions operating in the region are also attracting students. In the last few years, universities from the U.S. and other English speaking countries have established branch campuses in parts of the Arab Gulf.
Both Education City in Qatar and Knowledge Village in the United Arab Emirates currently boast branch campuses operated by American, Australian, British and even Irish universities. The Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, for example, offers degrees comparable to those offered at the home institution. Virginia Commonwealth University also maintains a physical presence in Education City, as do Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A & M University.
Harvard University plans to open a branch medical school in the U.A.E. while Boston University is considering such a move. In addition to the English speaking institutions, U.A.E.’s Knowledge City also features branch campuses established by universities from Belgium, India, Iran and Pakistan.
Online education, especially in business administration, is also becoming an increasingly popular alternative for many Middle Eastern students who are either unwilling or unable to go overseas for higher education. Both U.S. and European institutions of higher education have been expanding their Internet-based programs in the region over the past 10 years or so.
A MORE COMPETITIVE INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION MARKET
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a growing number of students from the Middle East are choosing other countries for higher education over the United States. The U.K. and Australia have long vied with the U.S. for their share of the international higher education market; but up-and-coming competitors such as Singapore, Malaysia, India and China have also emerged on the horizon in recent years to lure students away from American institutions. While it was always taken for granted that the U.S. was the preferred destination for most international students, other countries, especially Australia and Britain, have worked diligently and utilized innovative strategies to attract students.
Since the U.S. began implementing stricter security measures, which stymie the flow of international students into the country, competitors have been quick to take advantage of the situation. Over the past three years both Canada and the U.K., for example, have intensified their recruitment activities in the Middle East, especially in the Arab Gulf where the U.S. has been losing the greatest number of students from the region. New laws in both countries are not only aimed at relaxing visa restrictions, but they are also making it easier for students to stay after graduation.
According to the British Council, many students from Kuwait prefer Britain to the United States due to its geographic proximity and the shorter length of degree programs. The number of students from the U.A.E. studying in the UK has also been increasing over the last few years, thanks in large part to aggressive marketing and promotional activities.
In 2003, Australia enrolled a total of 1,466 students from the Middle East. The largest senders were United Arab Emirates (16%) and Saudi Arabia (15%). Much of that success can similarly be attributed to the marketing and promotional schemes carried out by the Australian government, which last year set aside a budget of US$75 million to advance Australian higher education abroad. The U.S. government has never had to run promotions on such a scale and has taken no special measures to attract or retain students from the region.
Since 1998, Malaysia has been actively promoting itself as a center of educational excellence, and the government intends to increase the number of international students from the current 36,000 to 50,000 by 2005 .
Malaysian recruiters have targeted many countries in the Middle East including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. The number of students from the Arab world at Malaysia’s International Islamic University (IIUM) has been growing steadily since 9/11.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
The Middle East has been an important part of American foreign policy for many years now. From the end of World War II up until the collapse of the Soviet Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, the major thrust of that policy in the region was directed at containing the influence of the U.S.S.R.
In the 1970s, Egypt went from being a client state of the Soviet Union to becoming America’s most important Arab ally and the number one recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. By the early 1980s the American embassy in Cairo was the largest in the world, and the American expatriate community in that city swelled to almost 11,000. Paradoxically, this period of American expansion into the region also marked the beginning of the decline in the number of Middle Eastern students coming to the U.S. for higher education.
The last 13 years
beginning with the first Gulf War, and particularly the past three years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
have fundamentally altered U.S. relations with the Middle East. America now has 150,000 troops on the ground in Iraq engaged in a difficult war to stabilize the country following the preemptive strike, which ousted Saddam Hussein. The embassy in Baghdad, when it is completed, will be even bigger than the one in Cairo, and scores of contractors and other U.S. civilians have rushed into Iraq to capitalize on the rebuilding effort. Again, with the increased American presence in the region there has been an even further decline in the number of Arab and Muslim students coming to the U.S. for higher education. In just three years, between 2001 and 2004, the U.S. has lost 5,271 students from the Middle East.
The dwindling number of students from the region reveals an inherent contradiction in America’s current Middle Eastern policy: the U.S. administration claims it is endeavoring to promote democracy in the region and to reach out to moderate Muslim reformers, while its policies are keeping away the very students who could become the agents of change in that part of the world.
Countless prominent Arab and Muslim professionals from around the world have studied in the U.S. over the years. They have included government officials, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and businessmen and women. Many of these people returned to their countries after being educated in America to become leading advocates of such ideals and values as democracy, religious tolerance and human rights.
Young people (under the age of 21) presently comprise the majority of the population in many countries throughout the Middle East. At a time when animosity towards the U.S. is running particularly high, the anti-American message of radical Islam resonates strongly with many disaffected youth in the region. If we limit access of our higher education institutions to young Arabs and Muslims, then their hatred of America will only be nurtured and exploited by militant zealots. Educational exchange is the logical counterweight to the message preached by Islamic extremism.
As Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government , wrote not long ago in the Los Angeles Times, “We must develop a long-term strategy of cultural and educational exchanges aimed at creating a richer and more open civil society in Middle Eastern countries. The most effective spokespersons for the United States are not Americans but indigenous surrogates who understand America’s virtues as well as its faults.”
Diana Kamal, a senior vice president at AMIDEAST, a not-for-profit organization that promotes educational exchanges between the Middle East and the U.S., agrees. “These exchanges expose kids from the Middle East to U.S. culture, values and systems of government,” she said. “Getting to know one another is important. And even though we may not be in total agreement with one another, [student exchanges] help foster understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East.”
However, she cautioned that international student exchange should be a two-way street. Although there was a 30 percent increase in the number of students from the U.S. going to Egypt last year, she said the overall number of Americans studying in the Middle East is still paltry, and that needs to change.
*Includes Iran and Egypt. Does not include Turkey, Cyprus, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, or Sudan