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Top European Destinations for Arab Students

Anglophone countries may get a lot of publicity for recruiting international university students, but two lesser known destinations are also popular—Germany and the chart-topping France.

Despite tough competition from the United States’ trusted elite universities, and the heavy marketing by the United Kingdom and Australia, France attracts 28 percent of international Arab students, according to Unesco 2012 figures. (While the reliability of Unesco numbers is debated, little other publicly available data exists.)

The same report indicates that the United States had a 13 percent share of those Arab students, while the United Kingdom only had 10 percent. European universities are trying to carve places for themselves by offering more English courses, increasing marketing, and offering more affordable programs. So far, however, only France seems to have succeeded, followed by the slight success of Germany, which attracts 4.5 percent of international Arab students. France, not surprisingly, is the preferred destination for students from the francophone Maghreb, but is also increasingly trying to cater more to the English-speaking Arab world.

Changing tides

The United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia are still collectively at the forefront of international student mobility with a 41 percent share of the market, according to a 2012 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But as higher-education internationalization increases, the European Union is looking to draw more students. “European Union countries have generally looked to expand student mobility internally and now this trend seems to be extending internationally,” said Antoinette Charon Wauters, director of international relations at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. In many European countries, politics and promotion of local culture have determined how attractive higher education is for international students. But now, European countries are expanding their offerings and diversifying the languages courses are taught in to attract more students.

While universities in the United States and the United Kingdom are engaging in more conventional marketing, continental European countries are hoping to enhance their reputations for value and accessibility to appear more prominently on the international student markets. “Many European universities are now looking to attract top-level students,” said Charon Wauters.

Germany, Switzerland and other European countries are boosting their English-language courses. According to the independent German Academic Exchange Service, there are more than 1,000 English-language courses in German higher-education institutions. Across Europe, the number of master’s degree programs was 6,407 as of June 2013, up 38 percent from 2011, according to

The practical case of France

The five largest countries in the Middle East and North Africa sending students to France are Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Those countries had over 65,000 students in France in 2012, according to the Unesco report.

France’s popularity with Arab students is a combination of historical ties, common language and easier logistics. Not only does France have colonial links to many Arab countries, such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but it also has a sphere of influence through the International Organization of the Francophone. The organization aims to tie together countries where French is a mother tongue or where a large portion of the population speaks the language.

Students of the Maghreb often seek the country closest to home that they think can offer a better future. “I only know about Maghreb education, but I genuinely believe higher education there is completely lacking,” said Wassil Elhebil, a Moroccan banker and recent graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord in Nice. “All chief executive officers, ministers and high-ranking people in Morocco have studied in France.” According to a survey by Campus France, which promotes French higher education, 84 percent of students from the Maghreb prefer to study in France.

A majority of students from the Maghreb say that the only reason they chose to study in France was that they already knew the language, according to Campus France. “My first choice was Canada, but my parents were against my moving so far,” said Elhebil. “Morocco and France have such close ties and, having gone to a French high school, I was predisposed to go to a French university.”

On the other hand, some chose France because they believe the country genuinely offers better degrees. “In terms of theoretical work, France is much superior,” said Zahra Ali, an Iraqi Ph.D. student at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Ali, who has conducted some of her research in the United Kingdom, is in the 28 percent of non-Maghreb students from the Middle East and North Africa countries that, according to Campus France, believe in the value of the degree and the reputation of the French institutions. Ali’s only complaint about French universities was the racism that she said she experienced.

Germany: The new kid on the block

Germany has agreed to increase the number of foreign students at its universities to 350,000 by 2020—up from 265,000 now—according to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Germany—which, like France, has six percent of the world’s international students—attracts around 4.5 percent of Arab international students, according to Unesco figures, making it the second largest destination for students from the Middle East and North African countries in mainland Europe.

Alexander Haridi from the German Academic Exchange Service said that critics of the effort to increase foreign students in Germany are concerned about the universities’ financial ability to absorb them. As it stands, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are the largest sending countries to Germany and collectively have 7,200 students there.

Other Western European countries are also trying to become educational destinations.

While some countries have major marketing machines for their universities, the University of Lausanne’s Charon Wauters believes many European countries may not go for self-promotion. “Switzerland has some very good universities but students are not made aware of them,” she said. “Instead, a lot of times they will go to a lesser-quality English-language university.”

European countries that seem to be attracting more and more Arab students are either logistically easier—be it because they offer easier visas or because they speak a familiar language—or the ones who market their programs well. Others compete financially, offering grants or competitive fees. The European countries that do not enjoy any of those benefits remain behind in attracting international students.

This article is one of a series looking at Arab students’ mobility. See a related article: “North America is Becoming a More Popular Destination for Arab Students.”

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