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Fewer Arab Students Head for the United States

Fewer Arab students are choosing to study at universities in the United States than in the previous year, according to a report published today, while the number of American students going to the Middle East has surged modestly.

The Institute of International Education’s 2018 Open Doors report shows that in the last academic year, the total number of undergraduates from the Middle East and North Africa choosing to study in the United States was down 9 percent.

The numbers for Arab students seeking master’s degrees and doctorates at American higher-education institutions showed a similar decline.

Globally, international students are shifting to studying in Canada or Australia, although the United States and the United Kingdom remain the leading destinations. British universities are blaming the loss of international students on more stringent visa rules and the anti-immigration rhetoric of Brexit. International students have said they worry about the expense of living in the United Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, which among Arab countries sends the largest number of undergraduates to American colleges, accounts for much of the overall drop in the number of Arab students studying in the United States. In the academic year 2017-18, the kingdom sent 27,646 undergraduates to American colleges, compared to 32,538 the previous year, a decline of 15 percent. The drop is attributed to the reduction of the King Abdallah Scholarship Program, which funded overseas study for Saudi students.

“When you shrink a scholarship program that funded so many students, you’ll get that kind of decline,” said Allan Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the IIE, in a telephone call with reporters. “When a scholarship program ramps up again, as I expect it will in the Saudi case, you’ll see large increases in coming years.”

The executive order issued by President Trump in January 2017 that was portrayed by opponents as a “Muslim travel ban” also contributed to the reduction in the number of Arab students studying in the United States. Three of the seven countries affected by the order—Syria, Libya and Yemen—showed sharp decreases in numbers of students studying at American colleges. (See related article: U.S. Selective Ban on Visas Shuts out Arab Students.)

Laura Stein, visa policy analyst at the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said in the conference call with reporters that the U.S. government had not completely stopped issuing visas to students from countries affected by the order. “There are only two countries where we have limited visas: Syria and North Korea. As for other countries on the list, we’re still accepting students from those countries,” she said.

Syrians may still apply for student visas. “Some may qualify for a waiver which would allow us to issue them a visa,” Stein said. She said that 2,072 visas had been issued to students from the seven countries affected by the order in the period up to the end of October. But the State Department has not given a breakdown of this number by country.

A survey of admissions directors at American universities, published in October by the online publication Inside Higher Ed, found that “74 percent of admissions directors agree—including 52 percent who strongly agree—that the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration have made it more difficult to recruit international students.”

Commenting on the decline in the numbers of students arriving in the United States from the Middle East and North Africa, Judith E. Tucker, president of the Middle East Studies Association and professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., said, in a statement, “We regret that the flow of students to U.S. universities from countries in the Middle East appears to have been significantly reduced in the past year, most likely by the Muslim ban and other changes in the administration’s visa processing policies. Students from the Middle East now have reduced opportunities to learn about our country, and our campuses are less likely to be enriched by their presence.”

At the same time, international interest in studying in Canada and Australia has sharply increased, according to figures published by ICEF, an international student recruitment consultancy. The ICEF Agent Barometer survey 2018 showed that in the past four years student interest in studying in Canada and Australia has grown at the expense of the United States and the United Kingdom. The reasons given for declining interest are, in the case of the United States, political relations between the U.S. and the student’s home country, and the complexity of the U.S. visa application process. In the case of the United Kingdom, students said they were mainly discouraged by the high cost of living.

On the other hand, there was a sharp increase in the number of American students choosing to study in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the report. Of the 332,727 American students who chose to study abroad in the academic year 2016-7, 6,901 chose to study at institutions in the MENA region, compared to 6,044 the previous year. This is an increase of 14.2 percent on the previous year, the largest increase for any world region, according to the report. Europe remains the most popular destination for American students, attracting more than half the total of Americans studying abroad.

Morocco is the most popular Arab country for American students, according to IIE figures, followed by the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. In the academic year 2016-7 (the most recent numbers available), 1,770 students chose Morocco (up 26 percent on the previous year); 865 chose the United Arab Emirates (up 20 percent on the previous year); and 735 chose Jordan (down 24 percent on the previous year).

On this increase in American interest in studying in the Middle East and North Africa, Judith Tucker said, “It’s encouraging to hear that more American students are choosing Middle East countries when studying abroad. One of our goals at the Middle East Studies Association is to increase public understanding of the region and its peoples and we hope these students will bring their experiences and knowledge back to the U.S. and share them within their communities.”


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