Dubai: For students from China in the Far East to Brazil in the Far West, pursuing higher education in top US educational institutions mean a dream come true.
A study titled “Opendoors” by Washington-based Institute of International Education (IIE), in partnership with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, says that Saudi Arabia is ranked among the top five countries of foreign students’ origin list.
While politics has a limited impact on the number of foreign students studying in the US, educational scholarships and agreements play a big role, experts say.
Speaking to Gulf News from Washington, Allan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE, an independent non-profit organisation founded in 1919, which manages educational exchange and scholarship programmes, said, “America always has an open academic doors policy towards international students.”
With an enrollment of nearly 44,500 students in the academic year of 2012-2013 (up from 34,139 in the previous year), Saudi Arabia came fourth in the list after China, India and South Korea, according to the study.
“The US always has a higher number of Saudi scholarships because it is a big country and has better universities,” Khalid Al Yahya, an American-educated Saudi expert on sustainable development, told Gulf News.
“The cooperation between the US and Saudi goes long back. The first scholarships in fifties and sixties of the last century were to America,” added Al Yahya, who had a scholarship and received his Ph.D from University of Connecticut in 2002, before getting a fellowship with Harvard university the following year.
Number of Saudi students grew rapidly in the seventies and reached its peak in the eighties. However, the number considerably dropped after September 11, 2001 attacks, when it was revealed that 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudis.
More restrictions were put on visas, while many Arabs and Muslims spoke of harassment in the US.
In 2004, there were only 1,000 Saudi students studying in the US.
But in 2005, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and US president George W. Bush agreed on easing the restrictions of Saudis’ travelling to the US, which showed a rapid growth in number of visitors.
Today, the US comes at the top of countries included in the multi-billion dollars King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), a programme described by Al Yahiya as the biggest of its kind in the world and that pushed high the number of students in the US.
Goodman gave Brazil as another successful country that has established national scholarship programme with the US. The two-year-old programme has pushed Brazil to 11th rank and “in another year or two, it is going to be higher than that”.
“In the 1970s, the largest number of international students in America were from Iran,” he added.
Today, Iran ranks number 15 on the list with nearly 8,744 students studying in the US out of 819,644 foreign students.
Another Arab country on the list was Kuwait, which ranked 24 with 5,115 students in academic year 2012-2013, added the study.
As for the rest of the Gulf region, Goodman noted that other Arab Gulf states have allowed American universities to open branches on their territories, such as New York University (NYU) in Abu-Dhabi, UAE, or in the Qatari case, several American institutions are part of the education city.
People seek American education, Goodman said, for many reasons.
“First, America has unequalled capacity to host international students. We have 4,000 accredited colleges and universities. These include very excellent universities all on the list of top 100, 250, and 500 (universities).”
Other reasons include diversity opportunities, more chances to explore and possible changes of studies major.
“These are all things that appeal to students and their parents whether they are in the Gulf or in India or china” or anywhere else, he concluded.