A total of 10,725 foreign students were accepted in Saudi Arabia's universities last year, many of whom had the incentive of scholarships and benefits offered to them.
Recently-established Saudi universities in particular have sought to attract more foreign students, in order to be able to fulfill higher level of diversity, which would allow them to compete on international ranking lists.
Schools such as Majmaah University, the University of Hail, Shaqra University, and Al Jouf University, among others, offer full scholarships for foreign students, either for residents of Saudi Arabia, or for students coming from abroad. Many of the students travel to Saudi Arabia to study the Islamic Shariah in one of the religious institutions.
The number of foreign students in Saudi Arabia has steadily been increasing, oftentimes sparking the ire of locals, particularly those who wish to enroll at public universities, as they feel that their positions are being taken.
This prompted the official spokesperson of the Saudi Ministry of Education, Mubarak al-Osaimi, to affirm repeatedly that Saudi universities are committed to maintaining and not surpassing a certain quota of foreign students, at 5% of the total number of students enrolled.
There are 27 public universities in Saudi Arabia, with high enrollment rates, distributed over 13 different provinces. Additionally, there are eight accredited private universities, as well as 38 private colleges.
These universities and colleges are affiliated with the Ministry of Education; nonetheless, they have a great degree of administrative and academic independence. Recent decisions by Minister of Education Mohamed al-Eissa have further consolidated this autonomy.
Sources in the ministry explained to Raseef22 that the scholarship program, for non-Saudi students, includes accommodation, living expenses, tuition fees, and about $250 as a monthly stipend.
They are, however, not considered academic scholarships in the true sense of the word, as studying at a public university in Saudi Arabia is already tuition-free. This may change by 2019, or even earlier, when a new system governing universities is enforced, which would oblige universities to charge fees in exchange for accepting foreign students. This new system comes among the initiatives undertaken by the Ministry of Education, as part of the Saudi Vision 2030.
As Saudi universities have outranked their other Arab counterparts in past years, there has been a surge in foreign students there.
A significant number of foreign students travel to Saudi Arabia, seeking out a distinguished religious education.
According to the public statements made by Mubarak al-Osaimi, most of the foreign students in Saudi universities come from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan. Egyptians constitute the highest percentage, as there are about 500,000 of them living in the kingdom, and approximately the same number of Yemenis.
Further, the Islamic University in Madinah, Umm Al Qura University in Mecca, and Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, which specialize in Shariah studies, have secure seats for that students from African and East Asian countries to graduate from their programs.
A Destination for Religious Studies
Saleh al-Amoudi, a professor at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, says that foreign students who live in Saudi Arabia with their families prefer to enroll in medical and science programs, while those who come from abroad gravitate toward Shariah and religious studies. They are enrolled in universities and colleges that teach religious studies based on the Salafi doctrine, with various sections, including Shariah, the Quran, the Hadith, the fundamentals of religion, and contemporary doctrines.
Mohamed Bourghie (23), a Nigerian student enrolled at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, says he is committed to applying to the Shariah program in order to return to his country and serve as an imam at a mosque.
“I received a full academic scholarship: accommodation, meals, and a stipend for books and expenses. These benefits make studying in Saudi Arabia a dream for any Nigerian student, but more important is the benefit of learning the religious materials at the hands of the most prominent ‘ulamā’ [scholars], as Saudi Arabia is distinguished in the field of religious studies,” he says.
Local and International Students
Mounira Lotfy (22) is an Egyptian student of Applied Sciences who has been enrolled for three years at King Saud University in Riyadh, the largest university in Saudi Arabia.
“I was accepted after I graduated from secondary school with distinction. I simply applied to the university, and they immediately accepted me. My father works here in Saudi Arabia, and he was hesitant as to whether I should continue my education in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt,” she says.
She says what motivated her to stay was the high standard of education at the university, and its international ranking.
After her family moved back to Egypt, she moved into the residential dormitories on campus, allowing her to focus more on her studies. “As a foreign student, I was given priority to live on campus, which convinced my father to allow me to continue my studies here,” she notes.