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Who are the Emirati students in US colleges and universities?

People gather to watch fireworks and water attractions marking the United Arab Emirates 45th National Day celebrations in Abu Dhabi on December 2, 2016. Source: AFP/Nezar Balout

The media usually focuses on the Chinese and Indian students in the US, an understandable move considering these two countries send the top two largest number of tertiary-level students to US colleges and universities every year. Indeed, when South Korea is added into the mix as well, these three countries account for more than half (54 percent) of all international students pursuing higher educational degrees in the US in 2016, according to data from Pew Research Center.

But as new enrolments of international students have fallen overall in 2016/17 – the first time in the twelve years – one country is bucking the trend: the United Arab Emirates.

New enrolments in associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate by UAE citizens have tripled since 2008, from 274 to 814 in 2016. These are some of the characteristics of this particular group of students:

  • About four in five are pursuing a Bachelor’s degree (81 percent). Master’s students account for 10 percent, while doctorate and associate candidates make up two and seven percent of this student cohort in 2016;
  • Men dominate. They make up 87 percent of the total students in 2016;
  • Engineering is the most popular major, followed by business studies, liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities, social sciences and security.

Indeed, the relationship between the US and UAE has been described as an “enduring” one, by Scott Bolz, US embassy public affairs officer in Abu Dhabi. “Promoting US higher education and encouraging more Emiratis to study in the US is one of our top public diplomacy priorities,” he said to The National.

Some individual universities, however, are seeing substantial drops in new enrolments among Emiratis.

At Indiana State University, there was a 50 percent drop in new international students last year. Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Indiana State’s President Daniel J Bradley said:

“Countries that provide us with a sizable number of students, such as India, China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Korea – they’re all down.”

“Those students bring significant revenue. I would guess that it takes two US-based students to replace them in terms of revenue,” Bradley said. “We also miss the diversity that they bring to the campus.”

Protestors rally during a demonstration against the new immigration ban issued by the US President Donald Trump at John F Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. Source: AFP/Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

One way to explain these falling numbers could be the current US administration’s immigration policies, which have been accused of being hostile towards international students, especially those from the Middle East.

A report by the Institute of International Education last year found that the “Muslim Ban” as well as the “extreme vetting” of visa applicants and increased hate crimes against Muslims in the US have resulted in many Middle Easterners feeling insecure about choosing the US as their study destination.

“Middle-Eastern students expressed many concerns to international admissions professionals at US higher education institutions,” said the report Shifting Tides? Understanding International Student Yield for Fall 2017″.

“Securing and maintaining a visa is the biggest concern among these students and was reported by 46 percent of institutions, while feeling welcome in the US was almost an equal concern, with 41 percent of institutions noting so from their conversations with students.”

The Trump effect was expected to turn Middle East students away from American universities, according to Sanjeev Verma, chief executive of Dubai education consultancy Intelligent Partners, which helps place Emiratis in universities abroad.

“Security is a concern for every­body and that is the only thing that has changed since Trump came in,” Verma said.

“I would actually say it is the perception of security, that people feel it is going to be unsafe and not secure, that is the biggest change.”

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