Saudi Students: Is the Boom Over?
An interesting article from the ICEF Monitor has been circulating in the field over the past few days (click here to view) discussing rumored changes to the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP). It is a timely piece for those of us working in TESOL, as many of us have been hearing these rumors (and perhaps even experiencing changes in our intake and enrollment of Saudis) over the past few months.
Among the points made by the article:
- The KASP scholarships are changing the limit to English study from 18 months to 6 months;
- Saudi students will no longer be able to choose their ESL center (instead, they will be placed by scholarship administrators with the Saudi government);
- Funding will continue in the future, but there will be more of a focus on the placement of public sector employees.
Impact of Saudi students
In so many ways, the influx of Saudi students over the past few years has had an important impact on ESL centers around the United States. For instance, in order to better serve these students, IEPs have created and implemented special programming, hired large numbers of faculty, offered more support services, and made important changes to curriculum. In my opinion, by making so many changes and dedicating so many resources to these students, the overall result has been that we have improved our offerings for all students–i.e., we have become better institutions.
In return for these efforts and investments, IEPs have benefited not only from steady revenue streams from this sponsor, but also from the opportunity to serve these special students. Personally, I have really enjoyed working with Saudis. In my experience, Saudis have been warmhearted and sensitive members of our student body. The differences between us provide a quintessential example of why so many of us work in international education, helping to satisfy our drive to understand other cultures.
As referenced by the ICEF article, the increase in Saudi students over the past few years have certainly had a positive impact on overall enrollment in terms of numbers at IEPs; however, due to recent events, many of us in the TESOL industry are wondering whether the boom is over.
The article is worth reading, as it provides a concise summary of the various rumors that have been circulating; however, therein lies the main problem, in my opinion. It is all rumors. Nothing has been verified by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM). To my knowledge, no major communiqués have been released by SACM to discuss changes in the program. No clear, consistent message has been circulating among IEP administrators. In essence, no one outside of SACM truly seems to know what is going on.
I think that this lack of information is what has been the most frustrating to IEP administrators across the United States since the beginning of the year. First, all schools were asked to reapply to be host institutions for KASP students. Then, many schools were initially rejected–even long-term partners of SACM–due to changes in the parameters of the scholarship (changes were never communicated to schools in advance so that they could make the appropriate plans). Later, it seemed that SACM backpedaled a bit on some of these decisions; unfortunately, this may be too little, too late. At my institution, we have been experiencing a decrease in the number of incoming Saudis over the past few sessions simply because many potential students think that we are no longer on the approved list of host schools.
Patience is a virtue
At the end of the day, it seems that IEP administrators need to remain patient and continue to tolerate the ambiguity of this situation. Government officials may simply be taking their time to determine all of the changes to the scholarship programs in light of the changing political and economic situations back in Saudi Arabia. For instance, it is easy to imagine that the significant drop in oil prices would have a negative impact on government-backed scholarships.
We also need to consider the changes in leadership since the passing of King Abdullah and the cooling off of relations between the USA and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the fact that Saudi Arabia is currently fighting a war against the Houthis in Yemen.
Considering all of these factors, we can imagine that this scholarship situation may take awhile to resolve. In the meantime, we can only be patient and hope that we eventually receive some news about the future of the scholarship program.