Have US Universities Lost Their Appeal in the UAE?

The popularity of US universities for UAE school leavers, once equaling that of UK universities, appears not to have recovered, following a sharp fall during the pandemic. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to leading school careers counsellors and advisors to find out why this may be and where students are aiming to study instead.
Have US Universities Lost Their Appeal in the UAE?
By Susan Roberts
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As the world has returned to a post-pandemic 'normal', so too have many university destination choices for UAE-based youth. However the popularity of US universities, once equaling that of UK universities, appears not to have recovered for school leavers in the UAE, following a sharp fall during the pandemic. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to leading school careers counsellors and advisors to find out why this may be and where students are aiming to study instead. 

According to data from education information service Edstatica.com, interest in attending US universities from students attending schools in the UAE has not come close to returning to pre-pandemic levels, which equalled interest in UK universities in 2019, at 23%. Only 16% of students surveyed selected the US as their university destination of choice in 2022. 

International student numbers in the US broadly, have however, been showing signs of recovery, with 1,362,157 student visas active in 2022, up from 1,236,748 in 2021, but falling considerably short of 2019's pre-pandemic figure of  1,523,758 (Data from SEVIS by the Numbers Reports). Students from China and India were by far the largest nationality groups in 2022. 

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com asked youth coach and careers advisor, Ms FJ Smith, for her insights:

“Historically the US and Canada has had a big pull for students in the UAE. Safety is always a key factor for any parent (and students) and due to the rising gun crime in the US, it has had an impact on how parents and students view living and studying in the US.

“Due to covid, parent nervousness has been heightened.  Traveling back and forth has not been as easy due to travel restrictions and its made a lot of people anxious about not being able to get home when they need to or being stuck in a location. Granted this has lessened over the last 18 months but the possibility of being separated from their children and vice versa, has made everyone re think location of universities, especially during the first year when homesickness will be a major concern."

Cost is likely a factor also, with the US remaining one of the most expensive countries to study in the world, as an international student. Students (and parents) can expect to shell out between $25,000 (AED91,800) and $45,000 (AED165,000) per year in tuition fees and living expenses (bursaries and scholarships aside).

Which Countries are Gaining Popularity?

Data from Edstatica.com shows an increase in interest in universities in the Netherlands and Germany in recent years. 3% of students surveyed selected the Netherlands as their destination of choice in 2021 and, a figured that remained in 2022, while 3% selected Germany in 2021, rising to 5% in 2022. 

Ms Rajone Karmarkar, Career Guidance Counsellor and MUN Advisor, GEMS Metropole School, said she has seen this trend first hand:

“In the past two years, I have seen a rise in applications to universities in Eastern Europe, Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. There has been a shift in the mind-set of both students and parents when it comes to choosing university destinations, with common deciding factors being tuition fees and opportunities to gain experience with industry.”

Mr Stuart James Kent, Careers Advisor at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, shared a similar observation:

“At Brighton College Abu Dhabi, we remain more towards the UK as a popular university destination choice, but in the last three years we have seen a trend towards universities in Europe seeming more attractive, as costs are less.” 

Universities in the UAE have maintained popularity, demonstrating that they are a strong option even when pandemic travel restrictions are no longer a concern. According to data from Edstatica.com, interest in UAE universities peaked in 2020, with 20% of survey respondents selecting this as their planned study destination, but has leveled at 16% in 2022, equalling universities in the US. 

The rising popularity of UAE universities has been noted by Rajone Karmarkar at GEMS Metropole School. She told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com:

"More students want to remain in the UAE, with the vast choice of international universities available now.”

Stuart James Kent, Brighton College Abu Dhabi, noted a similar trend:

“More people seem keen to remain in UAE, including expat students, attending Birmingham University Dubai, Sharjah University and NYUAD.” 

Are UK Universities Still a Top Choice? 

According to data from Edstatica.com, UK universities are still the top choice for UAE-based school leavers, with 31% of those surveyed selecting the UK as their destination of choice. This is a significant increase on pre-pandemic figures, with only 23% of students surveyed selecting the UK in 2019. 

According to Ms Rajone Karmarkar at GEMS Metropole School, however, these figures may not match the reality:

“Applications to the UK initially increased this year compared to the previous year, but students tend to simultaneously apply to other destinations as well. As they approach the phase where they need to make their final choice, they tend to drop the UK and opt for other options instead. "

According to Ms FJ Smith, youth coach and careers advisor, this could in part be a matter of 'feeling guilty' over finances:

"Due to the challenging financial climate in recent years, many young people feel a sense of 'guilt' about stating to their parents what and where they would like to study and where. There can be a bit of burying their head in the sand instead of discussing what is manageable."

Additionally, the considerable media attention in the past year regarding UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's proposal to restrict student visas has likely raised some concern. Although this has not come to fruition, the possibility may well weigh heavy on some students and families. 

Rajone Karmarkar, GEMS Metropole School, indicated that while the UK remains a top choice for many, the recent "change in UK universities’ selection of students” may mean some students are forced to consider alternative options. 

Stuart James Kent, Brighton College Abu Dhabi, asserted that despite these issues, the UK remains the top choice for students at his school, with around 50% of school leavers setting off to study in the UK, by far the most popular destination. 

Click here for detailed information on international university application processes, including those for Netherlands, Germany, UK and USA.

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