LONDON: Graduating from high school in Syria in 2010, Mohammed Chaikh set his sights on Europe to pursue the “independence and opportunities” afforded by an overseas education. “I wanted a new experience, a new life,” said the 26-year old mechanical engineering student, who is now in his fourth year at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.
At the time, few of his friends applied to international institutions - “most wanted to stay in Syria,” he said. But within a year, war had broken out and since then “almost everyone has changed their mind.”
The conflict in Syria has forced vast numbers out of education and encouraged those who can afford it to apply overseas but students from the war-torn country are part of a long tradition of Arab youth pursuing higher learning in the West. Despite efforts by Middle East governments to enhance the education landscape at home, many young people still see completing their studies in the US or Europe as a necessary stepping stone to a successful career.
“Degrees from European and other Western countries tend to be more valued,” said 21-year-old Seif Farid, who is doing an engineering degree at the University of Surrey in the UK. Studying abroad is seen as “something prestigious” in his native Egypt and employers look favourably on those with a Western education,
In the past, Middle East governments have facilitated overseas study opportunities via grants and funds, such as the $6 billion King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which has supported hundreds of thousands of Saudi students through degree courses in over 30 countries around the world and the Kuwait Excellence Scholarships for Arab Students in France.
“The idea is to enhance the social and economic development of Arab countries,” said professor Ishaq Al-Qutub, president of Arab Student Aid International, which has branches in the USA, Palestine and Dubai and provides loans for up to 200 high-achieving students a year, most of them from low-income countries across the Arab world, including Iraq, Palestine, Morocco and Sudan.
Priority is given to those studying applied sciences as subjects where the skills shortage is considered to be most acute in MENA countries.
Applicants must repay the loan within five years of completing their studies and sign a statement saying they will return to their home country. “They take the knowledge, the experience, the know-how and return back with the wealth of this knowledge,” Al-Qutub said.
“This way we can bridge the gap between the Arab countries and other industrialised and advanced nations,” he added.
More recently, a push to promote education in the region has attempted to stem the brain drain by improving the education landscape locally and encouraging the brightest minds to pursue higher learning at home.
Foreign university franchises offering up a Sorbonne or NYU education in Abu Dhabi and a degree from the Middlesex or Heriot Watt University branch campuses in Dubai, have helped build the reputation of emerging higher education hubs in the UAE, attracting students from across the region and further afield to study in the Gulf.
But for many MENA students, the tradition of travelling abroad to complete their education in the West remains a rite of passage, personally as well as academically.
Mohammed Chaikh’s brother and father studied in Germany, a family tradition he was keen to continue, even though it meant loading containers and working at a paint factory between lectures to support his studies.
He remembers the excitement he felt on his first day. “It was the first time I’d ever been abroad from Syria,” he said.
University culture in Germany was far removed from the experiences described by his friends back in Syria, even before the war made completing their courses impossible for many.
“Student life there is really different,” said Chaikh who initially struggled to learn German and form friendships with other students but soon adapted. “Now I don’t really need to make (social) plans, I just go for a walk along the street and bump into so many people I know.”
Germany, along with the UK and France, are among the most popular choices for Middle East students in Europe.
Heidelberg University in Germany, which currently has around 260 students from the MENA region, said that medicine is a particularly popular choice for overseas Arab students applying to the institution, which is one of the world’s oldest universities.
But with arts scenes being given a broader platform to flourish across the region, more Middle East students are now applying to Western institutions for social sciences and creative courses.
Shereen Zumot, a 32-year old Jordanian actress, was recently awarded a prestigious Chevening scholarship to do a masters in Performance Making at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Zumot, who has previously performed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in Scotland and worked as associate director on a successful UK production called Queens of Syria, which featured performances by 13 refugee women, chose the UK over New York to pursue the next phase of her theatrical studies.
“It’s always been my dream to study in London; it’s where the good theatre is,” she said.
While the US has witnessed a decline in its student intake from the Middle East, with a notable decrease in UAE and Saudi nationals - due partly to President Trump’s controversial travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries - the UK has reported a notable rise in students from the region.
Applications from Saudi Arabia increased by 10 percent in 2018, marking an increase for the first time in several years, according to Ucas, the body that processes applications to UK universities.
Figures showed that the trend is mirrored across the region, with applicants from Jordan up 16 percent from 2017, Oman and Kuwait, both up 7 percent and Lebanon and Morocco increasing by 25 percent each.
A spokesperson for the British Council in London said that the UK’s multicultural environment and “established international communities from all over the world” allows students from all background to feel at home.
The UK is also a more affordable study destination than both the US and Australia, she said, thanks partly to the short, flexible courses on offer.
The weaker pound in the wake of Brexit negotiations has also had a bearing on reducing the costs of a British education for foreign nationals.
For Farid, it would have taken up to five years to complete an engineering degree in Cairo, compared to three years in the UK, but he’s since discovered other advantages to studying abroad. “The high number of different nationalities present at UK universities is something I didn’t expect and I like this because it gives you the opportunity to learn about new cultures from around the world.”
He’s also embraced the independence afforded by studying so far from home. At first, this was a challenge after life in Egypt, where he said, “I depended on my family daily and was never responsible for myself.”
“But in a UK university you have to rely on yourself and solve your own problems.”