ABU DHABI // Choosing to travel to the United States for his post-secondary education was a no-brainer for Saad Hamoodi.
Not only would he be following in his father’s footsteps, but having studied in an American private school all his life, Mr Hamoodi was familiar and comfortable with the curriculum.
“I graduated with the American system, so I’ve always been closer to that,” said the 26-year-old Emirati.
When it came time for him to choose a university, without hesitation Mr Hamoodi opted to leave the UAE for Northeastern University in Boston.
“Me, as a national born and raised in Abu Dhabi, I’ve grown up here and I’ve been surrounded by this comfortable, homey environment where everything is pretty much set and ready for you and you have the comforts of your home, your family, just all the services. I wanted to kind of step out of that comfort zone and see what the world has to offer,” he said.
Like Mr Hamoodi, a growing number of Emiratis are choosing to enter college or university in the US over other English-speaking countries.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, 2,920 Emiratis enrolled in colleges and universities across the US – the highest number to date, according to the latest Open Doors report published last month by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with support from the US department of state’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs. The figure represents a 300 per cent increase compared to those of 10 years ago, when only 978 Emiratis studied in post-secondary schools in the US during the 2005-2006 academic year.
No information from the IIE was available about which colleges or courses Emirati students opted for.
“It is a very, very popular destination, there is no two ways about it,” said Sanjeev Verma, director of Intelligent Partners, which has been counselling students in the UAE about international schools since 2000.
“They just love America, it’s just a cultural thing. I think they find it easier to blend in, and the country is much bigger – and they love California.”
The number of Emirati students in the US peaked in the 2000-2001 academic year, when 2,659 enrolled in colleges and universities. But, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, numbers shrank annually to a low of 885 in 2006.
Since then, the student population has been on a steady rebound in US post-secondary institutions.
But in other English-speaking countries, the Emirati student count has been either falling or holding steady. Since 2004, the Emirati post-secondary student population in the UK climbed to a peak of 1,195 in 2008-2009, but has since declined to 955 in 2014-2015, according to the latest data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency.
It has remained stable in recent years, holding at between 1,030 students and 955 students.
“The UK has always been popular with Emiratis and the number has remained relatively stable in recent years, with growth from other nationalities in line with the overall growth and development of the UAE population as a whole,” said Gavin Anderson, country director for British Council UAE.
Taking into account expatriates living in the UAE who enrol in UK colleges or universities – a cohort known as UAE domicile students – the figures are higher. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 3,410 students from the UAE – including locals and expatriates – travelled to study in the UK, according to Hesa.
“This number has been steadily rising for several years,” said Mr Anderson.
In Australia, the number of Emiratis in higher education reached a high of 1,205 in 2010, but has steadily decreased to 485 last year, according to the Australian government’s department of education and training international student enrolment data for higher education and vocational education and training.
Canada has the smallest number of Emirati students in its colleges and universities. In 2015, only 75 Emiratis were enrolled in universities and five were studying in the country’s colleges, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. The CBIE could only provide data on Emirati enrolment from 2008, when a high of 135 Emiratis were registered in Canada’s universities.
Peter Davos, founder and managing director of Hale Education, a UAE-based consulting firm focused on counselling college bound international students, said flexibility in the curriculum and scholarship funding are “the driving factors why Emiratis study in the US”.
“Students can pursue a variety of academic interests and do not have do formally declare their major until the end of their second year of study,” said Mr Davos. “Also, there are 3,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States, many of which have tremendous financial resources, which translates into better research facilities, higher paid professors, more and richer extracurricular offerings. In Canada and Australia, there is one university in each country with an endowment of over US$1 billion. In the UK, there are 4. In the US, there are over 75. No other country’s universities can compete with the financial strength of American universities.”