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Why is the Middle East one of the fastest growing hotspots for international schools in the world?
For expatriate and local families living in the region, international schools are often seen as a gateway to a wider range of global higher education pathways and scholarship opportunities.
The cross-cultural and multi-curricula learning environment of an international school is also perceived to be great preparation for life on a university or college campus overseas.
And in a time when a lot of universities look for applicants who can demonstrate a range of extra-curricular interests, many international schools offer a wider range of arts, creative and sports-related activities.
But it’s not just the proliferation of international schools that is making the Middle East a hotspot for international student mobility. The Middle East has also borne witness to a sharp rise in the number of satellite and international branch campuses.
These international branch campuses are themselves competing with local competitors across the Middle East. Higher ed institutions in established destination countries should be prepared to fiercely compete for international student talent in the coming years.
In 2024 and 2025, we’re expecting over 3,200 international school students from across the Middle East to enrol at a higher education institution through the BridgeU platform.
Our growing international schools community across the Middle East offers us some valuable insights into how universities can and should build a localised recruitment strategy in the region.
This week, we were thrilled to launch our first ‘Building the BridgeU’ event in Dubai. This comes at a time when the UAE has become home to the largest international schools sector in the region, with ISC Research recently putting the tally at over 700 schools.
‘Building the Bridge’ is the first event that truly signifies the three pillars that make BridgeU so uniquely placed to help universities to build a more localised recruitment strategy that’s more aligned to students’ needs.
A diverse audience
Our first event in Dubai is a chance for our university partners across the US and UK to network with international schools in the region.
It helps universities recruitment and admission teams to better understand international school students as a unique and growing audience of prospective undergraduate candidates.
A unique guidance platform
Our university and careers guidance has given us a unique insight into precisely how international students in the Middle East are choosing universities – the subjects they want to study, the countries they want to live in.
‘Building the Bridge’ is an event that is tailored to the specific needs and academic aspirations of students in the region, with US and UK universities providing workshops and admissions support sessions designed to help students who are currently busy with their university applications.
Get insights on the Middle East
We’ve analysed the university preferences of 2024 international applicants across the Middle East. Get in touch with our Universities Partnerships team to access the latest insights.
An exclusive community
Our event in Dubai is just the latest example of how BridgeU is bringing international school counsellors and university reps closer together to help drive better outcomes for international students across the Middle East and beyond.
The counsellor’s role in shaping the university and careers guidance of their students can’t be under-estimated.
And in Dubai especially, we’re proud of our vibrant counselling community, where teachers and educators are always sharing their insights into how universities could be honing and improving their international recruitment to more effectively serve the specific needs of school students in the region.
International school trends in the Middle East
Our platform, coupled with the anecdotal insights we receive from our counsellors working in the region, allows us to get continuous insights into how the international schools market is changing across the Middle East.
Below are two headline trends that universities (and indeed other international schools) should pay attention to in 2024.
4-point GPA and IB are the most popular curricula
When we last examined curriculum trends across our international school community in the Middle East, the International Baccalaureate was the most popular curriculum, both in terms of the proportion of international students studying it, and the percentage of BridgeU schools offering it.
While the highest proportion of international school students are studying the IB curriculum (45%), the US 4 point GPA curriculum is the most likely to be offered by BridgeU schools. Specifically, 68% of BridgeU schools offer students the option to work towards this curriculum.
But this change only serves as a reminder that students will have multiple curriculum paths to choose from, with some larger schools even offering students the choice of different campuses for different curricula.
As we discussed in the introduction, the range of curricula on offer for students in the Middle East means that they, in turn, have a broad range of higher education options at their fingertips as they explore life after secondary school.
It also means that universities worldwide must continue to pay attention to how a student’s school curriculum may shape their experience of the admissions process. Are you signposting how your entry requirements map to a particular student’s curriculum of study?
The UK has overtaken the USA as the most popular destination country
The UK has overtaken the USA as the most popular destination country in for international students in the Middle East between 2023 and 2024.
The number of BridgeU students shortlisting UK institutions has increased by 3% points compared to last year with 26% of students looking for UK places, followed by the US on 23%, then Canada on 11% and the UAE itself on 7%.
How to build a localised international recruitment strategy in the Middle East
The international student population in the Middle East is one of the most selective and globally mobile communities in the world. Universities like yours face an increasing amount of competition from local higher education providers in the region.
So as 2024 unfolds, how can you build a truly localised recruitment strategy with schools, counsellors and students in the region?
Establish relationships with counsellors in the area
As we alluded to in the previous section, face to face interventions are absolutely essential in this market.
Our experience working with international schools in this region has taught us that counsellors are very welcoming, and will actively encourage university reps to visit their school, and learn more about its students and its culture.
And because international students in this region are increasingly aware of the options at their fingertips, it’s never been more important to foster collaborations with international schools if you’re to truly raise brand awareness of your institution.
We’d also recommend making better use of virtual and digital networks by familiarising yourself with counsellor networks on LinkedIn and Facebook. For example, a leading BridgeU brand ambassador in the Middle East, David Turner, chairs the NAFSA Middle East interest group (sign up on LinkedIn if you haven’t already)
Make sure you’re delivering content students actually want
At a time when students in the Middle East have so many international study options, it’s never been more important to introduce your university brand to prospective applicants as early as you can.
Indeed, because many of these international students are more likely to feel like there are multiple doors open to them, the decision-making process is often a lot harder!
The Middle East is arguably the region where it’s most important to deliver personalised content that is aligned with student’s global aspirations. Examples include delivering workshops or admissions advice sessions that focus on career outcomes, and demonstrate the clear ROI for students considering your institution.
The Middle East is also a region where students are more likely to follow a career path that has been laid out by a parent or family member, so it’s worth remembering the key role parents and family are likely to play in the application process.
Parents are also more likely to be sensitive to factors such as university’s ranking and prestige? Unfortunately it’s not always possible to avoid these pre-conceptions – but that’s why we’d argue that a personalised approach has never been more important!
Talk about what makes your institution unique
If you want to build a truly successful, localised recruitment strategy in the Middle East, then it’s never been more important to ask yourself this question: what is your institution the best at?
Do you have a famous sports team? Does the university have a beautiful large, suburban campus that a city based campus wouldn’t? Does your liberal arts college have a really great professor to student ratio?
Don’t ignore or overlook the things that make your institution unique, and don’t be afraid to tell that story.
Many international students overlook just how much of a role their personal preferences play in their ultimate university choices.
And don’t forget the importance of using existing international undergraduates and alumni at your institution to advocate for what makes you unique. BridgeU is currently working with international schools and university partners alike to facilitate more connections like this.
We’ll be sharing more exciting updates from our Building the Bridge event this week.
In the meantime, to access the latest up-to-the-minute data insights on international students’ 2024 application preferences across the Middle East, book a call with our University Partnerships team below.
Speak to us for the latest application trends
To access the latest exclusive insights on current international application trends, book a meeting with our Universities Partnerships Team