Countries in the Gulf region have long been an integral part of UK universities' international strategies.
Our report analysed data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It also includes insights from 63 of our members, 84.1% of which are already engaged with the region and a further 11.1% are considering future engagement.
The UK government is currently stepping up support for UK-Gulf partnerships through the Gulf Science, Innovation and Knowledge Economy (GSIKE) programme.
In parallel, the six countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) are increasing focus onto national development strategies in which education is a key pillar. This is an environment with potential for UK-GCC partnerships to be strengthened and grown across a range of areas.
The report maps the wide range of UK-GCC connections in higher education, with focus on international student enrolments, transnational education (TNE) and research collaboration.
We find there is a lot in common between the long-term priorities of UK universities active in the GCC, and objectives outlined in the GCC states' respective national development strategies.
So, what can the report tell us about the current state of UK-GCC relations in higher education and research?
UK universities have traditionally looked to education agendas, student fairs, and agreements with local government and funding agencies to support their student recruitment activities in the region. But our report found that engagement by UK universities with Gulf schools has provided the strongest source of growth in student numbers.
This finding applies to all GCC states except Saudi Arabia, where UK universities looking to increase student recruitment should focus on cultivating strong relationships with local funding agencies.
The majority of TNE students in the UAE are South Asian nationals (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), followed by local students, students from other GCC countries and wider MENA region. This suggests that UK higher education institutions' target audience for TNE in the UAE is highly international, with implications for how UK universities manage their marketing, communication and engagement strategies.
Many Gulf students complete at least some portion of study towards their UK qualification in their home country (i.e. through transnational activity). This is the case for 88% of all Omani students and 78% of UAE students registered on UK programmes.
The UK ranks among the top five partners for research collaboration in all GCC states. This strong position is likely to be consolidated and strengthened, benefitting from investments by the UK Government including multi-year funding for UK-GCC collaborative research to develop and mature. However, competition from Asian research partners is on the rise, for example China is now Qatar's third largest research partner, and the fifth largest research partner for Saudi Arabia.
Engineering and physical sciences are the most popular research disciplines across all GCC countries, however beyond this there is significant country variation. In Saudi Arabia, medical research is the second most popular field; in Qatar and Oman the arts and humanities; and in the UAE economic and social research.
UK stakeholders looking to strengthen and grow sustainable UK-GCC partnerships may benefit from considering the points below.
It's clear the region is important for our universities and there are existing successful partnerships. I think this report demonstrates there are plenty more exciting opportunities ahead. You can download the report here.