Mapping UK-Gulf connections in higher education and research

14 December 2017
Emily Judson

Emily Judson

Former Policy Officer, Middle East and North Africa
Universities UK International

Mapping UK-Gulf connections in higher education and research. Our new report tracks current engagement and policy commonalities.

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?

International student enrolments

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.

Transnational education

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.

Looking to the future

UK stakeholders looking to strengthen and grow sustainable UK-GCC partnerships may benefit from considering the points below.

  • Aligning activities with areas prioritised in the respective GCC country development strategies is likely to be beneficial. In our survey, UK universities note industry engagement, joint research (particularly in education), and teacher training as areas they are keen to develop further in future.
  • GCC scholarship funders often refer to global university league tables when selecting UK institutions to work with, but these rankings don't always pick up on departmental-level excellence, world-leading facilities or other factors which may influence student choice. UK institutions can do more to ensure that excellent teaching and research in subject areas which the GCC states are prioritising under their Vision strategies is clearly presented to GCC officials. 
  • Continued access to two-way mobility, and the ongoing projection of the UK as an open and welcoming environment for international students and academics, are likely to remain key factors supporting UK-GCC partnerships.
  • Beyond the direct benefits to students studying for a UK qualification in the GCC, UK TNE can continue to boost the capacity of GCC higher education systems to absorb growing demand for quality higher education, and to respond to changes in national and regional demographics.

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.

Emily will be speaking about the the relationship between the Gulf and the UK at the International Higher Education Forum in Nottingham on 14 March. She will be joined by Peter Clack, Director of International Relations, University of Birmingham and Janet Ilieva, Consultant and Founder, Education Insight. The session will be chaired by Professor Stephen Shute, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Planning and Resources, University of Sussex .​

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