Covid-19 has seen international scholarship programs face uncertainty. But adaptation could lead to long-term benefits — including increased accessibility
Covid-19 has seen international scholarship programs face uncertainty. But adaptation could lead to long-term benefits — including increased accessibility. Scholarships are a key vehicle for overseas study, but covid-19 disruptions to travel and business, changing regulations, and the rise in online learning are putting international scholarship seekers in a precarious situation. Despite the current climate of uncertainty, major scholarship managers say adaptive measures could accelerate access for Egyptian students to pre-covid levels, and offer new partnership models for scholarship support, particularly for those seeking funding for online programs.
The pandemic has cast uncertainty over existing and future scholarships: Marj3, the largest digital scholarships platform in the region, saw a 40-50% decrease in traffic in March because of uncertainty, says co-founder and CEO Sami Al Ahmad. Marj3 typically sees some 2.4 mn visitors a month, about 1 mn of whom are from Egypt. This uncertainty stems from everything from travel restrictions to potential visa issues — as some foreign students in the US almost experienced earlier this month.
And scholarship managers and students are scrambling to adapt: Some of this year’s recipients of the Newton-Mosharafa Fund — a GBP 50 mn, seven-year joint UK-Egypt partnership that supports scientists — temporarily returned to Egypt when their work was interrupted by UK laboratory closures, says Acting Deputy Director of the British Council Shaimaa El Banna. The British Council and the Egyptian Cultural Bureau have supported them on a case-by-case basis. Now the British Council is looking at extending its PhD program support from three to four years for Newton-Mosharafa scholars, to allow for socially distanced lab work, while allocating more time for the visa application process to mitigate travel complications, El Banna adds.
Even before covid-19, demand for international scholarships among Egyptian students far outstripped the funding available. Scholarships to cover hefty tuition and living expenses are essential for many Egyptian students looking to study overseas, and competition is fierce. This year, 222 Egyptians were among the 6.8k applicants for the Swedish Institute’s MA scholarships, with 10 Egyptian among the 340 scholarship winners, according to data from the institute. And the Qalaa Holdings Scholarship Foundation (QHSF, which positions itself as the country’s largest private-sector scholarship program) sees at least 400 applications for its scholarships every year, with 15-20 scholarships awarded annually, says Yasmine El Dorghamy, executive director of QHSF.
Scholarships often target very specific beneficiaries, but there’s a general focus on increasing access, say administrators. Major international scholarship bodies, including Chevening and Amideast, have worked for years to increase the number and diversity of beneficiaries. The number of applications from governorates outside of Cairo and Giza has increased substantially in recent years, Chevening representatives say, without disclosing figures. Still, while gender and geographic diversity are core objectives for Chevening, scholarship awards ultimately depend on application quality, so supporting potential applicants to write good personal statements and showcase academic and leadership skills in interviews is a core part of outreach, says Chevening Programme Manager Nevine Sharaf.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by supplying a wider cohort of students with more information, say experts. The correlation between increased information provision and applicant diversity is clear in the Onsi Sawiris Scholarship, says Nelly Elzayat, co-founder and director of Newton Education Services, a company that provides scholarship management and other advisory services for students. In the last five years, there’s been a notable increase of both applicants and beneficiaries of this scholarship program from STEM schools set up across the country. “This shows a clear change in the demographic,” says Elzayat.
Pre-covid, the focus was on physical outreach. Normally, Amideast representatives would travel to different governorates to give information sessions in STEM schools and public universities. Chevening and the British Council follow a similar process. Amideast targets less privileged segments, “but more privileged segments are also more able to access universities: they have guidance counselors, many who are in private schools are more likely to have the means to study abroad,” says Amideast Country Director Shahinaz Ahmed.
Now covid-19 is accelerating the move towards digitization that is likely to increase accessibility long-term. Digital outreach will remain key to scholarship provision, even after the pandemic. “I would say digital transformation is one of the benefits of covid-19. In Egypt, it would have taken ten years to do these shifts but with covid-19 they had to be done quickly,” says El Banna. “Online outreach offers more access. I think before covid, it would have been harder to set up a session with a professor in the US to speak to students. Now we’re more accustomed to things being online. Infrastructure is sometimes an issue, but you can attend a Zoom session on your phone,” says Ahmed. Engagement with Chevening’s posts on the British Embassy’s social media platforms has increased notably in the last two months, says Sharaf. “I’m very optimistic that we will reach more people through online outreach, because people are generally more engaged online at the moment, and we’re taking concrete steps to increase our online engagement with more virtual sessions and live Q&As that anyone can access,” she adds.
And along with the growth in online outreach and learning, we could see more scholarships to fund online studies. The growth of online learning will see more high-caliber international institutions offering full-time online study programs, say several sources, who also anticipate a rise in scholarships for online studies, more beneficiaries and increased diversity. “We haven’t yet seen a major rise in scholarships for online programs, but I think it will come,” says Elzayat.
The dust needs to settle before any changes can be quantified, but the trend is heading towards further accessibility. El Dorghamy had initially anticipated fewer applications for this year’s QHSF scholarships because of the uncertainty surrounding the next academic year, but applications were on par with past years, she says. Newton-Mosharafa has generally seen an increase in applications of about 20% y-o-y every year since 2016-2017, says El Banna, but quantifying the impact of post-covid online outreach on applications is impossible because this year’s deadline is not until September.
But the strong expectation is that in the long-term, covid-19 measures will lead to more diversity in scholarship prospects and applicants. Online outreach, applications and scholarships will all enhance accessibility for a more diverse range of beneficiaries, sources anticipate. Online application and interview processes encourage women not normally permitted to go overseas alone to apply for scholarships and awards, says El Banna. If the women secure the award through an online application, they can start lobbying their families to allow them to go abroad with a concrete opportunity in hand instead of a theoretical prospect, which the families are often more willing to support, she adds.
Digitization will also allow Chevening to better leverage its network of alumni throughout Egypt and overseas, predicts Sharaf. Using alumni in different governorates to help with raising awareness about the program and applicant skill building increases outreach, while giving the applicants mentors. This is all part of boosting their confidence and building their skills in areas like writing personal statements, ultimately enhancing the quality of their applications. “We have some very active mentors (alumni) all over Egypt, including in Assiut, Alexandria and Ismailia. One of the advantages of moving online that we’ve seen in the last two months is that it’s enabled alumni outside the country to attend our online sessions and become more involved,” Sharaf adds.
Corporations are also more willing to partner with scholarships on online education: “I think corporates may also become more interested in supporting graduate scholarships. So they may well look at this as a win-win scenario, where they aren’t losing their staff to a one or two-year study program, but supporting them to get a qualification online while working,” says Elzayat.