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Monday, 11 April 2022

COVID-19 restrictions are being relaxed, with logistics made easier. Will this drive Egyptian students back to studying abroad? (Part 1)

With easing covid restrictions and logistical hurdles, are students going back to studying abroad? Egyptian students were faced with significant logistical challenges since the outset of the pandemic, leading many to rethink their plans to pursue higher education at institutions in the UK and US, where covid-19 restrictions were strictly implemented. The appetite for a foreign degree hasn’t diminished by any means, our sources tell us. But there are signs that the outflow of Egyptian students to universities abroad is picking up pace, thanks to both easing covid restrictions (including embassies reopening) and the universities themselves working hard to lure back international students, which are a key source of income.

Visas were a commonly cited hurdle for students… While the US Embassy in Cairo has been accepting and processing visa applications for students and emergency medical requirements throughout the pandemic, two sources speaking to Enterprise say their appointments were postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to a backlog of applications. This was also the case in other countries, such as the UAE, where the US State Department said the pandemic led to “profound reductions in the department’s visa processing capacity.”

…But this appears to be clearing up: One of our sources, whose US visa appointment was delayed more than once due to the pandemic, was able to complete her visa application process last November and pursue her master’s degree at NYU in the spring 2022 semester. The US Embassy also began allowing visa renewals for anybody whose visa has expired within the past 48 months (four years), with an option to request an interview waiver, as of February.

For the past two years, many universities have allowed students a great degree of flexibility to accommodate these logistical issues, giving international students — including degree seekers from Egypt — to remain in their home country for the first semester of their program. These students attended classes and completed their coursework online until covid-19 related restrictions were eased and allowed them to travel to their country of study.

And some students are opting for markets outside the US + UK: European universities have also grown increasingly popular, thanks to the lower tuition fees they offer, El Alsson Executive Director Karim Rogers tells Enterprise. Universities in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain are typically cheaper for Egyptian students than their counterparts in the US and UK, which are the top markets for overseas students, Rogers says. And even beyond the Western sphere, some Egyptian students have had their eyes on higher education degrees in Asian countries due to lower expenses, Noor El Mahallawi, founder of the IG Club, a platform that helps students travel for studies in universities abroad, told Enterprise. The IG Club has seen a significant uptick over the past year in the flow of applications it has seen for studies in Malaysia in particular, Mahallawi told us.

Higher education institutions in mainstream markets are now actively trying to lure back students from the MENA region — not least for the financial returns: International students account for the bulk of universities’ bottom lines, thanks to the higher tuition rates they pay. Long-losses for universities with a wide international student base have been estimated at between GBP 11 bn or over a quarter of income in one year, with the most losses coming from a drop in International students’ enrollments, a 2020 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said. Some universities have relaxed their admissions requirements because they’re “thirsty” for the return of international students, Rogers tells us. UK universities “are doing everything they can to bring back international students. It’s as easy as getting an acceptance immediately if you pay full tuition fees,” he said. Eduhive CEO Karim Mostafa agrees, saying that universities have been flexible with their admissions, because “if they lose international students, they lose the market”.

The good news for these universities: The demand was always there. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on demand on higher education abroad, Mostafa told Enterprise. “The structure of universities that seek to attract students with such [high] price points is based primarily on international students,” he said, adding that universities were very receptive through online learning to be able to recruit students.

Case in point: Students haven’t slowed down their applications for universities abroad: BCCIS, which EduHive manages, didn’t see a drop in the number of students working on applications to study abroad, Mostafa told us. The same trend holds up at CAC, with Head of School Jared Harris telling us that students are currently still applying at the same pace for universities outside of Egypt. The only difference, Harris says, is that some students opted to stay in Egypt after having applied abroad because in-person education was suspended.

Scholarship applications are also undented: Chevening, which is sponsored by the British government, didn’t see a change in the number of applications from Egypt, Program Manager Nevine Sharaf told Enterprise. The scholarship program’s most recent round saw somewhere between 2.8k-3k applications from Egypt, which is on par with the annual average, she said. And the program didn’t slow down the number of scholarships it handed out, either: Around 40 scholarships are offered annually for Egypt. “Last year we had the same allocation, despite my expectations of reductions. So far, no changes were made, which is very good news,” she adds.

Altogether, the mindset of traveling abroad being an attractive option is a mainstay for MENA students, says Sami Al Ahmad, the CEO of emonovo, formerly known as Marj3, an online platform that helps students reach universities, secure scholarships and attend open online courses. “The mindset of traveling abroad was always there and always will be,” because the quality of education abroad is typically better, and can sometimes be cheaper in comparison with universities in the region, he said.

But Egypt is on a mission to bring universities abroad home: Internationalization has been a core government policy in education over the past two years. This policy includes making it easier for foreign universities to set up shop here through the International Branch Campuses Act (pdf). This has led to some institutions setting up their own campus here (like the German International University), or partnering with an Egyptian company that can build an educational hub, like the Knowledge Hub, which hosts Britain’s Coventry University campus. “Still, Egypt needs time until it becomes a destination. People seeking a foreign degree might opt for international campus universities in Egypt, but those who want the overall experience would still head abroad,” Al Ahmad said.

Your top education stories for the week:

  • Cairo-based edtech startup Sprints has closed a USD 1.2 mn Series A round led by the Alexandria Business Angels Network.
  • State-backed Rowad 2030 is now accepting applicants between the ages of 22-40 for its masters program in entrepreneurship and innovation in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and Cairo University.
  • (xxNF) Greek public universities are considering launching academic programs in Egypt. The Greek Education Ministry has set up contacts within Greek communities to begin steps towards the launch.

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