The Saudi government announced updates to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program in early March, sharing its goal of sending 70,000 students abroad by 2030.
But the new program will not fund English language studies in English-speaking countries including America, the UK and Canada – a significant change from Saudi Arabia’s previous scholarships.
Anders Ahlund, president of sales and marketing at EF language schools, said that Saudi Arabia is an important market for the company and that the exclusion of ESL is “disappointing to the industry looking for post-covid recovery”.
However, he added that the new scholarship is “very generous” and “will increase student mobility”.
“Most of the Saudi students that study in the US are sponsored, and these students will likely not continue if they lose government support”
The Saudi Arabian government has said the new program is compatible with other scholarships, but it is unclear if the existing paths will continue at the same scale.
Language schools could see a “significant downturn” if other programs are phased out, said Luke Frerichs, president of FLS International, a group of USA-based language schools.
“Most of the Saudi students that study in the US are sponsored, and these students will likely not continue if they lose government support.”
The King Abdullah Scholarship Program, launched in 2005, sent over 10,000 students to the US in its first year, with 95% of scholarship students undergoing a year of English language training.
“In the heyday of the KASP program, the program seemed to operate more as an entitlement than a scholarship, and FLS, together with many schools, had a very large Saudi population at all of our centres,” Frerichs said.
But KASP has become less generous over the years, with stricter requirements introduced in 2016 reducing the number of eligible students. The Kingdom famously pulled its scholarship support for students in Canada in 2018, following a diplomatic spat after Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland criticised Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
In a recent press conference, Hamad Al-Sheikh, the country’s minister of education, said that English language preparation would be provided locally, including at Saudi universities.
Under the new program, students will be divided into four streams, including the “provider path” which will facilitate scholarships to the top 200 educational institutions in the world.
“The desire to place the best Saudi students into the best universities in the world is a worthy government program,” said Frerichs.
“But I also hope and believe that the Saudi government will see the benefit of continuing to support their citizens that can benefit from attending a university that is not among the elite, and also the necessary language training to support that study.”