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Saudi Arabia: Trouble ahead for lavish scholarship programme

Lauded as the largest scholarship scheme in the world, the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP) supporting Saudi students pursuing university degrees abroad is facing cuts. In the wake of a record state budget deficit caused by low oil prices, the government of Saudi Arabia has announced a 12% cut to the education budget for the 2016 fiscal year along with changes in the eligibility requirements for its flagship scholarship programme. From now on, scholarships will be available only to students enrolled either in one of the world’s top 50 academic programmes in their field or one of the top 100 universities in the world, as determined by the Saudi Ministry of Education. Although the government has made no comment on how this change may affect the size of the programme, the tightened rules signal a likely decrease in the number of sponsored students.  

Legacy of the late King Abdullah, the programme supported over 207 000 students and their dependents in 2014 alone, at a hefty cost of EUR 5.5 billion (SAR 22.5 billion). Building on the tradition of previous Saudi scholarship programmes that funded university studies for young Saudis in the neighbouring Arab countries, Europe and the US, King Abdullah founded his own scholarship fund in 2005 to reverse the plummeting numbers of Saudi students attending US universities. The decision was driven by the expectation that the increased presence of Saudi students in US universities will help mend relations with the West after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while at the same time help build a highly qualified Saudi labour force. 

The scheme has proven to be a successful venture, propelling Saudi Arabia to the top feeder countries for international students in the past decade. The number of Saudis studying in the US in the first year of the scholarship programme in the academic year 2005/2006 stood at just 3 448, according to the Commenting on the announcement of cuts in the programme, Reuters Institute of International Education (Open Doors fact sheet: Saudi Arabia) Argaam