Number of UAE students heading to US nearly halves due to safety concerns and costs

In the same period, the number of Americans studying at universities in the UAE has increased

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The number of Emiratis leaving home to study at universities in the US almost halved between 2015 and 2023 amid concerns about safety, gun control and tuition fees.

In 2023, there were 1,502 Emiratis studying at American higher education institutions, a significant drop from 2,920 students in 2015-16, according to the Institute of International Education's Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

The trend is a continuous one, with 2016's total dropping to 2,753 in 2017 and then to 1,737 in 2020 before 2023's low. In the same period, the number of Americans studying in the UAE jumped to 1,176 in 2022, from 718 in 2015.

Young Emiratis worried about school shootings and hate crimes

For Noora Almatrooshi, 16, attending a US university was a dream as a child but she decided not to follow this dream due to safety concerns and will be studying in the UAE.

“With so many school shootings a year, safety has definitely decreased, especially involving hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs,” said Ms Almatrooshi, an Emirati pupil in Abu Dhabi.

“I think it's definitely a scary experience to go there alone, when you aren’t even safe walking on the street. I feel if I were to ever go there to study that I would never feel safe.

“When I was younger, I had this picture-perfect idea of studying in the US. But once I grew up, I faced the reality. For my own well-being and my own peace of mind, I decided to stay in the UAE.”

The pupil hopes to start her studies in political science this autumn.

“When engaging in conversations with my peers, we all have this stigma towards going to the US especially now with everything going on in the world … and how Arabs and Muslims are being perceived in the US. All of us agreed that this is not somewhere we want to go.”

She said the war in Gaza had also made an impact.

“It's definitely the war going on and how [US President] Joe Biden made his stance on that very clear. I think that's what shifted at least my graduating class,” Ms Almatrooshi said.

Crunching the numbers

According to American nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive, the number of deaths caused by gun violence in the US rose to 18,854 in 2023, from 12,356 in 2014, while the number of deaths from mass shootings increased to 656 in 2023, from 272 in 2014.

Hate crime in the US also appears to be on the rise, according to the latest official data.

Figures from the FBI show there were 11,634 cases of reported hate crime in 2022, compared with 10,840 in 2021, of which race-based and religious-based crimes were the most common.

The way the US is perceived was also an issue raised in a regional poll taken last year among young people, which showed more than half wanted the US to be less involved in the Middle East.

The Arab Youth Survey 2023 polled the views of 3,600 people aged between 18 and 24 through a series of interviews across 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

It found that a third of young Arabs believe the US had the most influence in the region, while 61 per cent said they supported US disengagement from Middle Eastern affairs.

Costs pushing Emirati students away

Reema Menon, director of Counselling Point in Dubai, said many Emirati students were gravitating away from going to the US due to safety concerns “as the gun culture is still not controlled”.

“When a family is sending a child abroad, their safety is of paramount importance,” she said.

“But the reason why there is a significant dip in numbers is because the cost is prohibitive. With all other associated costs, such as housing and insurance and everything put together, it comes to a significant amount of money.

“There are other options available in European countries and families are looking at newer options.”

On average, the tuition fees for undergraduate degrees in the US cost between $25,000 to $60,000 a year. However, in the Netherlands, international students from outside the EU can expect to pay between $6,400 to $16,100 a year.

Vandana Mahajan, founder of Futures Abroad, an education consultancy in the Emirates, also said the main issue was cost.

“In the US, they're finding that the cost is prohibitive. Inflation has peaked and there are no suitable opportunities for international students,” she said.

Better options at UAE universities

Another factor to consider is the improvement of universities in the UAE, with more accredited degree programmes now on offer than ever before meaning Emiratis can receive a world class education at home.

Robin Solomon, counsellor for public affairs at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, said: “We see this downward trend and it predates Covid, so it's not something we can attribute to Covid.

“Emirati parents and educators continue to be drawn to the US, so what has changed? One thing we know for sure is that the numbers of Emiratis going to the US can be linked to really notable improvements in the UAE's higher education system.”

Ms Solomon also moved to assure Emiratis that US cities and towns were “welcoming and safe”.

“With regards to gun violence, this is an ongoing debate and concern in the US. The US continues to welcome many Emirati students,” she said.

“They continue to find US universities and US cities and towns welcoming and safe places to live, work and study. There are terrible, tragic examples that are exceptions to that.

“The concerns, I can guarantee, are being discussed in American homes, being discussed all around the world, with students and parents and educators for whom the US system of higher education has great appeal, but for whom there are very deeply felt concerns for safety.”

While the number of Emiratis heading to the US for studies is on the decline, the number of US citizens studying at universities in the Emirates has jumped to 1,176 in 2022, from 718 in 2015.

Ms Solomon said she had seen greater interest from Americans interested in studying in the UAE because of improvements in the higher education system.

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Updated: April 04, 2024, 1:41 PM