The Puzzle of Transferring Saudi Students

saudiarabiacanadaflags_hdvThe recent decision of the Saudi Arabia government to suspend fellowships and scholarships in Canada and transfer students to universities in other countries has received intense media coverage. While the expulsion of the Canadian Ambassador in Saudi Arabia and the freezing of new business agreements have been perceived as expected steps in international disputes of the kind, the repercussions involving international students have clearly been framed as something ‘we don’t know how to deal with’ (see here and here). What are the implications of this decision to students and Canadian universities?

The Scale of the Problem

Despite a widely circulated figure of 16,000 Saudi students in Canada (see here and here), according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) there are 7,640 study permit holders from Saudi Arabia in the country (as of December 31, 2017). Considering Canadian immigration rules, these are students staying in Canada for more than 6 months, most likely enrolled in degree programs. Although the number might exclude those who are enrolled in short-term ESL courses, we should keep in mind that there could be students in language programs with study permits as well. Altogether, Saudi students represent 1,5% of the total international student population in Canada, and according to the same dataset the number of Saudi students has dropped in half since 2011 (from 14,155).

The most internationally disntiguished universities in Canada enroll a relatively small number of Saudi students. In 2017 the University of Toronto had 194 undergraduate students and 46 graduate students from Saudi Arabia, whose shares of the international student body were 1,2% and 1,5% respectively. For the 2018-2019 academic year, there was a reduction to 30 undergraduate and 46 graduate students. McGill has 327 students from Saudi Arabia in both undergraduate and graduate programs, representing 2,7% of the total international student enrolment.

Government Sponsored Students

The IRCC’s figures correspond to those circulating in Saudi Arabian media. It has been reported that there are the Saudi government will transfer 8,076 students who have government scholarships in 2018. Looking at these numbers, we might conclude that the majority of international students from Saudi Arabia in Canada are government-funded students.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) launched in 2005 by the Saudi Government sponsors academically distinguished Saudi citizens to study in the world’s best universities, in fields selected to match the needs of the Saudi labour market. The United States is the largest recipient of Saudi students: in 2017 it hosted 67,000 students, although their numbers have also declined recently from 125,000 in 2015. Upon completion, graduates are expected to return to Saudi Arabia.

In part, the decline in Saudi students coming to Canada and the US in recent years was caused budget cuts in 2015, which led to a number of restrictions to the KASP including a reduction in the eligible host universities to the world’s top 200 universities as rated by the Shanghai Top 300 World Index. In 2017, for example, only eight Canadian universities got to the Shanghai list: University of Toronto (23), University of British Columbia (31), McMaster University (66), McGill University (67), University of Alberta (101-150), the University of Calgary (151-200), University of Montreal (151-200) and University of Ottawa (151-200).


This is not the first time that international students get caught up in international political disputes. Earlier this year as a result of diplomatic tensions with the United Kingdom, Russia called on its students abroad with the ‘It’s time to go home!’ campaign. Unlike Saudi Arabia, there was no mechanism to bring Russian students back from UK, as they were not government sponsored.

The unprecedented decision of the Saudi Arabia government to transfer students or to cancel scholarships has created a unique puzzle for Canadian universities and Saudi students to solve together. Facing the dilemma of figuring out what to do next, Saudi students are certainly in great need of support from Canadian universities and immigration authorities. As their study permits remain valid, Saudi students have a clear immigration pathway after graduation in Canada and could potentially seek avenues to complete their programs. However, they have to deal with their commitments to their sponsors and the personal and professional consequences involved in such a decision.

Although the number of Saudi students in Canada is relatively low, we should recognize that processing transfers in four weeks will be challenging for universities. Graduate students and those close to graduation will be particularly hard hit by the transfers. While transferring from one institution to another is a normal practice in international higher education, relocating PhD students who are for example close to a thesis defense is definitely something unexpected.

Canadian colleges and universities have an opportunity to turn this loss into a gain by demonstrating to the international community a real commitment to the success of the Saudi students at this challenging juncture.

This Blog Post was originally published on August 13, 2018 at CIHE Blog (the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education)  at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the University of Toronto. See here