Skip to main content

In a small classroom at Toronto's York University, a handful of students gather each morning to practise their English.

"Saudi Arabia is a very safe country, so you can go anywhere," a young woman writes on the blackboard as they take up the day's lesson.

In fact, all the students in this intensive language class are Saudis, here thanks to a decision by their government to pump billions of petrodollars into higher education. At York, the language school can't keep up with demand and has capped Saudi enrolment at 94 to comply with a policy that no single group should account for more than one-third of students.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's tempting, because you could make lots of money," said the school's director, Calum MacKechnie, during a morning tour.

The scene at York is being duplicated across Canada as universities make the most of Saudi Arabia's massive scholarship program, which is footing the bill for about 62,000 students to attend foreign universities. Roughly 10,000 Saudi students are studying at Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie and the University of New Brunswick, and thousands more are on the way.

In the space of two years, this country has become the third most popular destination for students from the oil-rich nation, behind Britain and the United States. It's a trend that promises needed relief for Canadian campuses as they struggle with funding shortfalls.

Governments and schools are rolling out the welcome mat. At a recent fundraising dinner, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty looked to Australia, where educating foreign students is the country's third-largest industry, as an example to be emulated. "We could use the funds this generates to help expand our schools for our kids and create jobs," he said. "We could attract the best and brightest from around the world to study here."

For the Saudi students, life in Canada begins with months of language training and the hunt for a spot in a field of study that has the blessing of their government. Hassan Alshihi, 29, who is living through his first Canadian winter, wants to do an MBA. But after six months studying English, his application has not been accepted. "It's cold but it is safe," he said when asked why he chose Toronto.

Mohammed Aldabbagh has had better luck. A confident 18-year-old from Jeddah who picked up English on family trips to England, he has secured a place this fall at York, provided he completes his language courses. Saudis talk, he says, and the new trend is to come to Canada. It's easier to get a visa here than for the United States, and the countries and education systems are similar. "Some say [Canada]is better," he said.

Manal Al-Johani, 27, a tiny woman in a fuchsia head scarf and large down coat, says she misses her home, but her days are filled with school work and preparing applications. An accountant, she is applying to master's programs and hopes to go on to a PhD. "The education is good here," she said.

Story continues below advertisement

Privately, one campus leader was skeptical about the Saudi government's new-found interest in liberal education. As Canadian campuses increasingly do business with foreign countries, they must not shy away from confronting issues in those nations such as restrictions on human rights and academic freedom, the leader said.

But there is no questioning the financial boost to Canadian universities. The swelling numbers of well-funded Saudi students, who arrive with extra dollars for language training and research, are a particular boon to the bottom line of schools in parts of the country that are facing declining enrolment. Beyond that, university leaders say such academic encounters are bound to pay off in other ways - in greater understanding between two very different cultures, and in the creation of informal networks.

Dalhousie University president Tom Traves led a delegation of presidents from four Canadian universities on a trip to the Gulf state earlier this year. Their visit coincided with a recruiting fair in Riyadh that was expected to draw representatives from 40 Canadian schools and organizations.

The deep-pocketed Saudi government, attempting to move beyond its economic dependence on oil, gives its students studying abroad full-tuition scholarships and thousands in monthly "salary" payments to cover expenses. The program also covers 18 months of language training and provides "bench fees" of between $5,000 and $10,000 to universities that accept students into their graduate programs.

Such funding "by Canadian standards is remarkable," Dr. Traves said. To attract and fund graduate students, researchers usually must use money from their own budgets, he noted. But because the Saudi students come without these costs, they will enable researchers to spread tight budgets among more students. A lab with funding to support two graduate students could expand to four if two were Saudi, he explained.

Their numbers also will provide critical mass for some programs, and broaden the experience of Canada students. "At this point, it looks like a win-win," Dr. Traves said.

Story continues below advertisement

The Saudi government does place restrictions on participants. Students must study in approved fields - mainly sciences, technology and business - maintain high grades, and come home when they finish. Women can only come with a male chaperone, usually a husband or brother who is also allowed to study on scholarship.

At York, policeman Ahmad Alhijili is in Canada under just such an arrangement. The 30-year-old is taking English language classes with his wife, who is hoping to enter a graduate program in biochemistry. "I was just lucky," he said.

Other women say they have come with younger brothers, or with husbands and small children. The Saudi government's monthly payments include extra support for families. "I came here to study education, and when I go home, I will help improve our education system," said Sana, who declined to give her last name. A mother of two small children, she plans to become an instructor at a Saudi university, training other teachers.

The growing number of Saudi students does not surprise Bessma Momani, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. As anti-Arab sentiment grows in Europe and the U.S., she predicts Canada will gain more prominence as a favoured destination. Ease of travel as well as a reputation for tolerance are factors, she said.

Of course, there are also exceptions. In a hallway at York's language school, Turki Al Sabbar, 21, lingers while other students return to class, to voice his outrage at the misconceptions Canadians have of his country.

"They think we are all big criminals," he said. "Some people have asked me if we have TV. They think we ride camels. We are an educated people. The bad image makes me very frustrated."

The Saudi government for decades has sent its doctors for specialist training at Canadian schools, but until 2007, when the scholarship program began here, the numbers were small. Just 1,500 Saudi students were in Canada in 2006, well behind countries such as India, Japan, Germany and Britain. China and South Korea continue to be Canada's largest source of foreign students, although the increasing number of arrivals from Saudi Arabia could put the country in fourth place, close behind the United States.

Prof. Momani said the latest push by the Saudi government to educate its young people is an attempt to move away not only from the country's reliance on oil, but from its dependence on foreign brain power. While it is building its own campuses, the government also recognizes the huge value of foreign degrees, she said. That value must be seen to outweigh the difficulties that might come from sending young people to live for years in more liberal societies, she observed.

Eddy Campbell, president of the University of New Brunswick and one of the leaders on this year's trip to the Gulf state, says the arrival of 300 students from Saudi Arabia to the school's two campuses has brought more than money. "I know a lot of people believe folks like me are only interested in the financial benefits, but we have a richer environment for our students, as well," he said.

Dr. Campbell said their arrival parallels the wave of Chinese students who came to the university a decade ago, and is likely to promote understanding. "It's hard to demonize people that you have sat in a classroom with," he said.

Dr. Traves at Dalhousie said while the Saudi government is offering generous funding, its students must secure a place in Canadian programs based on their academic merits. Those qualifications will be tested as an increasing number of new arrivals complete their language training and apply to Canadian degree programs. He is confident Canadian schools will have plenty of room for their growing numbers.

"I guess there are some limits," he said, "but at this point we are miles away from that."

Saudis studying abroad

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program came to Canada in 2007 and provides tuition, health insurance, a monthly salary to cover expenses, and one return trip to Saudi Arabia each year. Payments are based on the number of family members, with extra money for students with spouses and children. All family members are eligible for scholarships. The program also offers to pay pre-agreed research or bench fees to a university's faculty of graduate studies for master's and PhD students.7,951Saudi Arabian scholarship students in Canada, as of March

4,596 Spouses who are eligible to attend university with their tuition fully paid

1,700 Spouses registered as English-as-a-second-language students, undergraduate or graduate students

2,200 to 3,000 New Saudi scholarship students expected to come to Canada at the end of March

62,000 Saudi students studying around the world

35 Countries accepting Saudi scholarship students

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Toronto City Hall bureau chief

  More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.