Birkbeck’s first visit to Saudi Arabia

This post was contributed by Steven Jefferies, from Birkbeck’s International Office.

January 2014 marked Birkbeck’s inaugural recruitment visit to Saudi Arabia. Quite what George Birkbeck would have made of this is difficult to discern, given that the Kingdom didn’t exist in its present form until 1932. He would have been intrigued by the destination; but would equally have recognised the College’s commitment to welcoming students of all backgrounds.

The favoured subjects of Saudi students are simultaneously a help and a hindrance in attracting students to Birkbeck. The Saudi government’s desire to diversify the nation’s economy away from oil means that scholarships are readily available for engineering and medicine, two areas that the college currently offers no tuition in. Luckily for Birkbeck however, the government is equally alert to the country’s need for a generation of civil servants, public officials and business professionals to support the future of the nation. Since the turn of the century Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Department of Applied Linguistics have both had modest numbers of Saudi students, and out of the twenty six that are currently enrolled, the majority are studying at postgraduate level in those two Departments. The goal over the next year will be to broaden the appeal of Birkbeck to Saudi students across all academic departments.

There are broadly speaking two set methodologies for achieving this aim: developing good relations with scholarship agencies and Saudi universities, and raising the university’s profile on the ground in Saudi by attending fairs and exhibitions. Although by Western standards interactions in the public sphere follow fairly strict conventions, face-to-face contact and strong personal relationships remain the key to successful business transactions, and so regular visits such as January’s are crucial.

From a diverse set of meetings held during the visit, it seems that there is potential for Birkbeck’s evening study model to appeal to aspiring Saudi postgraduates. The opportunity to develop a professional network and enhance employability through internships and work experience while studying is particularly appealing to women, and the large South-Asian expatriate community for whom employment prospects remain a crucial decision-making factor in university choices. In the long term raising Birkbeck’s profile could lead to a partnership with a Saudi university, something which the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is keen to endorse. Although the Saudi higher education sector is expanding rapidly, and already boasts a number of highly reputable institutions, their research profile is comparatively low in the West. This has led many Saudi institutions to take the dual approach of developing partnerships by sending their academics overseas, and seeking English-speaking universities to reciprocate.

The weather in Saudi Arabia in January is a welcome retreat from the squalls of the United Kingdom. Business travellers to Saudi Arabia are advised to stick to a suit and tie, somewhat stifling in the heat and also a magnet for diverted gazes given that the majority of Saudis stick to the nation’s traditional dress: a thawb for men and an abaya for the women. As might be expected in a pious nation where kinship networks are the cornerstones of business and culture, Saudi hospitality is notably zealous: complete strangers will exchange pleasantries on the street readily and dinner hosts will do their upmost to treat every guest with dignity and honour. Contrary to public perception in the West, the majority will also welcome Western visitors with vigour, although the youthful progressivism that can be found in other Arab nations is tempered by strict adherence to the Kingdom’s official interpretation of Sunni Islam.

April will see Birkbeck venture once more to Riyadh, this time for the annual International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education, attended in 2013 by nearly 500, 000 students. Attendance at the high profile government-sponsored event is a must for any university looking to raise their profile in the Kingdom, and Birkbeck will be one among many hundreds of global institutions. However, by prioritising the offer of evening study, Birkbeck will be the only institution in attendance presenting a genuine alternative for the career-conscious student seeking the highest quality university education. Of this, George Birkbeck would surely be proud.


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