International educational services have become one of the fastest-growing business sectors in the world. In the Middle East, in particular, there are significant, untapped opportunities for Ireland.
The technology-based learning specialist Eduware puts the value of the education sector in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region at $61bn (€51bn) and the share of private education at $5.5bn (€4.6bn). As the Gulf economies look to diversify, improve public sector efficiency and grow their private sector workforce, they are seeking a new mix of skills across disciplines and levels. According to PwC Middle East, governments in the region are encouraging public-private partnerships to meet increasing demand, and international partnerships are becoming increasingly sophisticated to offer the best of global good practice in a localised environment.
The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland identified this opportunity over a decade ago and now operates campuses in Dubai and Bahrain. However, there is far wider potential, not just for our universities and institutes of technology - but also for companies in the education and training space. Those that seize the opportunity will find that they are, in many ways, pushing an open door. This is particularly the case in the UAE, where Ireland's education system is highly regarded.
This is evident from the large numbers of Irish teachers and nurses employed across the Emirates, as well as newer developments. For example, the Irish book publisher CJ Fallon recently entered a school-book partnership with the UAE Education Ministry. In January, a delegation from the ministry travelled to the Young Scientist Exhibition in Dublin, with a view to replicating the competition at home. In addition, the Ministry has stated its intention to recruit more Irish teachers and Irish inspectors, with immediate effect.
There are many examples of co-operation in the medical area too. The UAE is replicating Ireland's training system for paramedics and has committed to send 50 Emirati paramedics a year to Ireland for training. Similarly, the Dubai Ambulance Service follows Irish ambulance service guidelines, and the fit out of ambulances in Dubai is undertaken by three Irish companies.
These developments suggest a receptive market, with significant potential for other Irish businesses. Enterprise Ireland's offices in Dubai, Riyadh and Doha can help companies will the right offering and ambition to understand the Gulf markets and their key players. We are also focused on helping our universities and institutes of technology win a greater share of students from the region. The UAE's outbound student mobility rate is one of the highest in the world.
Ireland is seen by the Arab world as providing a safe and welcoming environment, particularly for female students. In addition, given the evolving political landscape in the United States and the fact that Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU after Brexit, we are uniquely positioned to attract high-quality Middle Eastern students.
However, the value of international students is not always fully understood in Ireland. The economic impacts can spill over into other sectors such as tourism. Students will be visited by their families and friends, and after they graduate they are likely to return with their own families.
A more diverse student population enables Irish students to build international contacts and gain a better understanding of other cultures, which is increasingly important in a globalised world. Equally, experience tells us that for overseas graduates, great memories of their student days and a deep appreciation of their formative years in Ireland foster long-term goodwill and international understanding. These graduates will, in effect, become a significant part of Ireland's new diaspora and a powerful asset in the decades ahead.
Eamon Sikafi advises on the Middle East and North Africa markets and is based in Enterprise Ireland's Dubai office