Number of students studying abroad triples over 16 years

The number of Bangladeshi students going abroad in search of world-class degrees and to acquire knowledge and skills has tripled in the past 16 years due to low quality higher education and limited employment opportunities, along with political uncertainties, at home.

The latest data from UNESCO shows 49,151 Bangladeshis are currently enrolled in higher education abroad compared to 33,139 in 2016. In 2011, the number was 22,725 and in 2007 it was 15,700.

“Students now prefer universities abroad as there are, of course, questions about quality of education at higher education institutions of Bangladesh,” University Grants Commission (UGC) member Dil Afroza Begum told University World News this week.

“The number of universities in Bangladesh is on the rise. We are emphasising construction of university buildings, but we are not paying attention to what needs to be done for maintaining quality education, including arranging better teachers, research facilities, modern laboratories and others,” she added.

Abdul Mannan, former UGC chair, confirmed to University World News that quality of higher education was a big issue. “In Bangladesh, education remains exam- and degree-centric, not knowledge-centric. We focused on [increasing] numbers but we did not pay attention to quality,” he said, adding: “A university is not just a matter of bricks and mortar.”

Shift away from India

Currently, there are 4.4 million students at 53 public and 111 private universities and their affiliated colleges in Bangladesh. In the past, thousands of students went to India for higher education, but the introduction of private universities in Bangladesh has checked the flow to India to some degree. Bangladesh approved its first private university in 1992.

The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany and some other European countries have been among the top destinations for Bangladeshi students.

However, in recent years, thousands have headed for countries like the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, because of lower study and living costs, Kazi Faridul Haque, president of the Foreign Admission and Career Development Consultants Association of Bangladesh (FACD-CAB) told University World News.

Many guardians prefer these countries as they are Muslim majority countries, he added.

UNESCO data shows that there are 11,157 Bangladeshi students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE); 8,665 in the United States; 6,180 in Malaysia; 5,647 in Australia; 5,136 in Canada; 3,930 in Germany; 3,194 in the United Kingdom; 2,802 in Japan; 2,750 in India; and 1,176 in South Korea, along with other countries.

Students often prefer Malaysian universities as education costs are comparatively cheap, while many Malaysian and UAE universities have international collaboration and joint programmes with the UK, the US and other countries, Mannan said.

Students are going abroad for qualifications and skills to become global citizens and improve future employment prospects, he added.

Language and class

Mannan said foreign universities also offer a lot of scholarships and other facilities to attract international students, including Bangladeshi students. He noted that the financial capacity of Bangladeshi students has also increased leading to the rise in number of students going abroad.

In the past Bangladeshis going abroad to study tended to be from affluent classes and had attended English-medium secondary schools, providing them with a language advantage. But now many students from upper-middle-class as well as middle-class backgrounds are also going abroad, said both Mannan and Begum.

Students from English-medium schools in Bangladesh prefer to go abroad for undergraduate programmes while mainstream Bengali-medium students usually go abroad for postgraduate courses.

English-medium education has become popular in Bangladesh but students at English-medium secondary schools struggle with admission tests at public universities which are mainly based on the country’s mainstream Higher Secondary School Certificate (HSC) syllabus, Begum explained.

Brain drain

“Many guardians think that it will be wise to send their children abroad so that they can settle there. Their children will not face uncertainties [because of] the lack of employment opportunities,” she added, whereas in Bangladesh, “there are allegations of nepotism in getting jobs; fair selection hardly takes place”.

Unsurprisingly, brain drain is a long-standing problem for Bangladesh, as the majority of students do not return after completing their studies abroad.

“To ensure all of them return to Bangladesh and stop the brain drain, we will need to ensure a proper academic atmosphere at higher education institutions,” said Mannan.