Reversing Nepal’s brain drain

As students continue to go abroad, Nepali universities and colleges are losing their prospective students.

Maina Dhital

Maina Dhital

The Kathmandu Post


As students continue to go abroad, Nepali universities and colleges are losing their prospective students. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

August 28, 2023

KATHMANDU – Back in the day, only the kids from well-off families—mostly from the valley—and a handful of brilliant students with scholarships could go overseas for higher education. But things have changed in recent years, as is evident in the rising number of Nepali students leaving the country, especially after completing high school.

According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, around 600 students apply for a No Objection Certificate (NOC)—a must for Nepali students wanting to study abroad—daily. In 2022, the total number of students obtaining NOC reached 121,00, up from 44,800 the previous year. English-speaking nations (US, Australia, UK, and Canada) are the most favoured destinations for Nepali students, although non-English-speaking ones, such as Japan, Thailand and Germany, have also attracted many over the years.

Push and pull

The trend of studying abroad results from both push and pull factors. Concerns about political instability, corruption, economic uncertainty and lack of opportunities in the home country may push students to seek a better future elsewhere. Pursuing an education in foreign countries has become a huge status symbol among Nepalis. People boast about the successes of their friends, families and relatives by posting “attractive” pictures on social media, luring others. Meanwhile, students, and by extension their parents, are lured by the modern amenities and living standards of developed countries. Many Nepali parents consider it a failure on their part if their children are not abroad for education or work. Quality education, employment opportunities, higher earnings prospects, global exposure, better living standards and political and economic stability are some factors attracting young students to study abroad.

Enrollment crisis

As students continue to go abroad, Nepali universities and colleges are losing their prospective students. Private and government-funded universities have seen a sharp decline in student enrollment, and colleges, mostly those affiliated with Tribhuvan University (TU), are either terminating programmes or merging with others. Kathmandu University (KU), the country’s leading university known for offering quality education, is also struggling to fill its seats.

The exodus of students has led to a brain drain problem, as only a handful of them return to Nepal after graduation. In my conversations with Nepali students pursuing education in Australia and the US, I have not found anyone who wants to return home after graduating. They do not see any opportunity in Nepal, and many struggle to find the job they deserve even when they return. Even after employment, their salaries are insufficient to pay back their education loan. “We invested a huge amount of hard-earned money to earn the degree and can’t recover our investment by working in Nepal,” a female graduate who works at a New York-based corporate firm told me. Their struggle with paying expensive tuition fees for college and time management for work and study is a different story.

International undergraduate students pay between AUD20,000 and 40,000 yearly for undergraduate study in Australia. Many of them also require a one-year diploma programme for eligibility for undergraduate studies. However, a diploma programme costs as much as an undergraduate degree. Similarly, on average, an American undergraduate degree for international students costs around USD100,000. Nepali students reportedly took USD571 million to various countries for their tuition fees in the last 11 months of FY 2022-23.

Retaining strategy

If planned carefully, Nepal can reverse the brain drain, leading to vibrant economic growth and overall advancement. For this, it needs to apply twin strategies: Restructuring academic institutions and reversing the brain drain.

Improvement of the education system in the country should start with TU and its affiliated colleges. TU has been in chaos in the past few years with the increasing intervention of political parties and their sister organisations and its failure to execute the academic calendar system, resulting in delayed exams and results. Research shows that delaying college impacts future earnings and careers for students.

Nepali universities and colleges can do more than provide paper degrees to graduates. Policymakers should seriously work on multifaceted solutions to address this problem. Strict execution of academic calendars in colleges across the country, collaborations with reputable international institutions, upgrading facilities like internet access, library, and cafeteria, creating part-time on-campus job opportunities and focus on research and innovation are some examples.

Instead of lamenting over low enrollments, academic policymakers and university leadership should take proactive steps to attract foreign students. This will improve enrollments and enhance TU’s standing in the global education ranking. Nepali universities—especially public-funded—need to consider establishing an endowment fund for financial sustainability as all the universities except Kathmandu University are heavily dependent on government funding. The endowment modality will ensure financial sustainability and less dependence on state funding, promoting research and innovation.

Similarly, scholarships and fellowships can attract bright students from all over the world, also assuring a support system that reduces financial barriers to local students from low-income families. Furthermore, TU and other universities should partner with corporate and philanthropic organisations to provide fresh graduates with internships, practical training and job opportunities. Due to the lack of such options, graduates are forced to leave the country to seek overseas employment opportunities.

Similarly, career counselling, mentorships and networking opportunities help students make informed decisions about education and future career paths. I have been amazed by US universities and colleges in this regard; every college has its separate career service unit providing students with career counselling and support, including help with exploring career options, writing resumes and cover letters, job interview preparations, and so forth. Partnering with international universities for exchange programmes, joint degrees, and research collaborations provides students with exposure to global education while keeping ties with their home country. Similarly, building an active alumni network connects current students with graduates, showcasing the possibilities available within their home country. This is necessary to receive donations from their alumni.

The government raised the tuition fee payment tax for overseas colleges and universities to 3 percent, further compounding the financial burden on students and parents. Imposing additional tax isn’t the solution if the education system and job opportunities aren’t improved. Moreover, this won’t slow down the trend of overseas study.

Nepal can supply highly skilled human resources to the global market by developing a quality education system. Effective coordination among local, provincial and federal governments, as well as the private sector, the largest employer in the country, is a must for developing the strategies. After all, an educated and skilled labour force is the driving force towards the country’s growth and prosperity.

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