‘Abroad Study’ has entered the Nepali lexicon. Student out-migration now rivals the medical education industry, overseas contract work, and tourism as the fastest growing sector of Nepal’s economy.
Labour migration to India, West Asia and the Gulf, and the remittance Nepali workers send home from there gets most public attention, but the number of Nepalis going to Australia, Japan and Europe to study is growing every year.
As Western countries tighten immigration policies, student visas have become the preferred method for young Nepalis to emigrate. Some host countries have left that door deliberately ajar as a way to control and calibrate the import of cheap labour for menial jobs their own nationals do not want to work in.
Most young Nepalis who line up at ‘educational consultancies’ in Kathmandu these days are waiting for a one-way ticket out of Nepal. In a Nepali Times survey this month, most of those leaving on student visas freely admitted that their intention is to emigrate. Last year, Australia was the top destination, followed by Japan, European countries and the US (see map).
Suresh Khadka from Dhangadi is applying to go to Australia because his brother who went there three years ago, has convinced him studying in Australia will help him become more independent, mature and skilled.
Suraj Sinjali is leaving to study culinary arts in Australia, and says he wants better education and experience: "I explored some institutions in Nepal, but found Australia much more attractive.”
Pujyata Karmacharya is studying economics in Australia, and says facilities and level of instruction are much better there. Having studied migration herself, she adds that the main attraction for most Nepalis is that students are allowed to work 20 hours a week, and stay on with post-study work permits to gain experience.
Kajol Rai is in Japan, and says most Nepal students there work more and study less. “They come here mostly to earn money,” she wrote in an email interview.
Dil B Lama’s parents in Hetauda sold family property to pay an educational consultancy in Kathmandu Rs1.5 million to fix him a student visa. Lama, 20, says it is an investment in his future. He hopes to work part-time to pay the fees at a little-known accountancy college in Sydney.
"I don't think I am coming back," Lama tells us frankly, “the student visa is the only way to leave Nepal.”
Student visas have become an easy avenue for young Nepalis to enter Australia or Japan, because unlike work visas, they do not require the presentation of tangible skill sets. Students can work as cashiers, janitors, waiters, or even Uber drivers while studying. Often, they can convert the student visas to work permits.
The number of Nepalis in Japan has grown ten-fold in the last ten years to 90,000 with most of the increase due to new student arrivals. In 2008, there were less than 1,000 Nepalis on student visas in Japan, this year it has jumped to 25,000.
“The Japan government does not want to open the main door for unskilled labour migration, so Nepalis are allowed to come in through the back door to fulfill the need for cheap labour to make up for Japan’s shrinking workforce,” Masako Tanaka, professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who has studied Nepali labour migration, told this newspaper last year.
Language is still an issue in Japan, which is why Australia has now become the #1 destination for migrating students. Shreeram Twanabasu has been in Japan for nine years, and explains: "Living in Japan is expensive, so students will not be able to afford costs without working. And after starting to work, it becomes difficult to continue studies."
It is peer pressure and ease of acquiring student visas that has convinced young Nepalis to apply to study abroad. Most say they were attracted by glamorous Facebook posts of classmates or relatives. But once they get there, many find things are not so rosy.
"People do not want to talk about the hard work and struggle on Facebook, and they post pictures of the occasional outings that makes it seem like life here is very prosperous," says Sugam Suwal who has been in Australia four years. “Australia is difficult and requires exceptional self motivation.”
Nearly 5,000 students went to Europe last year, and the highest number to Poland. Although many students went on government scholarships, and are attracted by the high quality of education, most are there with the intention of emigrating. There are also jobs which need to be filled in the shrinking work force of most European countries.
“If Nepalis receive degrees from good universities, they can compete for jobs like any other European,” says Anshu Adhikari who did her thesis on migration from Hungary’s Central European University.
But most European schools do not offer scholarships, and students find managing costs and attending college very difficult leading to a high dropout rate. With limited skills, young Nepalis end up as cooks or farmhands. Despite this, earnings are better and Nepali student migrants in Europe prefer to stay on.
Besides the brain drain and the billions Nepalis spend to pay for their school fees abroad, the growing out-migration is an indicator of the disillusionment of Nepal’s aspirational youth with the state of the country’s education, development and future.
Not all Nepali students who go abroad to study end up staying there, and many still working after their studies still nurse a dream of coming back to their home country.
Some return because of family, others because they miss the more relaxed lifestyle in Nepal. Others are motivated by giving back to society in Nepal, and say they prefer to contribute to the motherland than being a cog in the wheel abroad. Lately, there has been a steady stream of students returning because of tighter immigration rules that make it difficult to get residency abroad.
Ashutosh Tiwari, who studied at Harvard University and came back to Nepal in the 1990s says that his primary reason for returning was to be with family.
"I had other cousins who had gone abroad to study and had come back to Nepal, so I had someone to look up to," recalls Tiwari, adding that staying abroad was not as popular as now. The Nepali diaspora has grown, and this has made it easier for others to stay.
The primary reason for Atulya Pandey’s return was the denial of his B-1 visa in the US, a story that made it to the New York Times front page. But Pandey took advantage of this for worldwide expansion of Page Vamp, a New York based company he co-founded with fellow University of Pennsylvania graduates Fred Wang and Vincent Sanchez-Gomez.
But with youths disenchanted with the political and economic state of Nepal, the pull force may not be strong enough to convince young Nepalis to return, especially when there are limited job opportunities.
Sugam Suwal in Australia says he has a dream to start a construction company back in Nepal but adds: “The situation in Nepal does not really make it possible for us to take the risk.”
New laws in Japan
The number of young Nepalis migrating to Japan is likely to increase further if the country’s plans to allow more foreigners to make up for a decline in its workforce ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics goes ahead.
However, the Japan government is also planning to reduce its informal visa quota for cooks and students in favour of five-year work permits for blue collar workers. This is after reports of misuse of the visas by foreigners, as well as exploitation of students by employers.
Nepalis have been migrating to Japan on visas for chefs, students, dependents or trainees, and the number of Nepalis in Japan is crossing 90,000. The Japanese Department of Justice had been lenient on visas in the past because it wanted a legal loophole for cheap labour.
Fewer applicants in Kathmandu for student and professional visas are being approved compared to previously. Prospective students pay Rs1.3 million to educational consultancies to fix their admissions and visas, but there has been a marked drop in the student visa approvals by the embassy. Those on student visas are allowed to work for 28 hours a week, and many pay their college fees with their earnings.
Nepali students work at night and go to schools in the daytime, with many reportedly falling asleep at their desks. Others drop out of school because they find the language barrier difficult. There have also been cases of some genuine students returning to Nepal, or going on to Australia because they find the quality of instruction not as expected.
Besides the demand for the Olympics, Japan needs more workers in the service industry, agriculture, transport and as care givers because of its aging population, with a third of the population above 60, and 70,000 Japanese older than 100.
Under the plan, which has been opposed by Japan’s rightwing parties, five-year work permits will be given to foreigners in specific professions and they will not be allowed to bring dependents. It will require all migrant workers to learn Japanese before arriving.
There are now 1.3 million foreign workers in Japan, double the figure five years ago. The number of Nepalis has grown ten fold in the past seven years mainly because of the increase in the number of students and dependents. This is a visa loophole that allows small and medium enterprises in Japan to source cheap low-skilled labour.
The new rules will come into effect next April if it is approved by Parliament and will change the process through which Nepalis are going to Japan to work on student visas. With 21,500 students, Nepal is ranked third among countries with the highest number of nationals on student visas after China and Vietnam.
Kunda Dixit in Tokyo
I have worked with disadvantaged women and children in Nepal for 14 years. It was only yesterday that I was speaking with the Nepal Consul in Brisbane about the number of young Nepali students contacting me for financial help and advice getting employment. It seems many are getting into financial problems using credit cards to cover periods of unemployment. It is not easy getting employment in Australia and I believe Migration Agents should be taking more responsibility to ensure these kids have adequate means to support themselves before leaving Nepal. Education and Daily living costs are extremely high in Australia and so I do not believe many of these kids are prepared for this reality when they arrive here. Australia is a hard country and not the promised land that some migration agents may make it out to be.
- Mike Hogan
Primary reason my married friends (girls) don't want to return to Nepal has to do with expectations from their in-laws. When they come for holidays, they say the trailer is enough & they can't imagine moving back. Emigrating is the easiest way to move out!
- Paavan Mathema