Nepal’s hard working students overseas

Estimated number of Nepalis studying, working and living abroad in selected countries. Source: VARIOUS SOURCES

At a recent graduation ceremony of one Australian university, 300 students paraded across the stage to receive their diplomas. All were Nepalis, except one. The only white people there were faculty members.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that at an average cost of USD30,000 per year for their undergraduate education Nepali students spent $15 million in just that one university in Australia.

Just from January-June 2022, the Ministry of Education in Kathmandu approved 82,000 NOC (No Objection Certificates) for Nepali students going to Australia, Canada, UK, Japan and the US. This was more than double the figure for last year.

A conservative estimate shows that Nepalis spent a whopping $3.3 billion for education overseas in just the first six months of this year. By comparison, Nepal’s annual petroleum import bill has risen to $2.5 billion, and tourism brought in less than $1 million in 2019.

Nepalis are essentially enriching first world countries with student out-migration now costing the country more than what it earns from all its exports combined.

Although some of the money students spend on fees and living costs are from what they earn from part-time jobs, much of it is funded by families in Nepal who sell their land or borrow money to send their children away.

Since work and residence permits are difficult, getting a student visa is the easiest path to emigration for desperate Nepali youth. For host countries, this is a way to get cheap labour for low-skill jobs that their own nationals will not do.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that the ‘Nepal market’ was worth $2.6 billion to Australia in 2018-19, up from $1.6 billion the previous year. Nepal is the third biggest source of international students in Australia accounting for 7% of them.

"My best guess is that a majority of Nepalese students in Australia are here simply for work, hoping to make enough money in Australia both to pay off their tuition loans and return some extra to their families back in Nepal,” Salvatore Babones at the Centre for Independent Studies of the University of Sydney told the Herald.

Countries like Australia, Canada, Japan, and increasingly the UK have deliberately left their immigration door slightly ajar to address their temporary labour shortage by giving out student visas, without a drastic liberalisation of their strict immigration policies. A bonus is the income that they earn from student fees.

International students are an excellent business proposition. The Danish Society of Engineers in Copenhagen this week asked the government to drop the cap on foreign graduates and allow them to work after completing studies to fill a crippling shortage of engineers.

Many Nepali students interviewed for this report admitted that getting a student visa was a one-way ticket out of Nepal. Indeed, the push-factors are strong: erratic and low quality instruction in colleges, and the lack of job prospects.

Whereas abroad, students get better education and exposure, earn some money on the side because the host governments allow them to work a limited hours per week, and also because of the possibility of staying on.

Read Also: Hardworking Students, Editorial

Another push factor, especially for young Nepali women is that by going abroad they can escape family pressure for an arranged marriage. Nepali youth are also frustrated with Nepal’s politics and leadership, and most voted for the Rastriya Swatantra Party in November elections.

“Three thousand Nepali youth are leaving the country every day either on work or student visas, but many of them will not be coming back,” says Pukar Malla of the non-profit Dayitwa which supports returnees with entrepreneurship in Nepal.

Making it easy for students to leave allows the government to get away with not improving the state of education in Nepal. This is similar to labour migration which lets the government off the hook by not having to worry about job creation, and runs the country on the estimated $10 billion in remittance that Nepalis send home every year.

The disparity between public and private education systems in Nepal is stark. And while there have been some notable improvements including world-class education in business administration, economics and public policy, much of this is centred around Kathmandu and not on the scale required.

“The fact that our education is still very much rote learning with curriculum not relevant to our context means we are producing graduates without actual skills required to meet challenges. Moreover, our education doesn’t even guarantee them jobs,” says educationist Narottam Aryal of King’s College.

Speaking to Nepali Times from Finland where he is attending a conference on education reform, Aryal added: “We must shift our focus to innovation and entrepreneurship, to evidence-based research and interdisciplinary learning. Unless our policies put students at the centre, we will continue to lose our brightest young minds.”

Some recommendations include reforming university law such that the focus is on quality instruction instead of infrastructure, and allowing autonomy in specific areas of study and their institutions.

Says Pukar Malla: “Let’s get going by empowering our youth and women who are still in Nepal, providing them with leadership roles. Once we truly start changing politics and work for the people, even those who have left will start returning home.”

Read Also: Migration Certificate, Prakriti Kandel

Sima Gurung, 22

Bristol, UK

I am from Sindhuli and I went to college in Kathmandu. After graduating in 2019, I am now doing a three-year undergraduate course in UWE-Bristol. I also work part-time as a bartender in a Latin-American restaurant here.

It has only been three months since I left Nepal. The reason I left was that my college affiliated to Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu relied only on theoretical knowledge. I needed to have more practical knowledge and more exposure for better opportunities in future.

Here in Britain, universities have decades of experience in working with international students. My annual tuition fee was £14,250 a year but I got a partial scholarship. In addition, I paid £5,700 for my CAS letter as per university regulations plus expenses for medical, visa and biometric fees.

There are many international students in UWE-Bristol which also includes a lot of Nepalis. I have met some of them who took loans to be able to afford education here.

I have many friends who have settled down abroad. There are a lot of opportunities here, and that discourages them from returning. But I have also met students who are here for learning and exposure and are determined to return to apply it back home.

I haven’t thought much about my future plans yet. I will probably return to Nepal, but I’m not sure. I definitely want to contribute in some way for my country. But there must be jobs that pay well back home for me to return.

Samjhauta Rai, 26

Winnipeg, Canada

I am originally from a small town in Sarlahi district. I completed my bachelor's degree in social work in a college in Kathmandu before moving to Canada for a diploma course after paying a lot of money in the hope that I would get a quality education and exposure to the outside world.

Since I arrived here in midst of the pandemic, I had to bear a lot of extra expenses from tuition fees to preparing additional documents, booking hotels for quarantine and so on. But the online classes were well planned, engaging and efficient. There was a stark difference with education in Nepal.

Taking a loan to afford abroad studies is a common practice in Nepal and I had to as well to build my career and secure a future. I see students dying to go aboard, risking everything to get a visa that they think would open the doors to their imagined lifestyle.

Most students who come here tend to stay on permanently. But I do want to return to Nepal ultimately. Maybe a couple of years down the line, I will be back home and set up something using the skills I have learnt here.

Lack of jobs back home is the main reason for youth migration. It is the failure of the Nepal government that we are forced to leave. Even when they have a job on return, the salaries are low. The government should have a social safety net to help low income families.

Canada has taught me a great deal of things. I’m more patient, calm and composed. But personally, I think it is best to return to our own country at some point. I cannot wait to get back home and add value to my experience here.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.