Building blocks of a nation

Developing a holistic higher education ecosystem to counter brain drain and retain talent in Nepal


Over 600 young Nepalis apply for no objection certificates every day to go overseas for higher studies. Between January-June 2022, the Ministry of Education in Kathmandu approved 82,000 NOC for students going to Australia, Canada, UK, Japan, and the US. Many of them never come back.

Nepal has long been experiencing a severe brain drain challenge. Moving abroad provides a ray of hope to escape the frustrations of living in a troubled socio-economic and political context, and pursue better higher education, employment, or livelihood opportunities.

The push factors to go abroad are deeply rooted, and are shaped by experiences of peers who have seemingly flourished, escaped the poverty and education trap as well as socio-economic and political frustrations, and climbed the class ladder.

Coming up with policy solutions to break this vicious cycle is challenging, if at all possible. Emphasis on job creation, livelihood opportunities, nationalistic narratives, partnerships with foreign universities to provide foreign degrees are all out there, and they may as well have worked with certain segments of the population.

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But as a Nepali diaspora returnee, I cannot help but ponder what role the lack of higher education possibilities plays in creating a long-lasting and sustained solution. A serious thought on higher education infrastructure and ecosystem seem necessary, including from non-education experts.

Looking back at my high-school self, leaving for higher education was a choice so glorified that it was almost natural. This was commonplace among my peers, and was even the advice from the guidance counsellors.

Nepali students abroad

This sentiment has not changed and in fact, has perhaps been grown. Lack of high-quality higher education institutions in Nepal is a factor for a proportion of Nepali students who migrate abroad for higher education.

Nepal’s higher education system seems to be an archaic and opaque platform that has been on a standstill and has forgotten to move forward with time. There is a need to create a holistic higher education eco-system in Nepal, reform existing institutions, and move to more world class higher education institutions in Nepal.

Internal efforts to establish a world-class higher education institution in Nepal need to be harnessed and acknowledged. Busan Prasain, co-founder of the Daayitwa Fellowship Program, was until very recently laying the groundwork for a liberal arts college through the Ullens Education Foundation.

“There are several regulatory, legislative, legal, and bureaucratic hurdles to establishing an independent higher education institution in Nepal, even before considering the obvious financial and human resource hurdles, despite the manifold opportunities doing so can provide to Nepal,” he says. “As opposed to adding barriers, it is imperative to streamline the process and support initiatives that seek to establish institutions of higher education.”

In addition, an external stimulus in the form of inviting and allowing international universities, and not just affiliate colleges with partnership programs, could be another avenue for Nepal to establish itself as a centre for high quality higher education.

Says Narottam Aryal, the President of King’s College in Kathmandu: “We could make Nepal an international education hub if we could encourage the world’s best universities such as MIT, IIT, ANU and the likes to set up their campus in Nepal in partnership with local colleges and universities.”

NOC letters

There is a need for better understanding on what is needed to attract foreign universities and ensure it is not a money-making business. Having foreign universities in Nepal not only provides high quality education but also attracts international students in the country. Nepal need not look too far away –– the India University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently announced it is inviting foreign universities to open campuses in India.

My alma mater, New York University Abu Dhabi, provides a well-grounded example on how bringing in world-class international universities can help create a higher education ecosystem in the country. At Peking University, where I studied for a master’s degree in economics, I took MBA courses at the Stanford Center, which is Stanford's hub in Beijing for all China-focused research, education and collaborations.

Nepal might not necessarily have the financial impetus of the UAE or the geopolitical, economic, and strategic importance of China to attract foreign universities. However, the country provides a unique research ground and there are many examples of research initiatives within international universities that have a focus in Nepal. Yale’s Himalayan Initiative, NYU Abu Dhabi’s Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water, the Digital Himalaya Project at Cambridge University  are just a few examples.

There are also areas of study that seem to stand Nepal in a competitive advantage – indigenous studies, anthropology, sociology, climate change, environmental studies, horticulture are areas that consistently attract international scholars to Nepal.

The challenges are plentiful but creating a policy environment with a forward vision for the education system in Nepal can be a no-harm approach. Doing so can not only help retain Nepali students and tackle brain-drain, attract foreign students keen on learning about Nepal, develop high quality research output within the country, but also create an ecosystem for overseas companies to employ Nepali professionals in this globalised world.

nepali students abroad

Access to information has levelheaded technologies that are being used globally in the information technology and software engineering industry. The US Labor Department estimates that the global shortage of software engineers may reach 85.2 million by 2030. This brings immense opportunities for software engineers and for Nepal to build talent accordingly.

Karvika Thapa, the CEO at Kimbu Tech, an international software company based in Nepal that provides IT solutions and outsourcing services to companies in Israel and United States of America says, “If Nepal can create a talent pool within the country in the software and IT sector, there is a clear demand from the international community to take advantage of this talent locally.”

She adds, “A globalised world, particularly post the Covid-19 pandemic, brings opportunities for remote working and if Nepal can produce talent, it can also attract international companies into the country.”

But expanding the talent scheme in the IT sector in Nepal is not just about universities and effective pedagogy and curriculum. Alongside, there is a need to focus heavily on teaching programming languages relevant to industry demand, providing early exposure to students by focusing on internships and project-level experiences, as well as helping them build their soft skills which are equally important in the global talent market.

It is therefore important to mention that establishing a university alone would not be a panacea. It will need to be complemented by creating a pipeline of opportunities and an ecosystem that can help businesses come to Nepal and retain the talent within the country.

There is a need for disruption –– both from within but also from the periphery. And establishing high quality higher education institutions could be an important first step. The goal should not be on retaining students in Nepal. Rather, it should be about creating a holistic environment and providing high-quality education, and a by-product of that could be that students and talents are retained. In addition, it can also create an enabling environment for talents who have left abroad to come back and contribute to Nepal.

Rastraraj Bhandari contributes regularly to Nepali Times on climate change.

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