Driven by the current economic crisis, high unemployment and political instability, increasing numbers of Sri Lankan students have been going abroad for higher education since early this year. According to leading student migration consultancy agencies in Sri Lanka, the outflow is expected to rise further.
In addition to student migration, professionals such as doctors, nurses, scientists and IT experts are seeking jobs overseas. According to a recent Central Bank of Sri Lanka report, so far this year over 150,000 Sri Lankans have left for foreign employment. Last year there were 117,952 over the whole year.
According to Department of Immigration and Emigration data, Sri Lanka has issued nearly 600,000 passports this year compared to the previous year when about 382,000 – an increase of 63% – were issued. Currently the department is issuing about 3,000 passports daily, compared with 1,000 earlier.
Many students say they are going abroad as the future job market in the country is so uncertain and because of the current economic crisis, marked by severe fuel and food shortages, which they do not believe will be resolved soon.
The resignation of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July after massive protests has not increased confidence.
Few job prospects
Ashi Adhikari, a female student at a private university in Nugegoda on the outskirts of Colombo, told University World News it will be very difficult to find a job in the future. “Most of my friends have plans to migrate, so after completing my [undergraduate] degree, I also want to migrate for higher studies.”
“Saying goodbye to parents and siblings is a difficult task, but to survive we need to migrate,” she added.
According to the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s inflation hit a record high of 66.7% in July. Food inflation has already increased to 82.5%, according to the National Consumer Price Index. According to the latest World Bank assessment, Sri Lanka is listed as having the fifth highest food price inflation in the world.
Young people have been badly affected by the economic crisis. According to the Department of Census and Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, for the first quarter of 2022 the youth unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 years was 19.2% – the highest reported unemployment rate among all age groups.
Vinura Perera, who studied at a private university in Homagama, some 24 kilometres from Colombo, and is currently working in the IT field, said he had been hoping to go abroad for a long time, even before the economic and political crisis.
He is among many skilled professionals seeking to leave in an ongoing brain drain. But it’s not easy.
“I have been trying since 2019. I have no plans to migrate using a student visa, but I am trying for skilled migration or a work visa,” he told University World News. “I don’t have enough funds, and for skilled migration the competition is very high,” he said. But he added: “I want to improve the quality of my life and want to settle in a developed country and to get permanent residency. I would like to migrate to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or France.”
Rising enquiries from students
Colombo-based Campus Direct, a leading career guidance, counselling and student services centre for overseas higher education, places students at leading universities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Singapore and Malaysia.
Amrith Weerasekera, director of PR and communications, told University World News the company had seen an increase in the number of students wanting to study in foreign countries.
According to Campus Direct data, most students apply for the United Kingdom, followed by Australia and Canada.
“The UK is an attractive study destination. Masters degrees are one year [in duration] and are cost efficient. The UK is giving a two-year post-study work visa. The total process for the UK is easier; that is why large numbers of students are going there,” Weerasekera said.
“An increase in the number of students migrating to other countries is also seen these days,” he added, noting he expects the number of students going abroad to increase in the coming days and weeks as the new academic year approaches.
The British High Commission in Colombo has recommended that students apply for a visa as soon as possible as they anticipate high demand over the next few weeks.
“August is the peak period for student visa applications. You should apply as soon as you have your documents ready and well in advance of your course start date,” the High Commission tweeted.
Weerasekera also pointed to a tendency for more students to go abroad for postgraduate study rather than undergraduate study.
Interest in Australia
There has been a considerable increase in enquiries from students wanting to go to Australia for studies, a representative of Australian New Zealand Education Consultants Pvt Ltd (ANZEC) in Panadura told University World News, though so far numbers actually going abroad have not increased greatly.
ANZEC provides consultancy services for students who wish to study abroad, mainly at universities in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.
“Though there is a lot of interest in going abroad for education as well as a lot of enquiries, the same number will not go abroad. This is due to factors such as the gap between qualifications required and the qualifications currently available to students,” the representative said.
According to ANZEC data, a large number of students apply to Australian universities such as Monash, Deakin, RMIT, La Trobe, Victoria and Swinburne.
Most Sri Lankan students are interested in studying degrees related to IT, commerce, nursing, teaching, psychology and law.
“Australia is popular for high quality education and offers state of the art facilities. Many students have relatives who can help with accommodation and there are many scholarships for international students from Sri Lanka,” he said, pointing to the guidance and the support students get from friends and relatives currently studying and living in Australia.
Foreign exchange hurdles
Despite the interest in study abroad, due to the current foreign exchange crisis in Sri Lanka, many students are facing serious problems realising their plans.
“I was all set for migration, but due to forex issues, I couldn’t pay the initial course fee, so I couldn’t enrol for the September intake. Now I am trying for the January intake,” Charith Karunaratne, who is hoping to study in the UK, told University World News.
“I am trying to move to another country because here we are spending more money than [we earn in] salary due to the current inflation. A few months ago, the IELTS [International English Language Testing System] exam charge was about US$100 and now it has increased to US$140,” he added.
Weerasekera noted: “There are a couple of universities that are temporarily limiting the admission of Sri Lankan students to their universities as students have failed to pay course fees due to forex issues in Sri Lanka.”
“Those universities will resume admitting Sri Lankan students again in the near future,” he said, referring to the University of Huddersfield and the University of South Wales in the UK, both of which reportedly deferred admissions from Sri Lanka for at least six months due to foreign exchange payment issues.
Obtaining post-study work visa status is another reason for the increase in students to the UK, he said.
Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange crisis, leading to government restrictions on the flow of money out of the country, the collapse in the value of the Sri Lankan currency and rampant inflation have meant difficulties funding overseas education from Sri Lanka and have led to a reliance on earnings while studying in host countries and after graduation with post-study work visa status.
Making ends meet while studying is challenging. “I lost my job during the COVID pandemic. It was getting very tough to live with two kids in Sri Lanka, so I sold our house and migrated with my whole family to the UK,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous.
“It is challenging. We have to study and earn to pay the course fee, but with the support of my wife, now we are in the safe zone,” he added.
With so many people trying to go abroad, several incidents have been reported of fraudsters engaged in issuing fake passports, fake visas and fake job offers, prompting the police to advise the public to exercise caution.
Attempts to illegally enter other countries through sea routes have also increased. So far this year over 1,100 people have been arrested by the Sri Lankan police and navy for attempting illegal migration via sea.
The Australian authorities have returned 183 Sri Lankan nationals attempting to illegally migrate to Australia since May 2022. Australian officials say there is no room for illegal migration to Australia by sea and have urged Sri Lankans not to engage in such voyages or to get involved with people smugglers.
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