Student Migration from Bangladesh in 2023: Trends and Trajectory

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Bangladesh has witnessed a remarkable surge in student migration in recent years, reflecting the country’s growing commitment to education and global engagement. The recent trends in Bangladeshi students seeking opportunities abroad have been on a steady rise, highlighting an ambitious young population eager to explore international academic landscapes.

Students from all around the world are increasingly traveling abroad to pursue opportunities in higher education. In recent times, there has been a noticeable trend among Bangladeshi students to seek higher education abroad. Several Western nations are attempting to address their workforce shortages through educational migration as their fertility rates and populations begin to decline. Additionally, youth in Bangladesh are also grabbing the growing prospects for educational migration. Bangladesh has made great strides in this regard, but the country’s educational institutions still need improvement in terms of infrastructure, curriculum, and instructor quality. There are distinct reasons why a significant percentage of Bangladeshi students are choosing to study overseas instead of staying in their home country. Many students believe that universities in countries such as the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and others provide more advanced and comprehensive courses that will offer them a competitive advantage in the global job market.

This brief will first shed light on the current trends in the student migration arena, and examine the causes and the dramatic impact of these movements. It will also examine the massive impact student migration has on cultural diplomacy and how developed nations are offering lucrative scholarships to add to their soft power tool.

According to the latest UNESCO data, in 2023, 52,799 students from Bangladesh traveled overseas to pursue their studies and among these students, 8,524 went to the United States, followed by 6,586 to the United Kingdom, 5,835 to Canada, 5,714 to Malaysia, 5,046 to Germany, 4,987 to Australia, 2,082 to Japan, 2,606 to India, 1,202 to the Republic of Korea, and 1,190 to Saudi Arabia. A total of 49,151 Bangladeshi students left the country in 2022, compared to 44,338 in 2021. With 11,157 students, the United Arab Emirates is the most popular destination for Bangladeshis, followed by the USA, Malaysia, and some other countries. Due to the relatively inexpensive cost of education in the UAE and Malaysia, thousands of students have been choosing these countries as the destination for their higher studies. Furthermore, many students, particularly those who attend madrasas, select these nations as the majority of the population are Muslims in these countries.

The number of Bangladeshi students studying in the US is at an all-time high, having increased over 300 percent over the past ten years. These days, more Bangladeshi students are studying in the US due to easier access to student loans, parents’ increased income, increased scholarship opportunities, and simple access to information. The current number of Bangladeshi students in the US is one of the greatest increases in an academic year in the world, up 28% from the previous academic year (2021–2022). With 2,500 students enrolled in undergraduate programs during the current academic year, the number of Bangladeshi undergraduate students increased by more than 50%. With about 10,000 graduate students enrolled in US universities, Bangladesh ranks seventh globally for graduate student enrollment in the US. The number of foreign students studying in the US increased at the quickest rate in forty years during the 2022–2023 academic year.

Several countries have been attracting students with generous scholarship programs and other perks, including the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, and Japan. Giving overseas students scholarships is one way to apply the concept of soft power. It places other national concerns on the periphery and puts the objective of fostering more amicable connections between people at its core. International education aid is frequently regarded as a form of soft power used to uphold national security and extend influence internationally. Educational institutions welcome international students often to foster bilateral development, academic partnerships, and international cooperation. The Institute of Education and Fulbright Program in the United States, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) and Goethe-Institute in Germany, and the Commonwealth Scholarship are all prime examples of state-sponsored educational initiatives that aim to promote bilateral and cultural development and cooperation as well as raise awareness of the country abroad and strengthen its influence for soft power purposes.

These innovative international scholarship programs were launched through bilateral partnerships and multilateral programs.  International scholarship programs have been instrumental in helping governments promote economic development and reduce poverty, even as they have become one of the most significant tools for public diplomacy and international relations initiatives, raising the standard of the country’s own educational institutions and promoting closer diplomatic and economic connections between governments.

Amidst this landscape, knowledge diplomacy takes center stage, which focuses on partnerships and mutual collaboration, emphasizing research and innovation in international higher education, while cultural diplomacy concentrates on raising cross-cultural awareness and trust among countries through student interactions, language learning, and culture-related activities. Through the development of international networks, fostering a culture of idea sharing, and the promotion of cross-cultural understanding, student mobility significantly contributes to the advancement of cultural diplomacy.

Students who migrate to another nation retain their cultural backgrounds, traditions, and beliefs with them. Studying abroad often involves learning a new language. Learning the language of the receiving country not only facilitates communication but also provides students with a deeper understanding of the local culture. Student migration offers opportunities for the development of international networks. International cooperation is facilitated when students engage and work together with peers from around the globe. These ties can transcend beyond the classroom and into the professional and personal domains.

Student migration can play a crucial role in promoting Track 2 diplomacy, which refers to non-governmental, informal channels of communication and cooperation that involve individuals and organizations beyond official government representatives. Student migration facilitates direct people-to-people contacts, fostering personal relationships and connections. These informal interactions can lead to a deeper understanding of different cultures, beliefs, and perspectives, laying the groundwork for Track 2 diplomacy. Students studying abroad encounter diverse cultures, languages, and societal norms. This exposure promotes cross-cultural understanding, breaking down stereotypes and prejudices. International students often engage with local media and communication channels, sharing their experiences and perspectives. This public communication can shape perceptions and contribute to public diplomacy efforts, which align with Track 2 diplomatic goals.

Students become ambassadors of their home countries through informal exchanges and friendships, which supports soft diplomacy. Positive experiences and interpersonal relationships have the power to influence attitudes and promote goodwill among nations. Alumni networks created by international student migration might act as permanent links between nations. The migration of students fosters cultural diplomacy by making the world a more connected and understanding place. It extends beyond official diplomatic endeavors, depending instead on interpersonal relationships and common experiences to forge alliances across borders.

However, the trend of an increasing number of students migrating might face some barriers in the upcoming days as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have recently enacted stringent immigration policies for international students. Canada has imposed a two-year limit on international student permit applications, reducing approved study permits by 35% in 2024. The Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has doubled fees, increased financial requirements, and altered work permits. Under IRCC, international students must show a sufficient amount to sustain themselves in Canada. The required amount has been increased from $10,000 to $20,635  Australia intends to reduce its annual visa intake to 250,000 by June 2025, enforcing stricter rules for international students and skilled workers. The UK implemented new rules to control net migration, which came into effect on January 1, 2024, restricting international students’ family members unless they pursue postgraduate research courses. These changes have raised concerns among students and those planning to relocate abroad.

The discussions on contributions to the home country always loom around the frames of brain drain, gain, or remittances sent back by migrant students and graduates. One may think that stricter policies will hurt the interests of the sending countries. However, the other side of the same coin points to a more hopeful tomorrow. If countries like the UK and Canada take up stricter approaches towards the incoming flow of student migrants, these highly promising and knowledgeable young minds will be encouraged to continue their academic journey in their home countries. Demand will increase for the local academic institutions of the sending countries highly educated individuals emigrating from developing countries have been educated in government-subsidized educational institutions from early in their lives until their higher education. Now because of the stricter policies, all the investments in the development of talented individuals will remain in the country of their origin.

Exposure to different educational systems and approaches enhances the global perspective of students. They bring back insights and experiences that can positively influence education policies and practices in their home countries. That is why; the government should offer incentives for international higher education. There are fellowships and grants available for higher study overseas that are primarily intended for government personnel and university instructors. The government of Bangladesh offers up to Tk. 2 crores for a Ph.D., subject to two years of service in the nation upon course completion through the Prime Minister’s Fellowship. This covers tuition fees, living expenses, and other costs.

These migration trends not only highlight the country’s emphasis on knowledge acquisition but also show that students are becoming more globally oriented in their thinking. Bangladesh’s place on the map of global education offers promising future directions for student mobility. The growing number of Bangladeshi students opting to study overseas reflects a shared desire to be involved in the global knowledge economy, be exposed to a variety of cultures, and be immersed in state-of-the-art academic settings. This pattern demonstrates the country’s dedication to developing a highly qualified and globally competitive workforce, setting the stage for future innovation and leadership.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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