Brain drain fears as Bhutanese head down under for degrees

While Australia has long been a favoured education destination for the mountain kingdom, it now hosts a ‘major proportion’ of the population

July 19, 2023
Single Monk in courtyard of Trongsa Dzong to illustrate Brain drain fears as Bhutanese head down under for degrees
Source: Getty Images

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is in “uncharted territory” after a mass exodus of its educated citizenry to study for master’s degrees in Australia.

Bhutanese have long been drawn down under for education, with around 1,000 obtaining visas to study in Australia each year since 2017, accompanied by roughly as many dependants. Typically, about two in three attend university.

But numbers have skyrocketed since the pandemic, with around 14,000 Bhutanese granted primary or secondary student visas in the last financial year, almost exclusively for higher education study.

That figure represents almost 2 per cent of Bhutan’s population of a little over 780,000. Many are “older” students coming for master’s degrees, according to University of Sydney academic Bunty Avieson, who researches Bhutanese media and spent a year there training journalists.

Dr Avieson said the surge in Bhutanese enrolments partly reflected pent-up demand due to Covid, which had suppressed travel for a few years. But the increase had also been fuelled by difficulties at home.

“Coming out of the pandemic, it has been pretty tough economically – like it has everywhere – and that’s why there’s been a huge increase in numbers,” she said.

The ABC reported concerns of brain drain in a country “losing major proportions of its people, mainly to Australia”, with doctors and public servants joining the exodus.

Prime minister Lotay Tshering told the broadcaster that his nation faced a “dilemma” because of a lack of 21st-century industries and jobs that met the “expectations of the educated youth”.

International education is vital to the unique and isolated country, which famously assesses its prosperity against a “gross national happiness” scale. Nestled between giant adversaries China and India, each with almost 2,000 times its population, the tiny country relies on knowledge imported from elsewhere.

When the monarchy relinquished absolute power in 2008, Dr Avieson said, 60 per cent of the newly elected government had Australian qualifications obtained through the Colombo Plan.

She said Bhutanese often came to Australia as married couples, taking turns to study while their partners worked to pay the bills. Most gravitated to Perth or Canberra, where tuition fees are waived for the school-aged children of foreign postgraduates.

But while this process entailed six years or more in Australia, most were drawn home by cultural and family ties. “They went back to life in Bhutan,” Dr Avieson said. “They were not using education as a means to migrate. Bhutan’s culture is so distinct, and the networks within it so strong, [but] they haven’t come in these numbers before.”

Bhutan’s educational links flow both ways, with many foreign universities operating in the country. FabLab Bhutan, an open-access high-tech workshop supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers education programmes and research in areas from high-altitude drones for medicine delivery to machines harnessing plastic waste for manufacturing.

The De-suung “Guardians of the Peace” programme, established by the Bhutanese king, harnesses overseas experts to teach hundreds of disciplines aimed at building up national resilience. It claims to have trained around 38,000 locals so far.

Dr Avieson said a sense of “excitement” at home would help lure Bhutanese students back. But with thousands now in Australia, often with children attending local schools, many could put down roots. “I think it’s uncharted territory,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen.”

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