SYDNEY/KATHMANDU – The reopening of Australia’s borders to international students after the pandemic has prompted an exodus from Bhutan as young people seek opportunities abroad amid growing economic unhappiness in the landlocked kingdom of Himalayas.
Student migration to Australia from Bhutan has skyrocketed, with more than 12,000 long-term arrivals moving there in the 11 months to May alone, representing around 1.5% of the small southern country’s population. Asia, which has a double-digit youth unemployment rate.
Most of the new arrivals settled in Perth, Western Australia, where they enrolled in courses such as childcare, hospitality and accounting.
Tashi Kipchu, a 25-year-old education consultant, is one of many who came to Australia last year in search of better opportunities.
“Right after COVID, everything died. People don’t see an opportunity out there,” said Kipchu, who studied marketing at the University of Western Australia.
Apart from a small humanitarian admission, migration from Bhutan to Australia had been negligible until 2017, when student arrivals began to increase. That accelerated after Australia’s borders reopened in 2022, with official data showing Bhutanese student visa applications quintupled in the fiscal year ending in June.
The influx of students in that short period has made Australia home to one of the largest Bhutanese expatriate communities outside of South Asia.
While they make up only a small part of Australia’s international student population of 600,000, the surge comes as the $40bn ($27bn) education sector tries to make up for lost business from a shortage of overseas students during the pandemic. Students from the key market of China, in particular, are returning at a slower-than-expected pace.
“Australian universities are eager to diversify – they got the message from the previous government and this one that they shouldn’t rely too heavily on just China, India and Nepal,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia.
“They need to get ahead and find new educational agents in new countries.”
Sonam Tobgay, who became Bhutan’s inaugural ambassador to Australia in 2021, said Australia’s appeal includes its relatively cheaper tuition fees and favorable visa regime that allows dependents of students to come and work unlimited hours. .
Six of Bhutan’s 10 current cabinet ministers have qualifications from an Australian university or institute.
Bhutan is famous for its Gross National Happiness Index, an economic indicator that takes into account factors ignored by conventional measures of gross domestic product, such as recreation, emotional well-being, and the environment.
However, its largely closed economy, which relies heavily on hydropower and tourism, has been hit more recently by high energy prices, causing its foreign exchange reserves to fall sharply.
In addition, government public sector reforms, designed to simplify and modernize the civil service, the country’s largest employer, have also contributed to a mass exodus of professional workers.
Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan reopened its borders in September, but higher tourist taxes meant recovery in critical industry fell short of expectations. Youth unemployment reached 28% last year.
Amid bleak job prospects at home, many young people have flocked to Australia, which has loosened visa restrictions to help ease its tightest job market in 50 years.
Kipchu, who originally trained as a chemical engineer in Bhutan, saw a business opportunity soon after arriving in Perth and started an educational consultancy to help prospective Bhutanese students. Now his company employs 40-50 people in his home country.
“I came to Australia to study but somehow this country gave me a chance,” said Kipchu, predicting that the trend of moving to Australia will continue.
“The job opportunities and the flexibility for students to work here make it more attractive.”
At Kingston International College, a vocational education provider in Western Australia, around 150 Bhutanese students are undergoing training, said managing director Tandin Dorji, himself a Bhutanese migrant. That compared to just 15-20 before the pandemic.
“It has become a cultural trend… If the Bhutanese see someone who is really successful, that is where they would go,” Dorji said.
($1 = 1.4786 Australian dollars)
subscribe to ASK MORE to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer and over 70 other titles, share up to 5 devices, listen to the news, download from 4am and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.