Could Bangladesh’s plans to attract more foreign students backfire?

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According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 2018 there were 2,190 international students in public and private universities in Bangladesh – 1,386 in private and 804 in public

A government plan to increase the number of foreign students enrolled at public universities may be poised to discouraging foreign enrolment instead.

On December 9, the Ministry of Education issued an order instructing all private and public universities to obtain ministry approval before admitting a student of foreign origin. The order was requested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Public universities have already had the rule in place. Private university authorities fear that the direct involvement of the state may induce bureaucratic complexities, effectively reduce admission requests from abroad. While the number of foreign students at universities has seen a noticeable uptick since 2012 save for a few hiccups, it still trails behind the private university numbers.

According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 2018 there were 2,190 international students in public and private universities in Bangladesh – 1,386 in private and 804 in public.

The government’s case

Currently, private universities recruit students directly through scholarship, Memorandum of Understanding between partner universities and direct applications from foreign students. After getting student visa, the university authority helps renew the student visa every year.

The new admission process will see foreign students submit their application to Bangladesh missions in their home countries. The applications will be forwarded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Education, while the Ministry of Home Affairs carry out security checks. 

A total of nine steps of verification by an equal number of agencies will be involved, according to sources familiar with the change.

However, private university authorities have privately expressed their concerns for lengthening the process, instead suggesting a one-stop service and a fixed timeframe for operation. The UGC is also in favour of an easier process, but it has already begun to implement the rule.

Abdullah Al Hasan Chowdhury, an additional secretary at the Ministry of Education said: “It should be clarified how private universities recruit students. The Ministry of Home Affairs has to be in the loop. Foreign applications should come through embassies. We have issued the instruction to homogenize the process for public and private universities alike.” 

The UGC also wants an easy way to provide clearance from the ministry of education. 

Dr Md Fakhrul Islam, a director (Private University Division) at the UGC, said that the majority of the students arrive in Bangladesh without proper student visa or proper channels. 

He said: “There was a time when there were many foreign students at public universities. But that number has dwindled. But private universities have more international students. Our prime minister wants the number of international students in Bangladesh to reach 10,000 by 2020.

“It is difficult to start studying in Bangladesh because documents need to be verified by nine government agencies. Can a student meet all the requisites and begin the semester on time? Unlikely. We suggested a four-step verification, but this is what it is.” 

The rebut

According to private university authorities, the approval process is complex and discouraging international students to consider Bangladesh. The new steps are expected to stretch the whole admission process, dampening the rising flow of foreign students, and having and adverse impact on foreign cash flow as well.

Sheikh Kabir Hossain, president of the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh, said: “Whatever the government is doing is for the well-being of the country. The government should know what kind of people are enrolling in our universities. It will be better if the government consults us.”

Mohammad Imtiaj, director of Branding, Communication and Public Relations at Southeast University, said: “We welcome the move, but the requirement must be clear and the process has to have a fixed timeframe otherwise the students are going to miss their semesters.” 

State of foreign students in Bangladeshi universities

Of the 50 public universities in Bangladesh, there are 23 where the 804 international students are enrolled. On the other hand, 37 private universities among 103 have 1,386 international students, according to the UGC.

Dhaka International University has the most, with 285 international students, followed by Daffodil International University with 167 students and North South University with 120.