Comparative studies of patterns and reasons for migration recommended 

In 2022, Australia approved 5,523 visas for Bhutanese students, according to foreign affairs of Australia, a notable contrast to the 1,447 visas granted between 2019 and 2020, prior to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. This number represented the fifth largest source of students from anywhere else in the world.

The Australian government anticipates that more than 60 percent of these students, enrolled across 42 universities, will seek to prolong their stay in Australia upon completing their studies. While there were instances of Bhutanese students returning in numbers exceeding 60 percent before the Covid-19 pandemic, current projections indicate a shift towards a higher retention rate in Australia.

The surge in these statistics prompts a need to examine the role of Covid-19 in driving this upward trend. This is a query that should concern numerous Bhutanese individuals, especially as the figures are projected to increase by an additional 1,500 next year. Furthermore, Australian universities are already factoring in an approximate count of 7,000 international students for the academic year 2023-24.

This is according to Professor Dr Fazal Rizvi, an Emeritus Professor of Global Studies in Education at the University of Melbourne and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The details were shared during his talk on “Brain drain, brain circulation, brain gain” at the Centre for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies (CBS) on August 7.

Australia has about 400,000 international students in its 42 universities which represents 35 percent of the students’ population of Australian higher education, which represents about 40 percent of the revenue source for Australia. “I am shocked that Bhutan with only more than 700,000 population is the fifth largest source of students. It is an enormous figure that Bhutan should worry about,” said the professor.

Dr Rizvi has been working closely with the Druk Gyalpo’s Institute since 2021. Having spent time in Bhutan and worked with the institute team to develop various documents on the Bhutan Baccalaureate, Dr Rizvi had a chance to work and train with several teachers and students.  Sharing his experience, the professor said there are growing concerns over the growing number of teachers and other professionals leaving Bhutan to the extent that his country was accused of stealing Bhutanese. “Nonetheless, there is a perception of this joke that conveys a deeper concern about the loss of teachers.”

The exact number of emigrants is difficult to establish, but it is hard to deny the loss of the skills base in Bhutan and what appears to be higher education appears to be a path towards migration, according to the professor. He added that the focus is more on the push factor as to why people are leaving abroad and less attention on the pull factor. 

Brain drain and mobility of emigrants 

Coined in the 1960s, the slang term brain drain is often described as a direct departure of highly educated and professional people from mostly a lower-income country to a higher-income country. It was a concept of simple mobility from one country to another, not mediated because of higher education as the case has become now.  However, for the individual, this mobility is often based on perceptions of increased pay, better living conditions and enhanced opportunities. It becomes a concern for a country like Bhutan because, for a lower income nation, brain drain represents the loss of human capital in which it has often invested. Dr Rizvi explained that the nexus between higher education and skilled migration is a win-win situation for Australia where they don’t have to invest, they get money in terms of fees and all the other benefits of having skilled migration.

The decision to emigrate is, of course, based on a whole range of factors, which are contextually specific. The decision to leave Bhutan, for example, may involve a very different set of factors compared to other states of India. As a result, comparative studies of patterns and reasons for migration need to be studied because a whole variety of push and pull factors are involved, although the significance and relevance of these vary.

According to Dr Rizvi, the push factors are from those people who feel they don’t have better opportunities or possibilities of advancement and pull factors are where universities or governments invest huge amounts of money in advertising and building technology of recruitment through agents. He said whatever the factors, the decision to emigrate is never simple and often involves painful reflections, deliberations and negotiations with the family, as expressed by many students and people he conducted research with.

Mobility has become easier where migrants’ experiences are not what they used to be because they no longer involve an expectation of permanent detachment, Dual and even multiple citizenships are now widely available (not in the case of Bhutan), and the decision to migrate is much more informed than ever before. Mobility of skilled migrants is now greater than that of the unskilled where the Australian government has dialed up for skilled migrants.

The ability to remain connected with friends and family at home and elsewhere through technology has led to increasing mobility in which people do not feel about moving, distance, or loss because they are not really losing connectivity with families.  

While developing countries have traditionally viewed their diaspora networks as a major source of financial and social remittances, they are now exploring a broader range of benefits and possibilities like the movement of ideas, resources, skills, and emotions too.

For instance, the Philippines has created an office for its sizable population abroad—to explore how they can be supported and their expertise utilised in policy and programme development. The Chinese and Indian governments have experimented with ways to ‘invite back’ some of their diasporas through more flexible forms of citizenship.  Several governments, such as Greece, have created programmes to connect their diaspora youth, as a way of maintaining cultural connections and engagement. Ireland has developed a Global Irish diaspora policy coordinated by a minister of state for diaspora affairs. Others have also established directorates within their departments of foreign affairs to ensure that emigration does not become a ‘brain drain.’

What Bhutanese authorities can do?

According to Dr Rizvi, policy implications for these observations and suggestions for Bhutan are not easy to determine, as the Australian case focuses largely on immigrant groups. Bhutan has to consider how to work with and support its emigrant communities, who remain interested in contributing to Bhutan’s national economic and social development. “The question is how do you really use these people, some may want to return but remain in Australia for an extended period, some may not want to return, some may return permanently, so there is a whole range of consistency.”

Hence, he said, it becomes essential for the Bhutanese authorities to inquire about the extent of engagement within the Bhutanese diaspora community and the existing scope of their contributions. In essence, a comprehensive endeavour is required, involving documentation and the establishment of a dedicated initiative aimed at addressing this specific inquiry. This undertaking would encompass the distribution of surveys, conducting interviews, and conducting research, all aimed at eliciting insights into the level of interest exhibited by the Bhutanese diaspora community.

The government, he added, should ask what are some of the impediments the diaspora community faces in making contributions beyond economic remittances. “What other modalities or possibilities exist that need to be worked through?  It is important to see what mechanisms can be developed to support the considerable potential of contributions and transnational collaborations, and this should not be impeded due to a lack of policy or other challenges.” 

Contributed by 

Yangchen C Rinzin

Yangchen C Rinzin is a Kuensel Reporter and currently a Research Fellow with the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies