KP Sharma

As consultancy firms compete to promote Europe as an alternative destination after the change in Australia’s visa rules, the Bhutanese aspiring to travel abroad for education and work are a confused lot.

While some well-established consultancy firms still promote Australia as a more welcoming destination, many others paint Europe in glowing terms. Between the two, there is hardly any clarity.

The confusion among the Bhutanese is compounded by too many consultancy firms claiming to be “the best” in terms of visa success rate. In an environment choked with marketing gimmick, credible information is hard to come by.

Clarifying the issue, the chairperson of the Association of Bhutanese Education Consultancies (ABEC), Palden Tshering, said any consultant claiming to be the best should be questioned. He explained that there is no way to justify somebody’s claim of being the best because there are no objective yardsticks to measure visa success rates.

He added that anyone can claim to have the highest visa success rate, but this may not necessarily be true.

If individuals are uncertain about multiple claims of being the best, the chairperson said they should ask whether a consultancy firm is registered in Bhutan and if it is a member of ABEC.

“Being part of ABEC, any student can expect to walk into an education consultant’s office and get credible information on study options, so it doesn’t matter if they claim to be the best,” he said.

Bhutan had a 73 percent Australian visa acceptance rate in the first quarter of 2024, according to the chairperson, who added that the rate was lower than what should have been, even with the changing immigration policy for Australia.

“I believe that overall, the number of international students from Bhutan applying to universities and colleges in Australia has gone down,” he said. However, he said that as the backlog of applications is being cleared, the figures are returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, consultancy firms are actively promoting their services on various platforms and reaching out to college students directly.


Consultancy firms visiting colleges

As the competition for clients heat up, education consultancy firms have started visiting colleges. There lies another risk of gullible students being exposed to marketing gimmicks.

Palden Tshering said that the primary focus of their visits to colleges has to be educating on important considerations students need to make, changes in the immigration policy, and how they impact international students.

His firm, Global Reach, has visited two colleges. One key issue he highlighted was that many students take the TOEFL iBT or IELTS without knowing the exact scores required for their desired degree. He stressed the importance of students consulting with an education consultant before taking these tests.

The primary intention of ABEC members visiting colleges is to encourage students to ask tough questions and not rely solely on information they get from social media or friends.

Palden Tshering stressed the importance of contacting a registered consultant in Bhutan to verify information before making decisions, pointing out instances where well-intentioned advice based on incorrect information has led to problems.


What should one know about Europe?

Palden Tshering said Europe, the UK, New Zealand, and Ireland are all viable options, but not necessarily easier ones.

Each of these countries has specific entry requirements, language requirements, finances, single-student applicants, part-time work rights, and prior refusals, among others.

“You owe it to yourself to ask the right questions about your study abroad options and take the time to do research independently,” he said.

Palden Tshering said recent articles in media and social media portray Europe as a cheap destination. While acknowledging Europe’s popularity as a destination, he stressed the importance of thorough planning and research to understand expectations, living costs, and work rights.

He added that European friendship associations are informing people that obtaining student visas for Europe is not easy, as each country has its own requirements. They highlight that while public university fees may be lower, proficiency in the language of instruction is often required.

In addition, fees at private universities that teach in English are considerably higher. While there is a perception that tuition fees are generally lower in Europe, some countries do not offer dependent visas and only accept student applications.

Further, living costs in certain places are extremely high, and finding part-time work can be challenging.

European friendship associations play a vital role in fostering a better understanding. Palden Tshering said their insights are valuable and reflect the information students should seek.


No special agreement to ensure visa success

There are presently 80 education consultancy firms, formally known as education consultancy and placement firms, registered in Bhutan under the Bhutan Qualifications and Professionals Certification Authority, the Ministry of Education and Skills Development.

Seventy-nine of the 80 firms are members of ABEC. The number is expected to drop before the end of the year for various reasons, such as non-compliance, non-operationality, and inability to sustain.

Palden Tshering said there are no special agreements or connections of education consultancies that make things easier. “Due diligence, correct information, and counsellors who can effectively communicate are basic KPIs that help a consultancy perform well,” he said.

It has been learnt that according to the Australian High Commission, a 10 percent visa rejection rate is acceptable as the market standard. Anything below this is considered “very good”.


Employment beyond consultancies’ mandate

According to Palden Tshering, ABEC’s role is strictly to provide study options. Education consultancy firms are not permitted to discuss migration or permanent employment or promote them in any way.

He added that all education consultants registered in Bhutan and their counsellors are not certified to engage in such discussions.