In the age of information and ease of mobility across borders, more and more Bangladeshi students are choosing to pursue their higher studies abroad. According to Unesco data, roughly 70,000 – 90,000 Bangladeshi students each year travel abroad for education purposes.
However, travelling abroad for students who come from middle-class and upper-middle-class families can be a daunting task, given the minimal support structure and the high cost of living in host countries.
Higher studies are often considered an investment, only pursued when the expected return exceeds the short-term costs. Hence, it is important to make an informed decision before pursuing higher studies at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
One of the many important decisions concerns the choice of the destination country. The United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Canada, Germany etc, are some of the more prominent countries to host international students. However, each country differs from the other in aspects, such as the number of highly-ranked universities, the availability of scholarships, employment opportunities, PR (Permanent Residency), citizenship prospects, etc. You need to choose the country that best suits your needs.
Does the destination even matter?
Many argue that it does not matter where one travels; what matters more is the quality of education provided by the school.
When asked about his decision to pursue his Master's in Australia, Sourodip Paul, an alumnus of Australian National University said, "when I was applying to different universities, I did not look at the country. Instead, I looked at the schools and whether they would serve my academic prospects well."
If your intentions are simply to return home after completing your studies (undergraduate or master's) and you are confident about your chances of getting into a good university with a lucrative scholarship, like Sourodip, the destination should not matter to you either.
That being said, not every country can boast a similar level of investment in higher education, and as a result, the number and quality of universities tend to vary. Moreover, if you are thinking of settling down or seeking employment opportunities after completing your studies, it might be worth considering the pros and cons of studying in each.
Ease of finding a school
While there is a common misconception that every university abroad is better than those in Bangladesh, that may not necessarily be true, and it is always best to aim for the best schools internationally.
Nahian Bin Khaled, a PhD student at Michigan State University, believes that it is more convenient to get into a top-ranked school in the US when compared to other countries.
"Usually, across all university rankings, the US has the highest share among the top 150-200 schools. So, mathematically speaking, the probability of finding a highly ranked university across different tiers and getting admitted is higher," said Nahian.
Among the top 200 universities, according to the QS University Ranking 2023, a whopping 45 universities are situated in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom (26), Australia (21), Germany (15) and Canada (08).
The US is also a global economic hub, which means there is a disproportionately higher amount of investment in education, and thereby more scholarships (even at less reputed universities) than other destinations like the UK, Australia or Canada.
"While I was looking to apply for my Master's degree, I could not find enough institutional scholarship opportunities in the UK or Australia. While there were other international or government-sponsored scholarships like Chevening, Commonwealth scholarship etc; they are highly competitive and difficult to get in," said Khandker Wahedur Rahman, who got his Master's and PhD degrees in the US.
"There were simply more universities in the US that provided institutional scholarships and so, I did not have to look elsewhere to get admitted," he added.
It's all about academic excellence
To many students, pursuing higher studies is all about getting the best out of their student life. Academic cultures, intensity, diversity of courses, accessibility to world-renowned professors, and networking opportunities with representatives from the most prominent companies are key factors in determining academic excellence.
Many believe that universities in the US and Australia provide the most rigorous academic degrees.
Dr Zubair Imam Syed is a former professor at Teesside University in the UK. Currently, he is working as a consultant for Arcadis Australia Pacific Ltd. He had the experience of teaching in both countries and believes that Australia has a more rigorous academic environment than the UK.
"There are some top-ranked universities in the UK which maintain similar standards. But in general, Australia has a more rigorous, academic environment," said Zubair.
Asif Zaman studied in the UK and Australia; he currently lives in Australia. In his experience, Australian universities were more diverse and welcoming when compared to their counterparts in the UK.
"Australian university professors are a bit more informal when compared to the UK ones. Professors work in shorts and sandals in the summer, something you cannot see in the UK. You can converse with the professors more easily and get help on your studies, assignments, etc," said Asif.
"Australian universities are also very multicultural. You can see a lot of black and Asian students there. The UK is not as diverse, mostly dominated by caucasian and Indian students," he added.
However, when it comes to academic excellence, there is a common notion that the USA is the best by far.
As Nahian explained, "Most of the Fortune-500 companies, as well as prominent international organisations, are headquartered in the US, making it a prime destination for students in STEM and social sciences."
Dr Amanatullah Khan, a former Professor at the University of Dhaka, had the experience of studying in both Canada and the US. In his experience, he believes that the coursework in the US was considerably more rigorous, flexible and diverse than those in Canada.
"In my experience, you need to study meticulously to get a degree from a US university. Your entire semester will be bridled with coursework, assignments, etc, to make sure that you get the best out of your degree," said Dr Khan.
"When deciding to take courses, you also have a lot of diverse options to choose from in US universities. Most universities around the world do not offer such a diverse plethora of courses. The US is more flexible in this regard," he added.
Moreover, the US, Australia and Canada allow students to take courses from different disciplines before deciding on a major. The UK is more rigid and traditional as students have to pick a major first.
Tuition fees and living expenses
Although in high demand and there are ample institutional scholarship opportunities (ones provided by the university), you still might fail to get a fully-funded one. And even if you can avail of fully-funded scholarships, you will still need to manage the other expenses associated with living in a foreign country.
If you don't get a fully-funded scholarship, getting a university degree in the US can be incredibly expensive. The average annual tuition is $28,000, and can potentially reach $50,000.
In comparison, the average tuition fees in Australia, UK and Canada are less expensive, at around $22,000, $20,000 and $12,000, respectively.
Then comes the cost of living, which includes rent and other living expenditures for the duration of the course. Within each country, it differs from one city to the next.
However, on average, living costs in Australia and the UK are usually higher than in the US and Canada. The estimated annual cost of living in the US ranges between $11,000 – $12,500 and in Canada, it varies from $6,500 – $8,500 a year. Compared to that, living in Australia can cost around $14,500 on average, and in the UK living expenses can rise to $12,000 – $16000 a year.
That being said, you should also remember that getting an undergraduate degree typically takes more time (four years) in the US and Canada, while it typically lasts three years in the UK.
Finally, if you are looking to study at top-ranked universities without going through the hassle of finding scholarships, Germany can also be a great option. Most public universities in Germany do not charge undergraduate tuition fees. To cover administrative costs, only a nominal university fee of approximately $170 – $280 is charged. It should be mentioned that aspiring students need to show a blocked account with sufficient funds (€11,208) to be eligible for a German student Visa.
Possibilities of obtaining Permanent Residency
The undisputed champion of the PR and citizenship round is Canada. Given its small population, the country frequently needs qualified people. As a result, it gives international students a lot more chances to stay in the nation when they graduate. If their application is approved, students can stay and work in the nation for three years under the PGWP (Post-Graduate Work Permit) visa scheme. Students can then seek permanent residency once this visa has been granted.
Although it depends on the global political situation, the US can be a prime destination for graduates who intend to be immigrants. STEM graduates can avail of Optional Practical Training (OPT), under which they can work in the US for three years after graduation. In the meantime, the companies are allowed to sponsor their immigrant visa. Non-STEM graduates can get the OPT for one year only. However, amid an ongoing global recession, it may not be easy to get this H1B sponsorship.
Another way many people follow is the National Interest of Waiver (NIW). If you can show that your research work will benefit the US (usually through a lawyer), the government may approve your immigrant visa.
In the short run, however, immigration to both the USA and Canada from Bangladesh has been difficult supposedly due to the influx of Ukrainian refugees. Consequently, many Bangladeshi students who have gotten admission to universities are still waiting for their Visa interviews.
Over the past seven years, it has gotten harder for international students to stay in the UK after graduation and look for work. Theresa May, who was the home secretary at the time, amended the rules in 2012 to limit students' stays in the UK to two months (later extended to two years) following their graduation. However, as Dr Zubair said, after Covid-19 and the subsequent economic crunch, the UK might need more skilled workers and should open up immigration more.
Australia is much more accepting of foreign students who decide to stay on after finishing their education. International students can stay in Australia for 18 months after graduating thanks to the Skilled-Graduate Temporary visa. Those who have finished two years of education in Australia can apply for the Skilled-Independent (Resident) Visa, which grants permanent residency.
"Although immigration in Australia had been difficult in the past, recent governments are more pro-immigration than its predecessors and are likely to make immigration more convenient," said Dr Zubair. Asif had a similar response to the question.
It should be mentioned that all countries allow students to partake in part-time jobs to cover their living expenses. Hence, getting such a job should not be too difficult for a qualified international student.