The number of Bangladeshi students studying abroad majorly consists of Masters Degree/Ph.D. seeking scholars who finished their undergraduate studies in Bangladesh. The idea of moving abroad to seek a Bachelor's degree, right after High School, is still seemingly unattainable, risky, and unaffordable to many households.
Yet, there is a positive trend in the number of Bangladeshi students going to different parts of the world to boldly face the challenges and competition of undergraduate studies.
More than 8,800 Bangladeshi students chose to study in the United States during the 2019/2020 academic year, according to the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.
This is a new all-time high for Bangladesh, reflecting a 7.1% increase over the 2019 report (8,249 students), more than tripling since 2009. Even with all the success, students share one common complaint- the lack of institutional support they receive.
This is most applicable to young High School students who are made to ask for recommendation letters, academic transcripts, and a counselor's evaluation among other things for the application process. Due to inexperience and lack of guidance, such students remain clueless about how to meet such requirements.
A single staff member equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources could significantly reduce the stress that such students experience while applying.
The recent rethinking and reform of secondary education that is being led by the Education Ministry might reduce such obstacles. The current reforms hint towards more holistic teaching and learning practices in school – such as the inclusion of Sex Education, mandatory technical skill classes, and increasing focus on experimental learning. Additionally, evaluation of students could factor in extra-curricular talents, personality traits, and their social contributions.
It might be hard to imagine such a system's implementation, but it is one that needs to be executed sooner or later. In the Global Knowledge Index 2020, Bangladesh was ranked 112th out of 137 countries, lowest among all Southeast Asian countries.
The holistic admission process that is followed by major international institutions is already motivating students to have positive learning experiences by doing meaningful extracurricular activities. Such practices can help students figure out their passion and inherent skills.
The process even helps students increase their understanding of themselves, as introspective essays are a huge part of the application package. On a refreshing note, it is a break from the monotonous learning experiences that we receive while preparing for the high school board exams.
But this transition from years of rote learning to practical and meaningful learning can be very difficult. Most of the students have no prior experience of writing essays that puts them at the focal point. Individualism is a concept that is not celebrated in our education system, which makes it even harder for students to answer the question that is primarily asked by the admission process, 'who are you and what makes you different?'
But this application process is still only relevant and known to a minority of students out of the 14 lakh matriculating from High Schools every year. Counseling services, standardised testing facilities, and other exchange opportunity-related organisations (such as EMK centre) often are not accessible to those outside the metropolis. Such organisations do not see any incentive to expand to remote regions. However, an increasing number of applicants are hailing from regions previously overlooked.
A recent poll run in Bangladesh Beyond Border, an undergraduate admission information portal with 59,000 members, helped us figure out the share of applicants from outside Dhaka. The poll asked applicants for the fall 2021 session regarding their mode of schooling and its location. A total of 130 applicants responded. 14% of the respondents were from National curriculum-based schools outside Dhaka. Although the figure is small, it shows an area of untapped potential.
Talking to one such applicant who fought through the obstacles to secure admission and scholarship at a top Liberal Arts College, I got to know more about their story. This student, who wants to remain anonymous, stated, ''I needed almost 3-4 years just to convince my parents that I want to study abroad. My situation was made worse as I had no success stories to relate to as we were literally the first High School batch to apply abroad from our school. So people didn't even appreciate this decision of applying.''
He further added, "In a town where nobody applied to the U.S. before, teachers are unaware of the process too. We have to go through a long process of convincing the necessity part as well. And even after convincing, they mostly are unable to write proper recommendation letters or even submit materials on time.''
The survey further shows national curriculum-based school students made up 57% of the applicant pool. This is a really impressive figure as it goes to show our curriculum is being able to produce students confident enough to compete globally. Yet, such schools do not have positions such as guidance counselors. The increasing number of students eager to try out this process should alert such schools to employ or upgrade their current workforce.
Some of the well-established schools have the resources to support students throughout the process and enjoy privileges such as application fee waivers. Such privileges and connections could be developed and distributed across more schools throughout the country through proper networking as the application cost itself (around 80 USD per university) acts as a major barrier to the aspirants.
Unsurprisingly, students from schools following foreign curriculums made up 41% of the subjects. But even among the English medium students, 86% of the applicants were from Dhaka. This shows a clear centralisation of such schools and opportunities within the capital.
To add salt to the wound, this process puts those on the other side of the digital divide at a major disadvantage. The whole process requires hours of surfing through the hidden drawers of the internet to find valuable advice regarding the admission system.
Some universities also arrange online interviews which require a stable internet connection and a device with a microphone and camera. Even living in Dhaka, I faced connectivity issues in a few of my interviews. Hence, students hailing from regions with poorer reception face even greater issues during such calls, forcing them to often miss out on such opportunities.
The biggest caveat of this process though is its need-awareness. Simply put the university factors in the financial contribution of an applicant into the decision. The more you can pay, the more your chances are at acceptance.
This process makes students face the burden of making some harsh financial decisions and discussions with their parents. Operating in a free market, we are no strangers to the commercial nature of our society. Yet, we try to turn a blind eye to the inequities around us, hoping that grit, merit, and dedication will pull us through- no matter how little we are starting off with.
But this process made me conscious for the first time about the harshness of our economic reality. Having to compile my parents' bank statements, tax returns, and other financial documents, I often felt the absurdity of the process.
Some rejection letters even include instructions for reaching out to the university in case you are able to increase your financial contribution. While others listed from the start that a minimum of X thousand USD per annum was expected from their students as financial contribution.
The system seems to put a price tag on its applicants, weighing in their possible contributions and deciding whether investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on them would be worth it.
Some justify the process as a fair metric to decide best how such private universities should allocate their funds. Others see through the façade. Despite the odds, a growing number of Bangladeshis are being able to impress such need-aware universities, securing scholarships and grants worth almost the whole cost of attendance!
The number of pupils achieving such feats is still low, but these stories can be immensely motivational to students who find themselves against similar odds. Hopefully, the process will be made more accessible and equitable for the future generations of Bangladeshi youth.
Anujit Saha is an aspiring writer who will start university next fall
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.