Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar Look to U.S. Higher Education after Years of Conflict


While Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar are very different countries, they share recent histories of civil war that has led to the exodus of significant numbers of tertiary-level students.

In Nepal, a 2007 peace deal ended 10 years of Maoist insurrection [2] against the centuries-old monarchy, and the country became a republic the following year. An even longer civil war of 26 years scarred Sri Lanka [3], and only in 2009 did the army defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels. In Myanmar, though ethnic tensions continue to simmer, a half-century of military rule, human rights abuses, and economic isolation started to give way to civilian democracy and economic reform in 2010 [4].

Beset by decades of internal conflict, Nepal and Myanmar are two of the poorest countries in the world [5], with GDPs per capita (2013) of approximately $1,400. Sri Lanka’s GDP of $6,550 is significantly higher, but still well below the global median of $9,400. Nonetheless, students with the financial means to do so have sought higher education opportunities abroad, particularly after the respective resolutions to their internal conflicts.

: International Students from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar in the U.S., 2001-2013 [6]

For a small country, Nepal is more likely than its global peers to send students abroad. In 2012, nearly 8% (29,000) [7] of Nepalese students at the tertiary level were internationally mobile—an outbound mobility ratio far higher than the global average of 2%. [8] The U.S. is the most popular destination for internationally mobile Nepalese students, with one in three enrolling at American colleges and universities. In 2013, there were 8,900 students [9] from Nepal in the U.S.  At the turn of the century, Nepal was primarily an undergraduate market with 70% of its students enrolled at this level. Since then, students pursuing graduate degrees and OPT have driven the overall increase, now making up 34% and 18% of Nepalese students, respectively, in the U.S. For U.S. institutions, Nepal continues to be a promising market especially for graduate and STEM students [10], despite a slight decline in numbers due primarily to changes in U.S. visa policies [11].

In 2012, roughly 16,000 Sri Lankans [7] were studying at higher education institutions abroad. Of these, 17% were enrolled at a U.S. institution. The UK and Australia are the top destinations of choice for Sri Lankans, partly due to colonial ties (UK), proximity (Australia) and also because these countries actively recruit from and offer scholarships to students from Sri Lanka. In 2013, there were 3,000 Sri Lankans [9] studying at U.S. colleges and universities. Similar to Nepal, Sri Lanka has shifted to a primarily graduate market for U.S. institutions, as the country has invested resources into improving its own higher education system and aims to develop into a South Asian education hub [12] by 2020. Furthermore, Sri Lankan students now have more transnational education options at home than ever before thanks to recent government initiatives to attract foreign universities to “free investment zones,” [13] which are now open to private foreign investors [14].

The outbound mobility of Myanmar’s student population has only recently started to pick up. In 2012, 7,000 students from Myanmar [7] studied at overseas institutions of higher learning.  Roughly 11% of globally mobile Burmese students are in the U.S., which is ranked fourth after Russia, Thailand, and Japan. Like Sri Lanka, Myanmar has started to see growth in in-country transnational education options [15] driven by the need for workers with formal qualifications. However, as the country struggles to rebuild its higher education system [16] after decades of neglect Myanmar will continue to send students abroad, particularly at the undergraduate level. Interestingly, small, liberal arts colleges are seeing growing interest [17] from Burmese students.

Understanding the interplay of political context, economic and higher education development and its influence on student mobility is critical for higher education professionals who want to gauge recruitment potential in post-conflict nations. Though overall interest to study in the U.S. remains high, funding is a challenge for prospective students from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. In the midst of a competitive global higher education market, institutions considering developing these markets as a part of their portfolio of countries and diversification strategy [18] should proactively communicate the quality of their programs to targeted segments of students who are likely to be most attracted to the U.S.
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