Once dubbed the 'Oxford of the East' for its quality of education, the country's prestigious Dhaka University has been seeing a gradual decline in the number of new foreign students in recent years.
University authorities attribute the fall in overseas student enrolment to lengthy admission process, lack of foreigner-friendly campus and accommodation facilities, and stronger competition from private players in Dhaka's education sector. Add to these, the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities in resolving the concerns of foreign students.
Though the varsity's international help desk failed to provide any data on foreign student enrolment in recent years, UNB has learnt that Dhaka University currently has some 5,160 overseas students studying in different departments and affiliated institutions, and 19 expatriate teachers on its payroll.
Foreign students get admission to DU through Sir PJ Hartog International Hall. At present, the hall houses 117 foreign students, according to Dr Md Mohiuddin, its Provost. Among them, 38 are studying in different departments of the university, while the remaining are enrolled in affiliated medical institutions.
And of the 50 public universities in Bangladesh, there are 23 where some 804 international students are enrolled. On the other hand, as many as 37 private universities among 103 in the country have 1,386 international students, according to the UGC annual report.
University authorities say the private universities are increasing enrolment of foreign students by advertising on both traditional as well as online platforms.
“Our university does not advertise the way private universities do globally. So many international students are unaware of the advantages available at DU, the subjects we offer, and the degree courses we have. We don't believe in spending millions on marketing every year to attract foreign students, being a public university," said Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, the Director of DU's International Affairs Office.
The professor also blamed the "negative media coverage" for the university’s failure to attract foreign students. "Many people have the misconception that you need to know Bengali to study at DU. They’re unaware that many departments use English as the medium of teaching. They’re also unaware of the variety of food served to the international students."
Prof Imtiaz agreed that the university authorities needed to rethink strategies to attract foreign students. "A foreign admission seeker would first visit our website, go through the online prospectus and scout for news about us. Unfortunately, we are yet to design a state-of-the-art portal and prospectus that meet international standards.”
“We took an initiative to highlight our glorious achievement and renowned research work to attract more foreign students. However, not all teachers are as attentive to research or academic work as politics, which would help them secure promotions. This tendency has been acting as a great barrier to carrying out new research," he added.
However, he said, post-Covid crisis, the university authorities would do their best to bring back students.
Poor ranking of Dhaka University is another reason behind its failure to attract a good number of foreign students. In the 2021 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, only Dhaka University and BUET have secured places among the top 1,000 varsities. But DU has slipped 200 places, from 601 bracket to 800-1000 bracket in the rankings, between 2012 and 2020.
Prof Imtiaz said: "We are not on the top among global universities because we are not careful about it. Dhaka University authorities do not provide essential information that is needed for better ranking."
The lengthy and difficult admission process for the foreign students is another major reason why foreigners feel discouraged to apply at the DU.
Under the current system, a foreigner first has to apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Bangladesh embassy, and then to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Upon receiving the approvals, the student has to contact the DU for admission, which is done online and takes at least two to three months for basic processing.
“Our admission process for foreign students is quite long. This system should be changed. A student visa should be enough for a student to apply for studying in the country,” Prof Imtiaz said, stressing the need for the setting up of a separate ‘dean of foreign admission’ to ease the admission processes and other barriers.
Echoing Prof Imtiaz, DU Deputy Registrar Sheuli Afsar also identified the lengthy admission process as the main hindrance to finding foreign students.
“A foreign student needs clearance from the home ministry to get admitted to Dhaka University. Then the education ministry sends clearance to the university after police investigation. Then a foreign student can be admitted to the university. Moreover, a student has to renew their visa every year. They need to go to the passport office. All these regulatory procedures make foreign students suffer," Sheuli said.
University authorities also admitted to lack of modern hostel facilities for international students. “Foreign students want an air-conditioned room, which we can’t provide. Many of them look for scholarships, which we don’t have. Even then we try our best to convince a student to get admitted," said Sheuli.
Students, however, say all the difficulties can be overcome if the university authorities show interest in resolving their concerns and conduct regular counselling.
“Foreign students face different problems because of inadequate information once they get admitted. It will be helpful for the foreign students to get regular counselling, as they can talk about their problems and the authority can help solve those,” said Umut Dalar, a student from Turkey pursuing English (IML) at DU.
When contacted, DU Vice Chancellor Md Akhtaruzzaman acknowledged the limitations. "But we are making efforts to remove all the problems. We’re working on the infrastructure, renovation and expansion of the university. We’ve also formed the Office of the International Affairs, which was just a desk before, to disseminate information about our strength and prospects to promote our university internationally," he said.
Dhaka University authorities have already sought financial assistance from the government to resolve the issues, officials said, reports UNB.