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Higher education supply-demand gap a major driver of Sri Lankan outbound student mobility

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There are indications of surging outbound numbers from Sri Lanka with a number of leading destinations reporting significant growth in 2022
  • The economic crisis at home remains an important drag on demand, but outbound numbers are rising nonetheless in part because of limited university spaces in the country’s domestic higher education system
  • Affordability is a crucial factor for Sri Lankans, which is driving interest in foreign branch campuses in Sri Lanka as well as articulation arrangements that allow students to study in Sri Lanka for one year then finish their degree abroad

In 2018, the British Council predicted that outbound mobility from Sri Lanka would exceed 32,000 students by 2027, not least because of the country’s rapidly expanding college-aged population and limited higher education capacity. How is that projection looking in 2023?

UNESCO estimates that 29,000 Sri Lankans were studying abroad in higher education institutions in 2020, mostly in Australia (roughly 10,500), Japan (5,500), US (3,100), Malaysia (2,400), and UK (1,300). But recent growth in some destinations suggests that the number of Sri Lankans abroad has already exceeded the British Council’s prediction.

For example:

  • There were over 5,000 Sri Lankans in Canada in 2022, mostly in universities and colleges, up 94% over the previous year. In 2020, UNESCO counted only 875 in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
  • A total of 12,170 Sri Lankan students were enrolled across Australia’s education system as of the latest Australian government data.
  • Sri Lanka was one of the top three fastest growing markets for UK universities in 2022, with growth of +41.3%. A total of 5,761 study visas were granted to Sri Lankan students in 2023.

Demand factors

A significant drag on demand from Sri Lanka comes in the form of the struggling Sri Lankan economy. Over the past two years, Sri Lanka has faced its worst financial crisis in decades and in Q1 2023, the economy contracted by 11.5%. Last year, the country was rocked by widespread protests (known as the Aragalaya protests) as a result of public dissatisfaction with how the government was handling the crisis.

Affordability is thus key for Sri Lankan students, and many destination countries are offering more financial aid and scholarships than ever to enable Sri Lankans to study abroad. Still, many Sri Lankan students enrolled abroad struggled to pay their tuition last year.

Along with scholarship support, work placements and opportunities to gain permanent residency abroad are major factors influencing the decision making of Sri Lankan students. The UK and Canada have grown much more competitive in Sri Lanka as a result of their post-graduation work programmes.

Despite economic turmoil, Sri Lanka offers a huge recruiting pool for foreign universities given the expansion of its higher education system that has been driven largely by a significant increase in branch campuses and TNE activity in general. Sri Lanka is the third largest TNE market for the UK after only China and Malaysia. Australia is also actively pursuing TNE in Sri Lanka and has developed a specialty in articulation arrangements that offer students a cost-effective way of getting an Australian university credential. For example, Sri Lanka’s Horizon Campus has partnered with Australia’s La Trobe University to allow Sri Lankan students to complete the first year of their degree program at home before travelling to La Trobe for the second year. This partnership, launched this month, saves participating students approximately 18 million rupees – a huge deal in this time of economic downturn in their country.

Limited capacity in local universities is also a push factor for outbound mobility from Sri Lanka. There are only 17 state universities in the country. Of the roughly 350,000 Sri Lankans who sit A-level examinations every year, only 42,000 students are admitted. The government considers attracting new foreign branch campuses to be key to dealing with the crunch, but branch campuses alone will not be enough to meet burgeoning demand among Sri Lankan students for quality higher education.

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