The collapse of the Sri Lankan rupee, combined with limits on financial transfers out of the country, has left international students – many of whom rely on their parents to send them money – without any way to pay university fees and other living costs.
“Since the government placed heavy restrictions on cash flow out of the country, students who are studying in other countries do not have access to their funds back home,” said Kaushalya Rathnayake, a Sri Lankan PHD student at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
“Students have already flown back to Sri Lanka because they couldn’t afford the rising costs”
“I know a few students who have already flown back to Sri Lanka because they couldn’t afford the rising costs.”
Under government restrictions, international students can receive US$1,000 per month from Sri Lanka, but Rathnayake says that some are not even getting this due to high demand and low foreign reserve levels at individual banks.
In the UK, students struggling to pay their university fees have resorted to trying to exchange currencies via Facebook groups.
“Over the past month, we’ve seen the number of posts requesting GBP in exchange for LKR has increased,” the admin of one such Facebook group wrote at the end of March. “With the situation in Sri Lanka, we understand that many of you who are [in the UK] to study are struggling to find money in GBP for course fees etc.”
Users have been posting desperate pleas for help in the midst of the crisis.
“I need to bring some money from Sri Lanka to [the] UK to pay my fees, any help?” said one user, while another posted: “Someone who can pay university fees in GBP please dm me. I can transfer LKR. ”
“Universities are not doing much”
“Universities are not doing much,” said Rathnayake, who says he wrote to his university to draw attention to the issues students are facing, but received no response.
Rathnayake believes universities should offer Sri Lankan students access to payment plans and hardship funds to help them cope with the situation.
He says some students have also written to the Canadian government to ask for more flexibility on the number of hours international students can work while studying, until they can access their money again.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since 1948 as inflation has risen to an all-time high of 17.5%, with the government last week announcing it would default on its foreign debt.
The price of everyday food items has soared and, in March, the government cancelled school exams for students across the country as it could not afford paper to print them on.
In Sri Lanka, some potential international students who hold offers for foreign universities have been left unable to pay the necessary registration fees, according to student recruitment firm AECC.
“We have seen issues with some students attempting to make payments overseas as a result of the Sri Lankan currency rapidly depreciating as a result of the current crisis,” said Anne Simonds, Sri Lanka brand head at AECC Global.
UNESCO estimates that there are over 28,000 overseas Sri Lankan students and demand for international study from Sri Lankan students has spiked in recent years, with experts suggesting that the economic crisis is contributing to this trend.
“Student interest from Sri Lanka, based on page views on Studyportals, increased by five-fold at it’s highest point,” said Carmen Neghina, senior marketing Analytics Consultant at Studyportals.
Data from Studyportals, a platform that helps students choose courses, shows that interest in international study from Sri Lankans peaked at the end of 2021.
Although searches dropped at the beginning of 2022, Studyportals said this “corresponds to seasonality so would be expected anyway”.
“We often see big spikes in student interest for studying abroad when there are political or economic problems in country,” said Neghina. “We saw a similar pattern during the economic crisis in Greece and are seeing a similar pattern during the currency and debt crisis in Turkey.”
“Families want their children to have options outside of Sri Lanka”
Simonds, who confirmed that AECC has also seen a “strong increase in interest” from Sri Lankan students, said that “people are leaving Sri Lanka at unprecedented levels”.
“The current crisis is seeing student enquiries increase as families want their children to have options outside of Sri Lanka.”
“Education opportunities should stay open for students,” said Rathnayake, “because for countries like Sri Lanka, that is the only way people have to achieve life goals.
“If Canada and other countries shut their doors or be more restrictive and get more expensive for students, then it would not be good for [students], and the countries also lose a good market”.