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星期三, 24 7 月, 2024

最新消息|Opinion: Studying abroad: Why students in Sri Lanka are applying to Canadian, U.S. and U.K. universities

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The University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka, is the alma mater of author Randy Boyagoda’s father.RANDY BOYAGODA

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as the university’s adviser on civil discourse.

The student approached me while I was sitting at a small table, working on a lecture. We were on the ground floor of the University of Colombo’s library, in late February. The student, a well-dressed young man, explained that he’d heard me introduce myself when I requested a spot to do a little work as I first entered the library.

With an endearing combination of cockiness and shyness, he told me he was a first-year business major, and that he wanted to speak with a professor from an overseas university. He immediately told me he had several friends who were going to school in the United Kingdom and United States. Not in Canada, he added, apologetically. I asked him if he’d considered doing the same, before enrolling at the University of Colombo. He had, but he decided to stay in Sri Lanka because of the immense expense of studying overseas and also, because he wanted to be closer to his family. I wished him the best of luck with his studies and went back to my notes.

He remained there. I looked up. He said he wanted to know what I thought. “About what?” I asked. He gestured at the yellow-walled, quiet library study space, where small groups of students sat at tables. They were chatting with each other, and looking at their laptops and phones, and someone was always getting up to fuss with the controls for the fans bolted to nearby pillars or going from one table to the next, whether to check a problem set or to gossip. I told him it felt like a university nearly anywhere in the world (other than the droning, ineffectual fans). He was pleased, asked if I was on LinkedIn, and left. A few moments later, a library staffer came up to me and silently pointed at my head. I apologized and removed my hat.

I went to Sri Lanka this past winter, my first trip there in 10 years, for several reasons. I was researching for a new novel; I was revisiting some of the places, from cradle to university graduation, that mattered to my octogenarian father’s memories of his life in then-Ceylon before immigrating to Canada in the 1960s; I was delivering a lecture on what it means to read American literature in a global context; combining all of these, I was there, as a career-long academic, university administrator, and campus novelist, to figure out what university life looks like in a very different part of the world. This final, unifying interest was also spurred by our continuing national debates about the prospects and problems of international students coming to Canada for postsecondary education, punctuated recently by the federal government’s decision, covered extensively by The Globe and Mail, to place an immediate and significant limit on international student visas after years of largely unchecked growth, and also by the more recently reported dramatic increase in asylum claims by international students. Last month’s mass killing in an Ottawa suburb, of a recently arrived Sri Lankan mother and her four children and a family friend, with the father hospitalized with injuries, was allegedly committed by a young Sri Lankan man who reportedly had originally come to Canada to pursue postsecondary studies. This awful situation puts Sri Lankan experiences with immigration and education newly and tragically into national view.

What I found in Sri Lanka itself, again and again, was a demanding combination of the familiar and strange, the encouraging and depressing. These binaries even covered my visiting the University of Colombo, the oldest and largest of Sri Lanka’s 17 public universities. With origins dating to a 19th-century medical school, founded while the country was a British colony, the country’s flagship university came into formal being in 1921. It’s home to more than 10‚000 undergraduate students at its urban campus, in the heart of the crowded, cacophonous, rough and ready kaleidoscopic sprawl that is contemporary Colombo, the capital city. If Sri Lankan citizens, these students receive full – I repeat, full – government funding for tuition and residence. The same is the case for Sri Lankan students at the island nation’s other public universities, in a radically whole version of publicly funded higher education compared with Canadian and American equivalents.

These students also are subject, as was I, to levels of security that likewise far exceed their North American counterparts. Beyond standard identification requests, I had to pass through a metal detector run by a quasi-military guard to enter the library. Regardless of its contents, I wasn’t allowed to bring my bookbag inside. I likewise had to pass through metal detectors to enter Colombo shopping malls and I went past machine-gun wielding soldiers when I went to Sunday Mass at Saint Lucia, the city’s cathedral, where my mother’s parents were married in 1946. All of these security measures make sense in contemporary Sri Lanka: This is a country with active memories of conflict, whether of its decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009; the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks of 2019; or the protests and chaos of the country’s economic and political breakdowns, in 2022.

I was expecting these components to factor in life in present-day Sri Lanka. What I wasn’t expecting was how much higher education, specifically international higher education, has come to factor. Sri Lankan culture, like many cultures around the world, places a special emphasis on education; there is a longstanding tradition of students going overseas, whether to the U.K., to India, or to the former Soviet Union specifically for medical school, or, in my father’s case, to Canada for a second degree. Meanwhile, the robust commitment to full student funding that defines its national university system reflects this privileging of education, if predictably creating a great deal of competition for limited seats: In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, 168,000 students applied and 32,000 were admitted, at a selectivity rate of 19 per cent. I can’t imagine it’s become easier since then. This local scarcity – even with the university system expanding from two or three publicly funded schools, at mid-century, to nearly 20 today, enrolling tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students – combined with a broader lack of opportunity in a country still recovering from decades of strife and turmoil, has created an unprecedented new opportunity for foreign institutions.

“Your British degree is no more a dream than a reality: Learn about paying monthly!”

“Start in Sri Lanka, finish in Australia!”

These were phrases from just two of the many, many billboards advertising opportunities for international higher education that I saw on Sri Lankan highways and throughout Colombo. I also drove past buildings that housed local offices for overseas universities, and for international university consortiums with local campuses, and for professional agencies promising assistance for students hoping to study in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K., Belarus, and yes, Canada. While not nearly as large a source country for international university students as India or China, Sri Lanka clearly was a place of interest in this massive global business.

Playing dumb, working-writer style, I asked my driver, a quiet and friendly man in his early 30s, who was with me for the entire trip, why there were so many advertisements for studying overseas. Unsurprisingly, he pointed to the lack of local employment opportunities, and he joked that Sri Lanka no longer belonged to Sri Lanka: now it belonged to China. This was an ordinary person’s reflection of what Nikkei Asia called, in a January analysis, the country’s “debt trap” relationship to Beijing, by way of China’s continuing, increasing loan-based investment in economically-debilitated Sri Lanka and its infrastructure, on favourable terms (favourable to China, that is).

I wasn’t surprised by either of these points, but I was when my driver told me that his wife was in the midst of applying to study in Canada. She was currently preparing for her English proficiency test. I asked him where she was planning to study, and what: Toronto, and business, he said. I asked for more details. Things turned awkward. He didn’t know much more about her plans; he couldn’t even tell me if she was planning to study at a university or a college. I’m fairly certain this wasn’t because he didn’t take much interest in his wife’s life-plans.

Instead, this was because, as he put it, the agent knew the rest and would give them recommendations, as in the education agent they were working with to find a way to study in Canada and therefore move there. And even if my driver was vague about some of the details, what he did know, absolutely, were two things. First, that it was very hard to get a spot in Canada these days: This was more likely a permanent fact or education agent marketing ploy than evidence the federal government’s visa decision was already being felt. Second, he knew the cost: six million rupees a year was what the agent told them they needed – about $26,000 Canadian – to pay tuition and also, the agency fee. They would have to find work to take care of housing and food. He said that if his wife passed the English proficiency test and the papers came through, they would sell their home, in a village outside Colombo, and also his beloved motorcycle. He was matter-of-fact about doing this. He was more worried about rent and food costs and also about the rules for importing family pets: they had three Rottweilers.

I mentioned my driver’s observations and plans to my first cousin and her husband when we met for dinner one night in Colombo. Educated, working professionals and confident anglophones who occupy a very different socioeconomic position in Sri Lankan life than my driver and his TOEFL-taking wife, they’ve sent their own daughters overseas, to universities in California and Melbourne. Their rationales for doing so would be familiar to most parents in Canada: They wanted the best educational opportunities for their children, wherever this would be, and they were willing to save and sacrifice to make this possible; their children had academic interests that were more readily fulfilled in programs at specific schools outside the local options; finally, the opportunity for an extended and independent experience, away from home, was, alongside the other factors, worth the cost and effort. My cousin and her husband were clear in differentiating their decisions to send their children overseas from the current mania for it, which, just like my driver, they ascribed to bleak local prospects and, I would argue, comparatively less discrimination about institutions and programs of study. This mania was evidenced not just by all the billboards on the streets, but also by posters I saw in Colombo, advertising free overseas university fairs and information sessions. As it happens, one took place in the very hotel where I was staying, so I went, on a Sunday afternoon.

Promising students and their families the opportunity to “Meet leading Universities from Australia, NZ, & Singapore under one roof!,” the Global Reach Education Fair 2024 happened in a side-room of a ballroom that hosted weddings nearly every day I was there, often with live bands. The registration desk was staffed by chipper, skinny young people in facsimile power suits, taking information and handing out swag, including a reusable burgundy canvas bag emblazoned “Overseas education is not an expenditure, but a valuable investment with lifelong return.”

In fact, and obviously, overseas education is an enormous expenditure. The question for the families attending this university fair was whether indeed there was sufficient value in it. They were all well-dressed and sitting patiently, checking their phones, in rows of seats in the middle of the room until it was their turn to speak with overseas university representatives, all of whom were sitting at tables along the perimeter. Each display table offered brochures course catalogues, banners, and also posters showing happy young people learning together against either sleek modern backdrops or grand old stone and greenery, reflecting the campuses, presumably, of these “leading universities.”

Generally I only put so much stock in university rankings, but none of the participating universities struck me as “leading”: in fact, I hadn’t heard of most of them. What was clear from that fair, and more broadly from my sense of university prospects in Sri Lanka, was an insidious alignment of interests. People want the best for their children, and they equate the best with acquiring a postsecondary education and often related work and settlement opportunities, overseas. At the same time, generally little-known universities, likely struggling with declining domestic enrolments and depressed government funding, can promise prestige and potential to people not knowing any better (or frankly caring), by way of their geolocations irrespective of their reputations.

Later that day, back in my hotel room, to booming bass notes from a wedding reception, I looked up the India-based organization itself, Global Reach, which describes itself as “the one name that has become synonymous with overseas education.” The organization boasts of about 500 university partnerships around the world, including with several institutions in Canada, though not my own; of supporting the educational experiences of more than 50,000 students; of enjoying a “100% Visa success rate.” Check back in a year.

The university situation in Sri Lanka wasn’t entirely gloomy. Near the end of my trip, my driver took me to Kandy, the main city in the highland centre of the island and about three or four hours from the capital. I went there to deliver the lecture I was working on in that Colombo University library, at the invitation of the English department at the University of Peradeniya. This was my father’s alma mater – originally known as the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya – and indeed he credits his successful immigration to Canada, and our family’s subsequent multigenerational life here, with his attending that university and possessing a lifelong, legible credential. Upon first coming to Canada, he enrolled in graduate studies in chemistry at the University of Ottawa; the department chair had heard of Peradeniya’s founding vice-chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings, who went on to serve as vice-chancellor at Cambridge. Such is the global connectedness of university life, though we tend too much only to focus on its elite institutions, whether in hopes of joining their ranks or lamenting their mistakes.

I felt this global connectedness, at a different level, at Peradeniya, myself. My host, the head of the department, completed his doctorate in the Midwest, where I completed a postdoc. There were, inevitably, familiar titles on his bookshelves, and we traded sob and war stories about administrative duties, though, looking out his window, I told him he at least had a much better view whenever he was able to look away from his always-exploding inbox. Peradeniya occupies the largest campus of any Sri Lankan university. It’s also, easily, the most beautiful, with its stately academic buildings set on grand lawns and gentle rolling hills. Students gathered to read or play with their phones under massive Maimara trees – think tropic Tolkien. Surrounding the campus on all sides were mountains made dark green with tea plants, the source of the island’s long famous Ceylon brew.

I was happy to be there, and happier still with how the lecture went. As every academic knows, giving a talk anywhere, on anything, can sometimes be an exercise in humility: you never know who is going to show up, if anyone at all. In this case, after having tea with my host in the senior common room of the arts building – which culminated in his being reprimanded by the woman behind the counter for audaciously trying to leave the room with the crest-embossed cup and saucer – I gave a talk about what it means to study American literature in a global context. I did so to a full classroom of faculty and students. The undergraduates laughed knowingly at a James Joyce joke I made while discussing Lucy Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport – they were reading Ulysses in one of their courses – and the graduate students and faculty asked so many demanding questions, always in congenial tones, the session itself went more than 30 minutes long. I wish lectures on American literature went overlong in Toronto because there was just too much intense and excited discussion.

Afterward, I met up with my driver. On the long drive back to Colombo, and definitely not worried about distracted driving on a road full of speeding private buses missing side-mirrors and scooters threading around oncoming traffic, he texted me a screenshot of a GTA immigration lawyer before returning to his favourite topic: rent and grocery costs in Canada.