Dorish Chitson: Today, emigration is more important than the studies themselves

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It took me quite a while to make people understand the advantages of the co-op education in Canada. When you finish schooling, you already have a job and permanent residency. We no longer have to encourage students to choose this option; they are the ones asking for it now.

Representatives of foreign universities and colleges have flocked to the country this week to recruit Mauritian students into their institutions. What are the trends this year? What is driving the choice of our students? Which countries are leading? What options are open to them? Are there other routes to immigration? We talk about that and more with Dorish Chitson, founder of Overseas Education Centre (OVEC).

This is that time of year again when there are educational fairs to guide Mauritian students in their journey to join foreign universities. What are the tendencies this year?
Mauritians tend to follow international trends. Due to the pandemic, everyone has been able to discover the utility of IT, internet and technology. There are some universities offering this such as St. Francis Xavier University in Canada, which has just launched two post graduate diplomas for international students to learn about artificial intelligence from scratch. No prior knowledge in IT is needed.

This course lasts two years, doesn’t it?
Yes, and it is very affordable at CAD18,000 per year. The cost of living in Canada is only CAD10,000 per year, which is only around Rs300,000.

What happens after getting your diploma? Are you allowed to work?
Yes, once you do a diploma of a maximum of two years, you get a maximum of three years of post-graduate permit. Then, you automatically become a Canadian.

Does this only apply if you find a job?
No, it is irrespective of whether or not you find a job. I usually request students to choose a co-op education, which is a cooperation with the private sector. In fact, in Canada, all universities work with the industry and do not offer courses if there is no outlet, placement or job in that field.

What happens if an area becomes saturated? Do they stop offering the course?
Yes, which is very good, unlike in Mauritius where we have so many courses but graduates can’t find a job. The Canadian government is very “choosy” and controls education, watching what universities do and what every province needs.

How do they identify the needs say four-five years from now?
Newsletters go out from universities asking people in the industry what their needs are. As recruiters, we get newsletters informing us of the need of the industry there and we advise students accordingly. For example, if they need students working in food technology, we advise students to go for those courses.

Our needs here are not exactly the same as the needs of Canada, are they?
There aren’t any needs here; there is a lack of jobs whereas in Canada, there is a shortage of labour. Canada is a huge country that needs labour to develop its economy so they want young, educated people. If you are young and fresh from school, they will educate you and offer co-op education. If you are older, you need to show that you have work experience to prove that you are useful to the country.

Is Canada the most popular study destination for our students today?
Yes, because they offer permanent residency to everyone who studies there.

Who are they taking students away from? Previously, our students were going mainly to India, Australia and the UK. Canada was not that popular.
It is now. It has been the most popular destination for a few years now. Australia is getting very expensive.

Particularly the cost of living, I would think?
The cost of living and university fees. For example, the cost of living in Canada is CAD10,000 whereas in Australia, it is AUD21,000, which is double.

The country right now is experiencing a brain drain. More and more people want to leave, even big families. Canada not only recruits students, but also workers. There are many mature students who are emigrating.

What about the UK?
For the UK, the problem is that the cost of living is very high at Rs750,000 a year. The fees are also very expensive. The most affordable universities charge £13,000 and this can go up to £25,000. Besides, the fees are going up all the time.

Is this what is pushing students to seek other destinations?
Partly, but more importantly, in the UK, you are given a two-year work permit then they “throw you out”. There is no means of staying there and no PR, unless you open up a business, which is very difficult.

So, the main reason is the immigration constraints, is it?
Yes, this is where Canada came in.

How does Australia fit in?
In Australia, students still get a work permit but it is not automatic to get permanent residency as it is in Canada. So, you might spend a lot of money, studying for many years and still not get the PR, thus having to go back home.

What is the decision based this on?
It is based on their needs so priorities keep changing. Once, there was a shortage of engineers so many students studied engineering but after four years, all the vacancies had been filled so students had to come back home. Parents were very angry as they had spent a lot of money on their children’s studies.

From what I understand, before choosing a destination for studies, immigration is always at the back of a Mauritian student’s mind. Is this the case more now than before?
Yes. The country right now is experiencing a brain drain. More and more people want to leave, even big families. Canada not only recruits students, but also workers. There are many mature students who are emigrating.

Is everybody emigrating to Canada?
Yes, because of the PR facility. Each province has a special scheme to encourage students to stay. For example, the Atlantic Immigration Program allows you to get permanent residence within six months of getting a job, instead of having to stay three years. The mature students mentioned that they are going straight into jobs to receive residency instead of having to take the student route, which was previously the easiest way. This is more affordable too because as a student, you must pay fees whereas if you have work experience, they can give you a job straight away. In the education field, I have seen many parents emigrate with their families.

Do the parents emigrate because of their children or because they cannot see any future here?
Many parents cannot see any future here; they are desperate. They do not like the atmosphere here.

You recruit for the UK, Canada and Australia. Are you pushing people to go to Canada?
This is what they are asking for as there are opportunities for them there. It took me quite a while to make people understand the advantages of the co-op education in Canada. When you finish schooling, you already have a job and permanent residency. We no longer have to encourage students to choose this option; they are the ones asking for it now.

Has the tendency to choose a study destination based on emigration always been there?
No, not really. Today, the situation is very grim here and it is difficult to find jobs so emigration is more important than the studies themselves.

Do you have a percentage of the number of students going to Canada, the UK and Australia?
There is a rough estimate of 75% of students going to Canada. Rich students go to either Australia or the UK as these are the traditional countries students have been going to. The parents of these students want their children to come back and run their businesses so the students have no intention of staying abroad.

I’m surprised that 75% of students are going to Canada!
When I started, it was the UK dominating. Then, Canada took over. Australia is picking up now as the government has passed new laws. They have a 200+ priority list of all sorts of workers, especially skilled ones, to go and work there. So more students are going to Australia than in te very recent past. I mean out of the 25% left, around 8% of students go to the UK and the rest go to Australia.

These are not the official statistics, just your estimates based on your experience, aren’t they?
Yes, there was a time when 75% of students went to the UK, another time when it was equal at 33% each, then the UK went down drastically as only rich people can afford it now.

The laws have changed in the UK to allow graduates to stay there for two years. Didn’t that help?
No. It is very difficult to get a job that pays enough for you to stay in the UK. When the UK was in the EU, there was competition with the East Europeans, which made it hard to get jobs even if you technically, you were allowed to work 20 hours as a student.

Is the situation better for our students post-Brexit?
Not much.

What about other study destinations like South Africa, India, etc.?
Malaysia and China are the most affordable ones. Parents are very cost-conscious in Mauritius as we don't earn much. In Malaysia, the cost of living is around Rs150,000 per year and in China it is Rs50,000. To take an example, Nottingham University opened a campus in Malaysia and in China, which allows you to get the same degree and no one will know where it came from.

That may be the theory behind setting up campuses abroad but the reality of it is that for the job market, it’s not exactly the same, is it?
The emphasis is put on being a real campus, the exchange of lecturers, students, etc. I visited the Nottingham campus in China and more than 50% of the students there were English. I was quite surprised.

Why do they go there?
They are clever and want to learn Chinese. Although the courses are in English, they are in a Chinese environment and they pick up the language, allowing them to work in Chinese embassies and big businesses. It suits them to learn the language for their jobs, and also get an education at more than 10 times less than in the UK, which makes a big difference.

Do the students who come back to Mauritius after their degree do so out of choice or because they could not find a job elsewhere?
A few come back if they find a job here.

So most students go and don’t come back, which is why you spoke about the brain drain.
Yes, this is sad because there is a shortage of workers here. When I advertised for a job in my office, for example, I got around 2,000 applications but those with a degree could not even write a proper sentence in English or French. They all want to do a management job. They think that they are bigshots. They want the advantages, but not the work.

Talking about your office, you have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of OVEC. When you reflect on your career from the beginning till now, what can you share with us?
I’m so happy to have opened up OVEC for our students and so glad to see them succeed. They always keep in touch when they visit Mauritius. I'm so happy to have been able to help them. Today, it is harder. People do not have money and, in most countries, fees are increasing and the rupee is in free fall.

Mauritian parents are very brave and admirable as they sacrifice everything such as selling land and taking loans to send their children to study abroad. In the western world, students take loans themselves and spend their lives repaying them.

Any anecdotes you want to tell us about?
Yes. Mauritian parents are very brave and admirable as they sacrifice everything such as selling land and taking loans to send their children to study abroad. In the western world, students take loans themselves and spend their lives repaying them. However, this is getting harder and harder. This may sound pessimistic, but it is the reality.

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