KATHMANDU: When aspiring chef Bijay Shrestha left Nepal last year for the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia his goal was an international degree, work experience, and a chance at a well-paid career. But instead, after 14 months living in penury in Saint Lucia, Shrestha was back in Kathmandu penniless and without his qualification. Shrestha is one of hundreds of Nepali students duped into paying thousands of dollars to brokers on the promise of help with international college applications and visas, who then disappear with the cash or ship them to sham colleges.

Education consultancies have mushroomed in Nepal, helping students who have begun to looked overseas for better education opportunities than those available at home. Once the preserve of the country’s rich, an increasing number of students are now burdening themselves with large debts in the hope that a foreign degree will pay huge dividends. Last year alone, over 38,000 students left Nepal for higher education opportunities-chances never materialized for some. Shrestha’s tropical education dream quickly evaporated when he arrived in Saint Lucia.

Promised an internationally-recognized diploma, a paid internship and eventual transfer to a US-based college, Shrestha arrived at Lambirds Academy to find a sparely furnished two-story building with three classrooms. “I was stunned. But what could I do? My parents had spent so much so I could come here to study,” Shrestha said. Hundred of thousands of Nepalis work abroad-mostly as maids and on construction sites in Southeast Asia and the Gulf-and their remittances are a mainstay of the country’s economy, providing about 30 percent of gross domestic product. For years dishonest labour brokers have taken advantage of the huge stream of willing workers, but now the illicit trade is cashing in on the big ambitions of a younger generation dreaming of foreign degrees. Along a main street in the capital Kathmandu, dozens of education consultancies vie for business-flashing promises of places at international colleges and easy visas on huge billboards.

But only a fraction are registered with the government and many are simply fronts. These cowboy outfits pocket the huge deposits the applicants stump up, though some take the charade a step further, sending students to far flung colleges that don’t match up the promise-or don’t exist-and leaving them there. “It is almost a form of trafficking when the students are stranded abroad,” said Sarvendra Khanal, head of Kathmandu’s police crime branch. Nepali students have been abandoned in countries around the world, including Chile, Malaysia and Holland, he said.

‘Like prisoners’
A month after Shrestha arrived in Saint Lucia with four other Nepali students, the authorities closed down Lambirds Academy and arrested three Indians and one Bangladeshi on human trafficking and money laundering charges. They took 60 Nepali students into custody as witnesses. “We were victims but felt like prisoners. Our passports were confiscated, we couldn’t study, we couldn’t work. We were stranded,” Shrestha said. Shrestha spent 14 months in a government shelter before he was allowed home, but over a dozen Nepali students remain, he said. “Other students had warned the agent about the conditions at Saint Lucia, but he still sent me and four others,” Shrestha said. Prakash Pandey, head of the Educational Consultancy Association of Nepal, said that the government has left a regulation vacuum which has opened the door to this kind of fraud.

“Unfortunately, the absence of strong monitoring made it easy for those looking for fast money to join the industry and trap gullible students,” Pandey said.  Last year, Kathmandu police’s crime branch raided over three dozen unregistered outfits claiming to be education consultancies and found that many were fake. The raid was the necessary scare to encourage some to register with the government. But the education ministry is playing catch up to an industry that has mushroomed out of control: at present 506 educational consultancies are registered with the ministry, with about 900 applications under process.

“We understand there are irregularities,” said Gauri Shankar Pandey, a senior official at the education ministry. “It is important for the parents and the students to be alert as well, only choosing consultancies registered with the government.” A 28-year-old nurse, who asked not to be named, had her dreams of a master’s degree in Australia shattered when a broker disappeared leaving her $10,000 in debt. “He not only ran away with my money, but also made wrong papers in my name, which means I have been blacklisted by Australian authorities and cannot apply again,” she said.  The broker is now in police custody, accused of cheating more than 10 others out of nearly $100,000. “I had big dreams, I trusted him with my career. But now I don’t know what to do.” – AFP