No Reverse Osmosis

by Francis Maindl

Any student in India will express a desire to study or work abroad, in the US, Canada or Europe, and earn in dollars. In the last decade, many aspiring professionals from India—would-be engineers, doctors, codewriters—have decided to cross the seas, either for the better quality of education or the job prospects.

“Brain drain”, a term that came into use during the wave  of emigration by professionals in the 1960-70s, remains a real issue even today. According to a report by Rupa Chanda and Shahana Mukherjee of IIM-Bangalore, between 2000 and 2009, the number of Indian students leaving to study abroad rose an astonishing 256 per cent. In the last two years, graduate schools in the US saw a 61 per cent rise in applicants from India. The IIM report identifies the lack of good institutions and growing competition for existing seats as a chief reason for Indians choosing to study abroad.

Indian scientists and professionals have for long made up for the shortages in the West. Now, Indians are leaving to first study and then work abroad.

Since the mid-1960s, a dramatic proportion of doctors have been emigrating. A shocking report from AIIMS, one of India’s best medical colleges, suggests that more than half its students end up working abroad. For Nidhi Arora, who just finished her Masters in Public Health in dental studies at the University of Columbia, studying in the US was an obvious choice. She decided to go not just for the better quality of education but also for better earnings. “Working in the US, I’d probably earn seven to eight times more than in India,” she says. Satya, a 29-year-old postgraduate student at AIIMS, is part of that wave. After completing his studies, he dreams of studying medicine in America. Most of Satya’s classmates also want to go to the US for better salaries and practical learning as education in India is primarily theoretical.

The Indian ‘brain drain’ has been aided by the immigration policies in countries like the US, Canada and Australia, which have consistently attracted people with skills and an innovative spirit. Now, these policies are being reworked to attr­act students to professional colleges. With western countries unable to compete globally in basic manufacturing, they are focusing on the high-tech and scientific manufactuing segments, in which they face a shortage of engineers, scientists and trained hands. And India, which has a great number of professionals who know English, is an obvious choice.

It is also good business to integrate educated immigrants, as getting a tax-paying engineer or a doctor for ‘free’ to contribute to the economy becomes a profitable proposition. A Canadian research institute estimates that the net lifetime benefit of absorbing a skilled newcomer into society is about $1,05,000, compared to $65,000 for one without a university degree. India, on the other hand, is losing $17 billion in revenues a year on the thousands of students studying abroad.

The new Modi administration has to address these issues if India hopes to progress. It has to correct the imbalance between the domestic jobs available and the rising number of skilled workers. And salaries offered to professionals will have to be more gen­e­rous. In its election manifesto, the BJP said it would strengthen higher education by narrowing the gap between industry and academia, restructuring the UGC into more than a grant distributor and raising the standards of education and research. But it is not clear what particular actions the government will take to achieve this. With all the talent India has, it must find a way to turn ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain gain’.

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