Brain drain: India may be losing top talent as students flock to study abroad

demographic dividend through quality education
India's education system needs a pivotal shift in terms of quality, funding, and accessibility to encash the demographic dividend.

Brain Drain: More than 200,000 Indian students joined higher education institutions in the US in 2021–22, almost a fifth more than the previous year. The number of Indian students moving to the US every year has more than doubled in the last 10 years, according to the Open Doors Report 2022 released this week. China continues to send the highest number of students to the US with 31% of the total to India’s 21%, but the growth rate of Chinese students is slowing down.

The story this year is unlikely to be different. A staggering 82,000 visas have been issued between June and August 2022, compared with 62,000 visas in the same period last year. The largest chunk of Indian students going abroad goes to the US. The estimated annual expenditure by Indian students abroad is about $28 billion, a major dent on India’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves. The annual expenditure is expected to touch $80 billion by 2024, according to the Higher Education Abroad report released by RedSeer.

Studying abroad is in vogue especially with rich Indians because foreign universities provide not just better education, but also better job prospects. It is no surprise that Indian students in foreign universities also choose foreign nations for working.

The US remains the top destination for students looking for higher education options which also coincides with the fact that the country continues to offer lucrative future opportunities. Most of the Indian students studying in the US are registered in master’s programmes. The bulk of Indian students choose maths, computer science, and business management, which are also high paying courses when it comes to jobs as opposed to Arts and Humanities.

Post-study visas, like the H-1B in the US, also mostly go to Indians, making it lucrative to study in the US. Western countries have also etched out categories for start-up founders and innovators. A large number of Indian students are also flocking to universities in the UK, Canada, Australia and other developed countries.

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The passion for foreign education is not confined to rich kids alone. At least 42% students who wish to take up a master’s course abroad are from the lowest income group with an annual income less than $10,000, according to an iSchoolConnect study that surveyed 1,000 respondents from India, Thailand, Africa, and Sri Lanka.

What is driving Indians out of India?

For one, unemployment. As if it wasn’t ironic enough that a brimming economy fails to absorb its young population in work, in India, unemployment levels rise with education, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data. As of December 2021, one in five college graduates is unemployed. The situation is aggravated by not just a lack of suitable jobs but also the problems of a skills-opportunity mismatch, and corruption also plagues the job situation in the country.

Other issues such as nepotism, gender and caste discrimination continue to dominate the job market. These problems exist in the west as well but are not as acute as they are in India. In fact, Indians have managed to take their caste bias to the west as well. Technology giant Apple took cognizance of the matter and had to update general employee conduct policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste. It is a no brainer that students from marginalised communities, when and if they get a chance, choose to leave behind their homeland and the toxicities they have endured here.

Job opportunities with better pay and work hours also attract Indians to foreign lands. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, professionals in the healthcare, science and technology, engineering and math fields are in high demand.

The fact remains that there is an urgent need to retain Indian talent at home as the current trend is harmful to the Indian economy. While the outflow of human capital from India cannot be entirely eradicated, there can be focused initiatives to bring the Indian diaspora back. There is a massive challenge before the government, however, if it is tackled in time, the same will reap huge benefits for the country’s economy.

Brain drain continues

Despite chest thumping of the majority for national pride, swadesh has rarely been the choice for the best of Indian minds who first choose to study abroad and then also make foreign countries their home by working there. Even if one studies at home, it is an established fact that highly educated Indians dream of living and working abroad. In fact, two in three Indian emigrants are highly educated, having received academic or vocational training. This is the highest for any country, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Whether it is the colonial mindset that makes students leave for foreign countries, or an aspiration for a better lifestyle and the allure of becoming NRIs, or maybe even a desire to leave behind the toxicities behind and get better paycheques, India continues to lose out its best to others, which should be alarming for any country, leave alone India which got its independence merely 75 years back and aspires to be a global powerhouse.

Brain drain is a global phenomenon where the brightest of Human Resources are absorbed by other nations and it is a consequence of a system in which an economy is still too controlled and cannot create opportunities for its best, according to economists. Indian minds, are everywhere, including Parag Agarwal who was made the CEO by Twitter and Leena Nair, who took charge of luxury brand Chanel. The list is endless, from Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Gita Gopinath, Sundar Pichai and Shantanu Narayan being some of the other notable names already on it.