The Exodus of the Exceptional

Jerusha Christina Jose, III Year B. V. A. Fine Arts.

After the usual drama of receiving the results of our 12th standard board exams or during the final year of our undergraduate education, a question that frequently pops in our mind is: “What next?” That question is followed and subsequently answered by another question: “Here or Abroad?”

We always come across many talented Indians conquering the world in the various fields of technology, business, academia etc. There are several reports suggesting that Indians dominate the technology industry of the USA.

But why are most of those Indians not in India but in the USA or UK? If we go a little more in-depth to analyse this issue, we will begin to notice that the top Indian professionals and entrepreneurs today in the US had actually left India during the latter part of the 20th century after obtaining their degrees in India. So, why did we have such a severe brain drain?

Human capital flight, sometimes called brain drain, refers to the emigration of intelligent, well-educated individuals for better pay or conditions, causing their places of origin to lose skilled people, or “brains”.

One common answer we get is that India did not have the right opportunities for their specialisation. This might hold true for technical PhD holders who need employment from research institutes which might not have been prevalent in India.

It is easy to claim that such people are greedy and that they do not care for our country as per common patriotic norms and choose to flee abroad to apparently greener pastures. But the real reason lies in the political & economic system and the imbalance between supply and demand in a certain field.

“As I had wanted to pursue my higher studies in Western History of Art, I had to opt (for) studying abroad as no university in India offered a degree in Western Art History. I love India but it could not provide what I wanted” says Dr. Florence Vincent, an alumnus of the Oxford University.

Indian academia has for the past several decades suffered from brain drain and continues to lose smart and hard-working academics to universities and research centres in North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia.

According to a recent report from the National Science Foundation’s National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), India has continued its trend of being the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers, with 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million. More worryingly, these numbers show an 85 per cent increase over the last decade. Similarly, according to an OECD report, highly educated Indians are the fastest growing set of emigrants to OECD countries.

“Brain drain is pronounced in areas other than the sciences and engineering. For example, there is no head count of Indian economists who work abroad but we do know that they are many. Recently, the Indian government itself recruited its top economic decision-makers – Kaushik Basu (Chief Economic Adviser under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), Raghuram Rajan(formerly Chief Economic Adviser and now Governor, RBI), Arvind Subramanian (the current Chief Economic Adviser) and Arvind Panagariya (Vice-Chairperson, NITI Aayog) – out of American institutions,” says Dr. Maya Bennett, an official at IDP, an agency to facilitate studying abroad for Indian students.

Overall, the number of immigrant scientists and engineers in the US has risen to 18 per cent from an earlier 16 per cent and 57 per cent of those were born in Asia.From 2004 to 2014, the number of scientists and engineers residing in the US rose from 21.6 million to 29 million.

This 10-year increase included significant growth in the number of immigrant scientists and engineers, from 3.4 million to 5.2 million, said the report from the National Science Foundation’s National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES).

“Also since 2004, the number of scientists and engineers from the Philippines increased 53 per cent and the number from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, increased 34 percent, leaving India as the biggest contributor to the scholar pool of the USA and UK” Dr. Maya Bennett added.

The NCSES report found that immigrant scientists and engineers were more likely to have earned post-graduate degrees than their US-born counterparts. As US citizens claim to have a strong base in learning, while the Indians and others ask for more.

In 2014, 32 per cent of immigrant scientists reported their highest degree was a master’s (compared to 29 per cent of US-born counterparts) and 9 per cent reported it was a doctorate (compared to 4 per cent of US-born counterparts).

“The most common fields of study for immigrant scientists and engineers in 2014 were engineering, computer and mathematical sciences and social and related sciences,” the findings of IDP’s recent study showed.

Over 80 per cent of immigrant scientists and engineers were employed in 2014, the same percentage as their US-born counterparts.

Among the immigrants in the science and engineering workforce, the largest share (18 per cent) worked in computer and mathematical sciences, while the second-largest share (eight per cent) worked in engineering. Three occupations — life scientist, computer and mathematics scientist and social and related scientist — saw substantial immigrant employment growth from 2004 to 2014, the report said.

Post-graduate students from India are increasingly choosing to study abroad. The U.S. Council of Graduate Schools’ new statistics show that offers of admission to Indian post-graduate students are up 30 per cent for 2014-15 from the previous year, compared to a 9 per cent increase for all countries. Numbers from China showed no increase compared to last year. While these statistics are only for the U.S., India’s most popular destination, it is likely that other countries such as Germany, Canada and the U.K. are also seeing significant increases from India.

Why? There are, no doubt, many reasons why Indians are choosing to study abroad. Two of these factors are troubling for India’s universities and for prospects for the high-tech economy. When bright students look around India for a place to study for an advanced degree, they find only a few top-quality programmes. In the social sciences and humanities, there are a small number of respectable departments, but absolutely none that are considered by international experts as in the top class of academic programmes.

“I had always wanted to be an art therapist, I have a diploma in Psychology from the University of Madras and a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Government College of Fine Arts. But there was no Master’s degree in Art Therapy, so here I am, currently pursuing a degree in Art Therapy at the George Washington University, Washington DC. Yes, it is super expensive, but my family agrees it is worth the investment,” says Amrita Singhvi, a student at the GWU, Washington.

In the hard sciences, biotechnology, and related fields, the situation is more favourable with a few institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and some others, despite limited acknowledgement from abroad, being internationally competitive by most measures. But the numbers of students who can be served by these schools is quite limited.

Thus, if a bright Indian wants to study for a doctorate or even a master’s degree at a top department or university in most fields, he or she is forced to study overseas. Further, a degree from a top foreign university tends to be valued more in the Indian job market than a local degree — a perception based not only on snobbery but also on facts. While master’s degrees can be quite costly in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere, doctorates are in fact quite inexpensive because of the likelihood of securing a research or teaching fellowship or assistantship that pays for most or all of the costs.

Not only are overseas programmes and departments more prestigious, they also have far better facilities, laboratories and a more favourable culture of research. Top faculty members are often more accessible and it is easier to become affiliated with a laboratory or institute. Academic politics exists everywhere, and Indians may suffer from occasional discrimination abroad, but overall academic conditions are likely to be better than at home.

Finally, studying abroad is often seen as the first step toward emigration. Of course, few students will admit this, but statistics show that a very large proportion of students from India — and also from China, South Korea and other Asian countries — choose to stay in the U.S. following the completion of doctoral degrees. Data from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates show that 80 per cent or more of students who complete their PhDs in the U.S. from India and some other Asian countries remain in the U.S.

“I chose to stay back in Seattle after my Master’s in Comparative Religion, as I knew getting a job or a research grant in my field of study in India would be near to impossible; Plus, I love the city, its people and the dogs-off-the-leash policy. I do come visit my family, whenever time permits,” says Susan Kurian, currently working at the University of Washington, as a teaching assistant.

The reasons for deciding not to return to India are varied and not hard to discern. Better salaries and facilities abroad, easier access to research funds, working on cutting-edge topics and many others are part of the mix. And while some are lured back to India later in their careers, the numbers are small. Once established overseas, either in a university or in the research or corporate sectors, it is difficult to return.

It may be relevant to note that the rate of Chinese post-graduate students going abroad is flat after a number of years of steady increases. A likely explanation, with relevance for India, is that China has invested heavily in its top-tier universities and now has significant quality and capacity in most academic fields for post-graduate study. Chinese students are no longer obliged to go abroad for high-quality programmes, with an apparent trend toward choosing to remain at home.

There are quite a few who return to India, a few to serve the economic potential of their homeland and many others, in all honesty, who find themselves without jobs or adequate funding or for the reasons of the elderly parents.

“I returned to India after a MBA from Wharton, mainly for my parents; my mother’s blood sugar problems and my father’s waning health. I may have earned more in the US, but what good is a well-paying job, if you can’t care for your parents?” asks Mr. Selwyn Pandian, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania.

There is no short-term solution to this problem for India. The only remedy is to build up high-quality capacity in key disciplines at national institutions so that a greater number of Indian students can obtain excellent training at home. This means significant investment over time, and careful choices about where to invest since all universities cannot be top research universities.

It also means significant changes in India’s academic culture to ensure that meritocracy operates at all levels. China’s top universities are beginning to show up in the mid-levels of the global rankings, an indication that they are having some success. India, so far, is nowhere to be seen.

So, you want us to stay in our motherland for infinity and beyond? Then, up your game, India.

[Photograph Source: Go Indian News]

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