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NEP 2020: Reversing the trends of education brain drain

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By: M.Kashyap and Muzaffar Bhat

Jawaharlal Nehru emphasizes that freedom from ignorance is as essential as freedom from hunger. He further states “Only through right education can a better order of society be built up”. A good education is one that favours rational thinking, love of learning, cultivation of a scientific temperament while fostering the spirit of fraternal cooperation. The focal point of this article is to examine the causes, effects of brain drain and how the New Education Policy (NEP 2020)’s proposed revamp of the entire education system would be well suited to tackle the pressing problem of educational brain drain in India.

First we must ask ourselves, what is brain drain? Brain drain is a slang term coined by the British Royal Society to first describe the substantial emigration or migration of individuals from one country to another in the early 1950s and 1960s. The term often describes the departure of large groups of individuals emigrating to developed nations. There are a multitude of factors which drive the trends of brain drain. Chiefly they may be categorized as push factors and pull factors. Push factors are negative characteristics of the home country that provide an impetus to intelligent and able individuals to move to developed countries. In addition to unemployment and political instability, other push factors include absence of research facilities, lack of freedoms, employment discriminatory practices, lack of opportunities for economic development etc. Pull factors are the positive characteristics of developed countries which entice smart and deserving individuals to emigrate. These are aspirational states for the would-be migrants to achieve and qualities to benefit from. Pull factors include high paying jobs, enhanced quality of life, better socio-cultural status of existence, economic upward mobility, prestige of foreign educational and vocational training, political stability, modernized systems to allow for expression of one’s skill and talents.

According to a report issued by the National Science Foundation – Immigrants’ Growing Presence in the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Education and Employment Characteristics, 57% of the immigrants were born in Asian countries. Of the lot, India is still the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers. This means there has been an 85% increase from 2003. In just over a decade, India has lost nearly 9.5 lakh individuals to brain drain to the United States alone. That is without taking into account statistics for the outward flow of human capital into other countries like Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, UAE etc.

This trend is highly problematic because competent individuals who could have contributed to the growth of their home country, economically, socially and otherwise leave for greener pastures. They contribute their knowledge and expertise to the country they migrate to. When brain drain is prevalent in a developing country like ours, it causes some serious repercussions which have a negative trickledown effect upon the economy. These effects include, but are not limited to, loss of tax revenue, loss of potential entrepreneurs, and skilled labour force. A massive exodus on the scale mentioned above leads to loss of confidence in the system, which further compounds a person’s desire to leave rather than stay. The country suffers a huge lack of Return-on-Investment (ROI) on these individuals as the State is often involved in the education and training of these individuals, directly or indirectly. When the time comes, these individuals fly off in pursuit of their ambitions, and the State suffers because from a purely economic perspective, this human capital has now turned into NPAs, which is a blow to the local economy.

There are a few factors which contribute specifically to educational brain drain in India. Firstly, there is the issue of colleges setting impossibly high cut- off rates as the eligibility criteria. This disheartens a lot of students because the likelihood of scoring around 99% for most is slim to none. On the other hand, there are many coveted universities abroad such as Oxford or Cambridge that set 75% or even lower as the admission cut-off. Therefore, these become the clearly more attainable fruit for those who are able to afford it. Secondly, the promise of high paying jobs in the future is a big draw for students who go abroad for higher education. It is a huge boon especially for those who wish to work in the private and corporate sectors. Owing to the sub-par research facilities, structuring and calibre of Indian higher educational programmes, even the private sector employers in India give preference to “foreign returned” candidates who end up with plum entry-level packages such as INR 15 lakhs or more . This is also an influencing criteria for educational brain drain. Thirdly, the costs of higher education programmes, especially at the post-graduate level are prohibitively expensive for many students who wish to enrol in Ivy league equivalent institutions such as IITs, IIMs, National law schools etc. Either the process or the pricing is so off-putting that the students would rather apply abroad. Fourthly, there is the evaluation system itself where in some cases, the universities tend to value and reward quantity over quality. This leads to the students picking up the art of “bullshitting” or writing extensively rather than dissemination of meaningful and pertinent information. There are no net intellectual gains when a system rewards the students for writing expansively, rather than understanding the concept and its application extensively. For the hard working student, this system of evaluation is no less than a curse. However, the foreign universities use a much more transparent and merit oriented system for evaluation and scoring.

For the dedicated student, there is guaranteed gold at the end of the rainbow. But, that is not to say that the entire Indian higher education system is a massive swamp that needs to be drained. Many Indian universities have now established autonomously operational departments which are almost on par with foreign universities vis-a-vis grading and the system of credits allocation per course. The system of cumulative grade point average (CGPA) encourages the students to stay on course, and maintain respectable grades consistently throughout all the semesters. This eliminates the Hail Mary proclivities of slacking off students, especially in higher level courses.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is a wide chasm between the educational approach taken by the Indian education system, and that of the education systems overseas. Our education system is heavily theory oriented, and focuses less on application. While it is key to have a solid theoretical foundation, it is equally paramount to learn the applications of the theoretical knowledge we memorize in a rote fashion, quite mindlessly. A deep and thorough knowledge of theory + application is the fuel propellant for innovation. India, while full of human capital is unable to capitalize fully on the youth potential because the system encourages rote memorization. It only stands to reason that rote memorization fails to do the trick when it comes to higher levels of education, because the emphasis there tends to be on developing independent theses and writing original dissertations through application of one’s own critical thinking faculties. It is an indictment of the Indian schooling system when students are  able to flawlessly balance an equation or recite Newton’s Three Laws of Motion but fail spectacularly when asked to solve real world problems using these very same principles taught to them in school.

Furthermore, the students cannot choose the subjects of their choice across streams because our system at present lacks that kind of flexibility. If a youngster desirous of being a sound engineer wishes to study PCMC (Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Computer Science) along with undertaking formal Music training at his college, that is not possible in our system. But the same can be pursued abroad simultaneously either in the form of a dual degree or through the majoring/minoring system.

In the past, key foreign investors and stakeholders of the higher education sector have been understandably reluctant to invest in India because of the tenuous logistics issues (securing operation licenses, campus permits, red tapism at bureaucratic levels etc. to mention a few), cultural and linguistic barriers, and tedious legalities especially pertaining to FDI. However, the NEP 2020 promises to ease up on these blockades, and grant them reprieve regarding regulatory frameworks, governance, and content development norms. A smart and sensible educational development policy cognizant of the existing issues, and needs of the people has the potential to be the panacea required to reverse the trend of brain drain and transform it into a positive asset acquisition tool. Besides, the benefit accrues to our students who wish to acquire the full benefits of studying abroad at a fraction of the costs. Some students often suffer from serious levels of homesickness and even drop out from programmes when they go abroad.

Furthermore, the cost of college abroad is not something which everyone can afford, even if the student secures a scholarship or receives financial aid. Even discounting the cost of college tuition, there are several other expenses to be met such as housing, food, electricity, water, miscellaneous expenses which burn a steep hole in the pocket. However, when foreign universities are allowed to set up campuses here as proposed by NEP 2020, students will be able to get a world class education at their doorstep, provided by the best faculty along with high calibre degrees that make them employment ready locally or globally.

An important criteria for students to study abroad so far was the rigidity of the course structure and content in India. For example, if a student wishes to major in Biochemistry while minoring in Fine Arts, this sort of a “deviation” is impossible because of the inflexible educational framework employed by colleges. By drawing on the knowledge of how universities such as Takshashila, Nalanda etc. operated in the ancient days, the NEP 2020 has proposed the development of Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities a.k.a M.E.R.U which will allow the students to choose their areas of specialization without being constrained by whether a subject belongs within one particular stream. When the students are afforded the flexibility to choose their subjects across the board, they are more naturally inclined to pick subjects which interest them, motivate them to work hard and make novel contributions in those fields.

Lastly, at present, foreign universities have an edge over us in the field of research. Owing to the considerable grants and substantial funding poured into research both by the State as well as private stakeholders, there is a deep crevasse between India and the world in terms of expectations towards research publications, eminent research labs and the quality of research. NEP 2020 aims to resolve  this with the inception of the National Research Foundation (NRF). With an initial grant of Rs. 20,000 crores per annum from the Central Government, the NRF will design and execute a blueprint for improving research and innovation across all fields and industries, provide on-ground patent application training, and promote a robust application oriented approach to research. Consequently, this will strengthen the link between academia and industry. The NRF also intends to felicitate meritorious research through grants, awards and prizes. NEP 2020 as well as the NRF understand that building a cognizant, sustainable, ever growing research community is key to making India the hub of R&D in the world.

The time is now, and this sector is ripe for the plucking for this kind of a social experiment. The higher education sector is the right playground to apply these new principles to calculate what gains can be yielded from NEP 2020. We hope that this policy will be implemented on the ground, and not be confined to the discussion stage only. NEP 2020 can be the linchpin for not only eliminating educational brain drain, but also bringing about an education revolution of seismic proportions in India. The ripple effect of this education revolution has the potential for what tech billionaire, entrepreneur and scientist Elon Musk calls, the opportunity for ordinary individuals to become something extraordinary.

– Kashyap is a lawyer practising in Bangalore and can be reached at mkash05@gmail.com; Muzaffar Bhat is a businessman from Srinagar, passionate about public policy matters, and can be reached at muzaffarbhat78@gmail.com.

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