Why thousands of Indians are going to study abroad

A recent report estimates that around 8 million students travel abroad each year for higher education and spend $28 billion, or 1% of our GDP, there. Of this amount, approximately $6 billion are fees that go to foreign universities. This is around Rs 45,000 crore which is enough capital to start and run 10 new IITs, IISERs or JNUs or any such elite institutions every year. And yet, according to the recent CAG report, the eight new IITs launched in the period 2008-2009 are not performing well at all. The clutch of new private universities has also failed to stem the exodus of students and wealth above. So even after 70 years of independence and the last eight years of vigorous policy initiatives, we have no aatmanirbharta or value proposition in higher education. Why is that?

First of all, it’s about jobs. From the data of the income tax department for the past few years, we see that there are about 3 crore taxpayers. Taking two-thirds of these as the number of salaried people and assuming an average tax life of 20 years, we find that there are only about 10 lakh new jobs available each year. This includes both public and private sector jobs. More data from the Income Tax Department shows that among these there are around 3 lakh “good” jobs which pay Rs 5 lakh per annum (LPA) or more, and 30,000 “fancy” jobs which pay a starting salary of Rs 10 lakh-plus per year. Of the 3 lakh good jobs, about 1 lakh is from IT majors. The posh jobs come from multinational companies and are in marketing, finance, IT, and global engineering services. Hardly any Indian company serving the Indian customer offers a starting salary of Rs 10 lakh per year.

From MHRD data, we find that India graduated about 30 lakh students last year from about 45,000 colleges. Given recent employment data, there could be around 1 crore of unemployed graduates looking for work. That’s 10 times the number of salaried jobs, 30 times the number of good jobs, and 300 times the number of posh jobs available each year. Now, it is impossible for companies or state agencies to meaningfully interview such a large number of candidates for every job. The screening task for private companies is done by branded institutions and colleges. The good jobs are concentrated in about 800 top colleges and the posh jobs in 80-100 elite colleges such as IITs and IIMs, St Stephen’s in Delhi, Presidential College in Kolkata and emerging elite private universities. It’s only here that good companies will go to recruit, and that a student has the hope that her CV will be read. And hence the madness of competitions, the tightening of ranks and coaching courses in high school and internships and packages in college. If there were an option, no wise parent would put their child through this ordeal. And that
partly explains the flight of students and capital abroad.

Unfortunately, central and state governments also rely on these exams for their recruitment, for example, even the IAS. Can abilities in science, economics or administration be tested by examinations with a rating of 1 out of 100? The answer is a firm no. The JEE is perhaps the greatest disaster of Indian higher education, and yet there is no formal analysis of this exam in the public domain. Students should ask our PM for his opinion on this in his pariksha pe charcha.

But it is also a question of knowing. Why are there so few jobs? The answer to that, our economists tell us, is outdated labor laws, inadequate investment and bureaucratic cholesterol. That may be the case, but there too there is a deeper connection to higher education and it starts with the job description. It is the work that a person on a job has to do during the week or month. Consider, for example, a bus driver from MSRTC, the regional bus service in the state of Maharashtra. His weekly schedule, number of hours of service, route, etc., and other job descriptions within the MSRTC should be carefully crafted. Together, they decide on the efficiency, profitability and societal value brought by MSRTC. Company performance should be periodically measured and analyzed and job descriptions updated. These studies should be commissioned by the relevant IAS manager and carried out by regional universities and consulting firms.

Unfortunately for MSRTC, and for most public agencies such as irrigation, water supply or municipal governments, this has not happened and they are now in a deadly spiral of diminished efficiency and increasing losses. The MSRTC itself is facing a crippling strike and 93,000 jobs are at risk.
In fact, most job descriptions in the public sector have remained stagnant since independence. Thus, there is no statistician in the district public health service or an economist in the agricultural service. If they had been there, we would have a much better understanding of the epidemic and its impact on our society.

But the role of our elite institutions is all the more crucial in emerging fields. Take, for example, air pollution. A study by ICMR estimates that air pollution has caused around 1.7 million deaths and lost production of Rs 2.6 lakh crore. Ideally, if the professional know-how and business models had been there, it could have been a Rs 26,000 crore industry of measuring, mitigating and managing air pollution and employing 26,000 people in posh jobs. And yet, that did not happen. There is a National Air Quality Program which has offered Rs 300 crore to more than 100 city governments across India to start a baseline survey of the problem in their cities. It languishes because of bureaucratic laziness, incompetence but above all because there is no clear idea on what to do.

Thus, there was and is a clear role for the elite central institutions, IITs, IISERs, JNUs and others. They need to look at the issues of the day, formalize them, and convert them into business models and job descriptions that offer value-added solutions. They should then have supported local institutions and entrepreneurs in the deployment of these solutions. They failed to do that. Instead, they have chosen to become accomplices to the globalization of knowledge and a highly unequal system of delivering the benefits of science to the people. As a result, they have very little primary experience in solving the difficult problems facing the world today. In short, our teachers have very little to teach.

It is therefore not surprising that so many of our students choose to study abroad and eventually work there. Is the din here for these professionals to come back? To find meaningful work in solving the problems we face? Go home and start a family? The answer lies in our Air Quality Index, an environmental marker of social reality that we have collectively accepted.

This column first appeared in the print edition of February 25, 2022 under the title “Le grand exode”. The writer teaches at IIT Bombay.

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