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Brain Gain in India's Higher Education

What can transform the brain deposit into brain gain? Opportunity. Dr. Pushkar examines the current home scenario for Indian scholars abroad, with its lures and its lacunae.
BY Pushkar |   24-12-2015

Each year, more than a few thousand eager young Indians head abroad for higher education. Many of them never return, except for short visits. While India benefits enormously from the close ties overseas Indians maintain with their home country, especially in the form of remittances, it simultaneously loses out as well.

Brain drain or….

Brain drain remains a real problem and a challenge for India. Despite becoming more prosperous since the 1980s, and in part because of it, many Indians continue to head abroad for higher studies after which they stay behind to work there. The loss that accrues to India’s knowledge sector in this manner is especially worrisome.

40 per cent of India-born researchers were found to be working abroad in 2011. We have for a long time contributed generously to America’s science and technology sector. India is the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers, with 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million. Now, we are heading off to other places too. Highly educated Indians are the fastest growing set of emigrants to OECD countries.

…brain deposit?

During his recent visit to the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took up the issue with a different perspective. “What people see as a brain drain, I see as a brain deposit,” he said. “And this brain that we have put on deposit is looking for opportunities, and the day it finds an opportunity, this brain is going to be used for the benefit of Mother India with interest.”

The prime minister appeared to be somewhat optimistic in describing brain drain as ‘brain deposit’, suggesting that India could benefit from brain gain provided opportunities were available or could be created in the country for overseas Indians to consider returning.

Three issues become especially important in this regard. First, are ‘opportunities’ available in the country’s knowledge sector, especially in higher education? Second, are those opportunities being utilized by overseas Indians so that the deposited brain is ‘used for the benefit of Mother India’? Third, are concerned government officials and those running higher education institutions, receptive and supportive to the idea of gaining brains?

Opportunities in India’s higher education

India has a growing young population and many more Indians will attend college in the years to come. The gross enrolment ratio is around 24 per cent and expected to hit 30 per cent by 2020. To meet this demand, hundreds of new colleges and universities have come up, both in the public and private sector. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the number of colleges increased from 32, 974 to 38,056.  During the same period, the total number of universities increased from 621 to 757. New higher education institutions need faculty. There is no doubt that there are and will remain vast opportunities in the higher education sector.

According to reports, over 40 per cent faculty positions are vacant even at India’s elite institutions, whether it is central universities, the IITs, the IIMs or others. These numbers have more or less remained constant over the years due to the significant expansion in higher education. Indians based abroad such as Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) are eligible to take up faculty positions at these institutions and many have done so.

While high faculty shortages may convey the impression that Indian universities are keen to hire qualified faculty but that is not necessarily the case. For example, at different times during the past few years (or even now), many elite institutions have remained without a regular vice-chancellor or director for lengthy periods. Current rules do not permit acting directors or vice-chancellors to hire tenure-track faculty so that no hiring takes place until a new regular head of the institution is appointed.

In addition, many new institutions are coming up in a phased manner and all too slowly. As a result, they often hire only a small number of faculty members each year. Finally, beyond elite institutions, especially at state government-run universities, even though faculty shortages are acute, most state governments do not even have the resources to pay UGC-mandated salaries let alone hire new faculty.

Thus, while it may appear that there is a high demand and need for qualified faculty members, the reality is more complex.

Are they coming back?

In recent years, many Indians who had headed abroad for graduate studies have returned to take up faculty positions in India. In the absence of data on brain gain at India’s higher education institutions, it is difficult to know whether or not any significant brain gain has taken place. Nevertheless, based on limited data pulled out from the IITs on recent faculty hires (assistant professors) at select departments (for details, see here), it is possible to make the following tentative conclusions.

First, significant brain gain has taken place at select IITs, notably IIT-B and IIT-D, but not at most others.

Second, brain gain has been significant at older, established IITs located in larger, livable cities but not at newer institutions and/or those located in smaller or distant locations. For example, more than 75 per cent of recent hires as assistant professor at IIT-B and IIT-D in CS, EEE and ME are PhDs from abroad; the numbers are less than 30 per cent for IIT-Patna.

Third, it would be premature to make any firm conclusions about brain gain, whether brain deposit is being converted to brain gain at a significant rate. However, if we assume that brain gain is likely to be higher at those established and/or prestigious institutions which are favourably located (i.e. in large, livable cities with modern amenities, including good schools and health care), then a good number of higher education institutions are unlikely to be benefit much from brain gain. 

Are they welcome?

Sushil Vachani; Image credits: The Hindu

Indian academics who return from abroad face a number of big and small challenges upon their return both in terms of working and/or living conditions. This is especially true for those who have spent a longer time away, beyond the duration of their doctoral studies, as professors and researchers at universities or other institutions in the West or elsewhere. Adding to their list of problem areas is the attitudes and approach of the government, higher education administrators and others towards them.

Earlier this month, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development Ms Smriti Irani gave notice to academics who have returned to India about what is expected of them. In a television interview, the minister took on two IIM directors—Ashish Nanda of IIM-A and Sushil Vachani of IIM-B—who had earlier opposed the government’s proposed IIM bill: “Do you know why the directors of two IIMs, and not all, have expressed concern over the draft Bill on IIMs,” she asked. “That is because, they are not Indians.”

Both Nanda and Vachani were based in the US and qualify as examples of ‘brain deposit’ which was converted to brain gain when they were invited to take charge of two leading IIMs and take them to greater heights. However, because they spoke out against the government’s bill, they were declared ‘traitors’ in not so many words. The minister’s thinking and expectation appears to have been that if the two IIMs were led by Indians (i.e. those holding Indian passports), they would not have opposed the IIM bill.

A week later, MHRD refused to grant an extension to Vachani—who will turn 65 in mid-2016—to continue as director. On paper, it did nothing wrong. The retirement age of an IIM Director is 65. However, as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the Chairman of the IIM Board of Governors pointed out, Vachani had joined IIM-B in July 2014 with the “the assurance and assumption that…an extension was possible.” By raising his voice against the government’s IIM bill, Vachani lost that assurance.

What this incident shows is that brain gain is welcome in academia only on the condition that those who return remain servile to the ruling government and not question public policies. This kind of thinking defies the very essence and spirit of academia. Therefore, among other things, we can be confident that the distinguished historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who recently spoke out against the ruling government, is unlikely to be made part of the ambitious GIAN programme to bring foreign academics to India.

Making brain gain work

The idea of ‘brain deposit’ has some merit but as Prime Minister Modi himself noted, much will depend on the opportunities that are available in India. The opportunities are there in higher education but they are still quite limited. It is true that many Indians have returned to take up faculty positions in India; however, the full potential of brain gain is yet to be realized. Finally, it is convenient to ignore the fact that brain gain is fully reversible. That is, those who return, often have the option of going back. Some academics take the return option because they find it difficult to adapt to working and/or living in India. They are put off by the attitudes and actions of fellow academics and university administrators. In some cases, as with Nanda and Vachani, it is the government itself which questions the credentials and integrity of academics who return simply because they question government policies.

Pushkar(@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.


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