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Brain Gain is Reversible

RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan's exit has inspired heated debates on the topic of brain gain and its reversibility. Dr. Pushkar examines the issue below.
BY Pushkar |   29-06-2016

On Saturday, June 18, RBI Governor Raghuram G. Rajan’s letter to his colleagues was released to the media. In that letter, Rajan let it be known that he would not be staying on in his position.

There is already plenty of expert opinion available on all matters Rajan, on television, print and social media. This is not one of those instances. Instead, this op-ed discusses the larger message we can derive from Rajan’s exit – the limits of brain gain or what is commonly understood as the net gain from the two-way flow of talent from and to India.

There have been several interesting insights about what Rajan’s departure means in the context of brain drain and brain gain without referencing these terms. For example, Ajaz Ashraf reasons that “Rajan will become an argument that the educated middle class will remember at the time of taking a decision to settle in the US or return to India.“ Others have pointed to the government’s inability to retain talent. According to Prosenjit Datta, “losing Rajan, while hardly a catastrophe for the Indian economy, does not show the government's talent management abilities in good light.” Similarly, Manas Chakravarty observed that Rajan’s departure signals that “the government is not particularly interested in retaining talent.” had earlier carried an op-ed–“Brain gain in India’s Higher Education”–which, among other things, examined Rajan-like phenomenon in the higher education sector i.e. instances where academics based abroad had returned to India but found that they were not quite welcome and returned back. Indeed, one of the many interesting aspects of Rajan’s exit is that while he served in non-academic positions in India, as Chief Economic Advisor and RBI Governor, he is returning to where he came from, the academia, and to his faculty position at the University of Chicago.

Brain gain in higher education

In “Brain gain in India’s Higher Education” and other writings, I have argued that three factors seem to greatly influence brain gain in academia: The availability of opportunities at higher education institutions; whether available opportunities are being utilized by overseas Indians; and whether higher education institutions are ready and willing to gain brains.

We know that there are plenty of opportunities in India’s higher education sector due to the rapid growth in the number of students. Higher education institutions across the country, including elite institutions such as the IITs are experiencing faculty shortages. All this is on paper, however. It is less clear whether most institutions are actively looking to address faculty shortages. Many are not hiring due to budgetary constraints and for other reasons. Also, Indian universities, much like those in the US, have seen a massive growth in adjunct or casual faculty at the expense of regular faculty. Finally, some of the data on faculty shortages includes projected shortages and applies to new institutions which are still getting built, quite slowly one may add.

Regarding the utilization of opportunities by overseas Indians, factors such as the current economic situation in the West and much of the world, the growing adjunctification of higher education in the US and elsewhere, and now Brexit, hint that many overseas Indians would be inclined to seek jobs in India, including higher education. In reality, however, based on evidence from select IITs, it appears that substantial brain gain may be taking place only at a small number of institutions, particularly those located in select metros, but not so much at others.

Indian academics who return from abroad and academic institutions which are interested in hiring them face numerous challenges. For one, many of the returnees are trained at universities which instill in their PhD students a bias for research. In contrast, Indian institutions and faculty display what President Pranab Mukherjee described as a “general apathy” towards research. The overall research output at our universities, though improving in recent years, remains under par.

Many universities, of course, simply do not have the infrastructure to support research. This limits the actual opportunities available for overseas Indians to select central and state universities, a very small number of private universities and specialized research centres.

Interestingly, there are many cases where the qualifications of foreign-returned academics are used against them. Many departments and universities reject foreign PhDs because they are deemed to be a ‘poor fit’. The reasoning is that such academics are spoilt by Western work conditions and will be unable to adjust and perform under Indian conditions.

Foreign-returned academics who are hired also find that in many cases they are subject of routine harassment, whether by their colleagues or the university administration. When they complain, they are criticized for not being able to cope with routine administrative procedures.

Brain gain also depends on the location of academic institutions. Difficult locations—smaller towns or places in poorly-governed states—do not tend to be attractive to Indians returning from abroad. It is not surprising that the IITs at Delhi and Mumbai have done much better than others in terms of hiring and retaining foreign-returned academics.

The role of the government

As noted above, brain gain is in part determined by whether or not higher education institutions are receptive and supportive to gaining brains. In the case of prominent academics whose return attracts the attention of the government, the attitude of government officials makes a big difference as well.

Well before Subramaniam Swamy launched his campaign against Rajan claiming that he was “not fully Indian,” HRD Minister Smriti Irani had questioned the judgment of two IIM directors—Ashish Nanda of IIM-A and Sushil Vachani of IIM-B—on the IIM draft bill on the basis of their identity. “Do you know why the directors of two IIMs, and not all, have expressed concern over the draft Bill on IIMs,” she had asked, “That is because, they are not Indians.”

According to Manas Chakravarty, the government is not interested in retaining talent “if the talent does not do what the government wants.” He sees the government’s attitude to Rajan’s exit as “a warning to other Indian academics abroad who want to serve their country, as it is to independent-minded talent within the country.”

Brain gain is reversible

It is evident that brain gain cannot be taken for granted. Those who return often have the option of going back or heading elsewhere. It is understandable when the reasons for doing so are rooted in difficulties faced by those who return in re-adapting to living and working conditions in India. Often, returnees have unrealistic expectations regarding work and living once more in the country they left. However, it is quite indefensible that academics and university officials deliberately harass foreign-returned academics so that they eventually leave. Even worse, there are cases when government officials question the credentials and integrity of academics who return simply because engage with and/or are critical of government policies.

The Indian government is increasingly committed to growing internationalization of higher education. It has launched new laudable initiatives such as GIAN and is taking other important steps to address our shortcomings in higher education. Indian academics returning from abroad have an important role to play in addressing these shortcomings. Not all of them will necessarily agree with government policies. However, such disagreements are healthy because they impress upon the government that it can do better. Rather than seek to punish dissenters, the government should in fact be engaging more with them.


Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.



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