It was 1992. Then Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Ashok Sinhal was addressing the students of IIT Mumbai. “You join the university only physically, your souls migrate to the U.S., and your bodies join three years later,” he admonished the gathering as a ripple of laughter ran through it.
The idea of students leaving the country, the ‘brain drain’, signifying the leaking of skill from developing to developed countries, that began in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, has irked many Indian governments, whether right wing or left wing, through the decades.
The numbers bear them out. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, in the 1990s India lost 1.1 % of its skilled labour force to brain drain and in the 1990s – 60,000 doctors in the UK were of Indian origin, estimated to be 12% of India’s total stock of doctors at the time.
The foreign shore had infinitely greener grass. Comparisons in the early 2000s (Arora et al, 2001) found that salaries in the U.S. tech sector were 10 times those available back home. In comparison, the cost of obtaining a medical degree was found to be eight times the annual per capita GDP in India, and for an engineering degree, four times.
The recovery of the expense incurred to study made it a no-brainer. In 2015, the National Science Foundation of the U.S. reported that 57% of all immigrant scientists and engineers were of Asian origin, India topping that list with 9,50,000 out of 2.96 million scientists and engineers.
Lines of student hopefuls thronged the British Council and the United States-India Educational Foundation as students gave pro-metric exams and sought scholarships to make their way overseas.
In 2013-14 Indian students heading to the U.S. for studies numbered 1,02,673 which amounted to 11.6% of all international students on American campuses.
Last week, emerging education spending data indicated that for the first time in four years the amount being spent on going overseas was falling.
According to a report in Mint citing data from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), education-related spends dropped 20 % with an estimated proportionate drop in student flow, though that number is not yet available.
More than spends, it is a change in sentiment creeping up across the country.
But why? Education loans have never been more easily available – the higher education loan market stands at $1 trillion with a penetration of only 20 % and 55% of all loans disbursed by specialist firms like Avanse going towards outbound education.
Moreover, India has 129 schools catering to an International Baccalaureate qualification, and the system, from transcripts to GPAs, is increasingly geared towards integrating with international education. Yet, several factors are influencing the decision to stay.
While India’s well off continue to give overseas education prime importance, academics like Soujanya Pudi, Head of Communications at the NSHM Business School in Kolkata, estimate that shift in middle-class students wanting to go overseas has dropped around 20%.
“At least half a dozen of my students who have gone overseas, specifically the UK, remain unemployed,” she says. Students who remain still flock to colleges such as Presidency, St Xavier’s, Lady Sriram College, IITs and IIMs she says, as they work on merit and provide exposure besides having strong alumni networks.
It also comes from having more lucrative work options at home, or less dismal ones at any rate.
According to the 2016 Monster Salary Index, the IT sector in India has a median gross hourly salary of Rs. 346.62 for men, 24 % higher than the national average, while the financial sector is at Rs 291. 51.9 % were happy with their pay in India and 63.7% had a good work-life balance.
These figures would have been unthinkable barely a decade ago.
The figures also show that those who worked for foreign-owned companies received higher wages and were happier with their jobs. FDI has made it possible to work at an international firm from a local branch.
You could work with Google, or Facebook or Amazon in India itself, not to mention an international law firm, or medical or pharma set up, or fashion, and receive the associated benefits.There is a reluctance to be a second class citizen elsewhere.
Neil Dutta, a Kolkata-based postgraduate who who has developed over seven apps for Google, hasn’t felt the need to go abroad for the sake of it. “The opportunity that an American has in America is very different from the opportunity an Indian has there,” he says.
His aunt, Jeena Mitra Banik, says going abroad remains an option for him if it satiates his discovery potential and provides him a platform. Perks, which include travel, and liaising with global counterparts, increases exposure levels over that of an American in the same position limited to a circuit in Dallas, Texas.
“The start-up culture in India is right now pretty exciting,” admits Rohit Chopra, associate professor at Santa Clara University in the U.S., who estimates perception that India has more opportunities now is growing.
A great idea and sufficient drive and backing makes success possible without a foreign degree. While job opportunities in the U.S. may abound for engineers, essentially for everyone else, India remains a shinier job market.
India is in fact turning into a hub for Asian education.
A senior faculty member at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, says, “There is an increasing realisation in management that one needs Asian context. So not only are Indian students completing an Indian MBA, and travelling to U.S. universities to only do a second MBA, but India is becoming an education hub for international students from other Asian countries too.”
This is why Singapore-based INSEAD started their India-tailored executive programme last year. Emeritus, another Singapore-based aggregator is also in collaboration with MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School to offer Ivy League education in India.
“The trickle has begun the other way. International MBAs in the U.S. and other countries in the West now need to incorporate a two-week study tour which is invariably done in India,” the ISB faculty member states.
It also emerges from an imperceptible upgrade in the confidence levels of students with Indian degrees. Coupled with access to loans and an awareness of options, counsellors say many still do seek foreign education, but with a little less trepidation and fear of rejection, and more as a value-add or a back-up than a solitary escape route.
Alisha Mashruwala, CEO of On Course, a Mumbai-based education counsellor, attributes some of the perceived drop to students also looking at more diverse countries.
At the postgraduate level, Canada for instance has become more interesting due to the availability of job options after a degree, than the UK or the U.S. Gun control issues and reported issues of rape on American campuses have also stirred some fear.
“But there is also a growing awareness that India has options such as Institutes like Ashoka University and Shiv Nadar University. Since cut offs in India are so high, students do keep applying abroad as a back-up,” she says.
Sarasa Surinarain, who began coaching children in Chennai on how to break into Ivy League schools in the U.S. after her two daughters made it to Princeton and Harvard in the 1980s, says there is a clear affinity in the younger generation for Indian culture.
“Though loans are available, scholarships overseas are almost negligible, jobs are not available post studies, and besides alternate fields like textiles, fashion, film making are fun and dynamic in India today,” she says.
The average Indian teenager also has more clarity on his identity.
Siddharth Varma, a 10th standard student at the Smt Sulochanadevi Singhania School in Thane, Maharashtra wants to be a lawyer. While his childhood ambition was to go to Harvard, he is now clear he wants to study Indian law. “I would like to go to Columbia or Harvard or LSE eventually for global perspective, but my base needs to be India.”
Varma says degrees from both countries can only be an advantage. The shift in thinking is also due to increased global exposure. Varma’s classmate, Sanjeet Agrawal wants to be an automobile engineer like his dad.
The two were recently part of a student exchange programme with a German school near Stuttgart and Agrawal hopes to study their some day, possibly after his IIT, but even he doesn’t dream of migrating. “I’d like to learn German engineering and bring that precision back to India,” he says.
Their group at school has already Skyped with students in Denmark as part of a school project and have studied the welfare system. Others went on a summer school trip to NASA, and have very clear views on the advantages of being Indian.
“I think we are very hardworking, but it can also be a disadvantage for us, we should have more balance, more involvement with nature,” classmate Shama Deshpande says.
With most of the class already having travelled internationally on school trips or personal holidays with parents—India is expected to account for 50 million outbound tourists by 2020.
Outbound tourism, for as low as Rs. 25,000 a trip and cheap EMI options, grew at 27 % in 2015 according to an ASSOCHAM study. The hunger for global exposure then, is not something students today lack when making their choices.
Kids hearing stories of others ‘coping’ overseas have also begun to see value in India’s non quantifiable advantages-apart from alumni and social networks, family, freshly cooked food, social support, friendships, and access to the same consumer durables the west has.
Consequently, a foreign degree has become an optional add on, a way to explore more, add value, and not a must-have.
Josya Mitra, 15-year-old Kolkata school girl at DPS Ruby Park, says she’d like to see the world but she’s not in a hurry. “There are enough opportunities here itself today to arm ourselves for a future. My pishi (paternal aunt) made it by staying here and globe-trotting. If she can, so can I. The world is anyways waiting to be discovered. Being a student need not be the only way!”
About the author: Gayatri Jayaraman is a Mumbai-based writer.
Featured Image shared on Facebook by Nakul Sridhar.