India’s Brain Drain Persists

The following is a guest post by P. Pushkar, a former lecturer in international-development studies at McGill University who is now based in Gurgaon, India.

Many researchers who have been looking at data on international migration believe that the ideas of “brain drain” and “brain gain” have become less relevant in the 21st century. Instead, there are signs of “brain circulation,” in which skilled workers move around the world more freely than before to the benefit of all nations. In Indian higher education, however, little has changed; its most talented scholars continue to leave for Western countries. The paradigm of brain drain and brain gain stubbornly persists.

A recently released study by Wan-Ying Chang and Lynn M. Milan of the National Science Foundation found that only 5.2 percent of Indians who study outside their home country to earn doctorates in science, engineering, and health return home. These numbers, which are based on a 2008 survey, are substantially lower than the 20.4 percent of foreign graduates who reported working or living in their countries of origin.

The NSF study also shows that China and countries of the former Soviet Union have lower return rates than India. But in the case of China that may be changing. Rajika Bhandari, a deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute for International Education, told Nature recently that “China and South Korea have done a much better job of deliberately creating well-structured incentives and opportunities for students to return back home, than, say, India.”

At a time when India’s higher education is going through a phase of ambitious expansion, it is clear the country is not benefiting from brain gain. While many new recruits at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management (and even some new private universities) are Indians who have returned home, their total numbers remain low. India desperately needs the instructors and researchers who are educated in the West to improve the quality of its higher education. Its own institutions produce relatively few high-quality Ph.D. recipients.

One indicator of the quality of a nation’s higher education is its research output. According to Thomson Reuters, only 3.5 percent of the global research output in 2010 was from India. In most disciplines, India’s share in the world’s research output was much below this overall average count. It is quite likely that the relatively small number of Indians based at American, European, and Asian institutions have a higher research output.

In a China-obsessed country where books on India-China comparisons sell thousands of copies, these numbers—whether on India’s research output or the unwillingness of Indian doctoral graduates to return home—should be a cause for worry. China has pulled ahead in higher education despite India’s “English advantage.” A growing number of Chinese universities are breaking into world rankings while Indian institutions remain trapped in mediocrity.

Unless India undergoes radical reform, new books comparing India and China are likely to include a new chapter: “How India Fell Behind China in Higher Education.”

[Creative Commons Wikimedia graphic by Twinxor authorized under the GNU General Public License]

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