Education

Are Indian Universities Gaining Brains? Some Evidence from the IITs

Brain-gain is more pronounced at some institutions than in others, and overall, it is at best moderate and not impressive.

A graduation ceremony at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Credit: whatcouldgowrong/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Only some of India’s IITs have been successful at retaining scholars trained abroad. Credit: whatcouldgowrong/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

India continues to bleed its smart and hard-working people to Western countries and elsewhere. Recent data from the National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), National Science Foundation; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange confirm the worst – that hundreds of thousands of Indians have already fled or are fleeing the country to study or/and work abroad. For example, with 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million, India is the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers in the US.

It may seem somewhat surprising that large numbers of Indians continue to leave since the country has registered high rates of economic growth over a fairly long period and become more prosperous. However, the fact is that India’s higher education sector is broken and things are not looking up either. Moreover, the country’s growing prosperity (as well as easier access to student loans) has perhaps made it possible for record numbers of young people to fulfill their dreams of studying at the best universities in the world. Once young people leave for college education, many do not return.

As noted previously, while brain drain is a serious problem for India’s higher education and the knowledge sector more broadly, there have also been a few reports of brain gain with many Indians returning from abroad to work at academic institutions in the country. However, there are no reliable estimates on how much brain gain is actually taking place.

Brain gain in Indian academia – the IITs

As elite institutions that aspire to compete with the best in the world, we should expect that IITs will seek to attract and hire the best-trained young women and men for faculty positions. Similarly, for Indians who earn their PhDs at prestigious universities abroad, the IITs would seem like a good place to return for work. In other words, brain gain would seem to be more likely at the IITs than at other kinds of academic institutions, with the possible exception of other established institutions located in the metros.

Most IITs, however, are reported to be facing a severe shortage of faculty with many including the more prestigious ones at Delhi and Powai  having vacancy rates in the range of 30-40%. It is evident from these numbers that the IITs are falling short on faculty hiring.

Part of the problem is that many IITs are new and still getting established. They are experiencing a multitude of problems and many fresh PhDs, knowing fully well the ways in which the government goes about the task of building new institutions, perhaps do not want to be part of the institution-building process. Such IITs could be seen as lacking in readiness to gain brains. Others, both old and new, are located in places which perhaps do not appeal to potential faculty, and not only for those returning from abroad. The faculty shortages also have to do with the fact that many qualified graduate students prefer jobs in industry to those in academia.

Brain gain at the IITs – in numbers

Let’s look at the academic background of assistant professors (i.e. new faculty members who have been hired over the past 5-6 years) at four old IITs (Kharagpur, Kanpur, Delhi and Powai) and four new IITs (Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Patna and Ropar) across three departments: electronics and electrical engineering (EEE), computer science (CS) and mechanical engineering (ME). The objective is to identify new faculty members who have obtained their PhDs from abroad in order to determine how much brain gain has taken place at the eight IITs. These findings are not generalisable for India’s higher education sector since it is to be expected that PhDs from abroad will often choose to work at established, higher quality institutions in better locations (typically larger cities and better-governed states with fewer less law and order problems) and not at others. However, the data from select IITs gives us an approximation about how much brain gain may be taking place at India’s premier institutions.

In all, the eight IITs hired 245 assistant professors in EEE, CS and ME over the past few years (the numbers exclude those who may have been recently promoted to the position of associate professor). Of these, 130, or about 53% of the total, were trained abroad (earning their PhDs in the US or elsewhere). While the older IITs hired 86 of the 129 new faculty members (~67%) with PhDs from abroad, the new IITs hired 44 of its 116 new faculty members (38%) with foreign PhDs. Clearly, there is more brain gain taking place at the older IITs.

Brain Gain at the IITs: Assistant Professors with PHDs from abroad in EEE, CS and ME

IIT-B IIT-D IIT-K IIT-Kgp
EEE 20/23 10/15 06/11 05/10
CS 05/07 05/06 03/07 02/07
ME 14/21 06/06 06/09 04/07
Total

%

39/51

76.47

21/27

77.77

15/27

55.55

11/24

45.83

86/129

66.66

IIT-P IIT-R IIT-H IIT-Gn
EEE 01/13 01/06 06/11 05/11
CS 05/09 04/06 03/15 02/03
ME 03/11 04/14 06/12 04/05
Total

%

09/33

27.27

09/26

34.61

15/38

39.47

11/19

57.89

44/116

37.93

*All data was collected by Abhishek Sanghavi, a former student at BITS Pilani-Goa

So, more than 75% of the new faculty at IIT-B and IIT-D earned their PhDs abroad; for the new IITs, the highest is 58% at IIT-Gn, approximating the brain gain at IIT-K. All the other IITs hired fewer than 50% of their assistant professors with PhDs from abroad. Clearly, four IITs (in Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur and Gandhinagar) have been quite successful in brain gain while the others have lagged behind.

Key findings

The findings from the eight IITs are more suggestive than conclusive since they are limited to select IITs. However, it is quite likely that one would come to similar findings for all IITs together. In fact it’s quite possible that the results would not be very different for the IIMs as well. Finally, one would expect that some of the established central universities or other public or private institutions in select locations (Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, for example) to also attract significant numbers of PhDs from abroad.

The key implications:

  1. The more established IITs seem to have done better than new IITs at hiring PhDs from abroad. This could be because Indians returning from abroad with PhDs prefer established institutions over new, upcoming ones. Alternately, it is also possible that some of the IIT Directors have actively pursued potential faculty with foreign PhDs;
  2. The better-located IITs, with better infrastructure, have done better than others. The older IITs at Kanpur and Kharagpur have not done as well as those in Mumbai and Delhi; those in Patna and Ropar have not been able to attract PhDs from abroad as successfully as those in Gandhinagar and Hyderabad.
  3. It is also possible that, as noted above, other than how well-established an IITs is and/or its location, the steps taken by faculty-search committees or directors have also played an important role in attracting PhDs from abroad.

Brain gain is certainly taking place in India’s knowledge/higher education sector; however, it is more pronounced at some institutions than in others. Overall, it is at best moderate and not impressive.

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

  • Raja2000

    Puskar: Good and sensible effort. Continue to keep at it and stay where you are – you seem to have the ‘freedom’ to write openly. You are right – who would want to work in Podunk. Podunk is the preferred location for new IITs for the Puny politicians. In this sense IIT KGP is in a Podunk (say this as one who has been there in its early days) which also explains its handicap in recruiting able staff. Unless and until the IITs become truly autonomous institutions (not likely as long as the failed college graduate lords over it), they will continue to have staffing problems . Fresh Ph.D.s who are great graduates of top western schools (especially from USA and Germany) will have seen what a research carrier entails. They will also have seen how they could build their own carriers there with their own research capabilities (and ambitions ). It is no surprise that they will have little to do with even the ‘established’ IITs (exception Gn which will lose it when the present Dir. is let go at the end of his 2nd term).

    • Pushkar

      Thank you for reading!

  • Raja2000

    Career is misspelled in what follows. Sorry. It should read as:
    “Fresh Ph.D.s who are great graduates of top western schools (especially from USA and Germany) will have seen what a research career entails. They will also have seen how they could build their own careers there with their own research capabilities (and ambitions )”.