We Complain About Brain Drain, But Are Indian Universities Prepared to Gain Brains?

So should we stay here or go abroad like everyone else? Credit: ufv/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

So should we stay here or go abroad like everyone else? Credit: ufv/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Indian academia has for the past several decades suffered from brain drain and continues to lose smart and hard-working academics to universities and research centres in North America, Europe, rest of Asia and elsewhere. According to a recent report from the National Science Foundation’s National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), India has continued its trend of being the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers, with 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million. More worryingly, these numbers show an 85% increase over the last decade. Similarly, according to an OECD report, highly educated Indians are the fastest growing set of emigrants to OECD countries.

Brain drain is pronounced in areas other than the sciences and engineering. For example, there is no head count of Indian economists who work abroad but we do know that they are many. Recently, the Indian government itself recruited its top economic decision-makers – Kaushik Basu (Chief Economic Adviser under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), Raghuram Rajan (formerly Chief Economic Adviser and now Governor, RBI), Arvind Subramanian (the current Chief Economic Adviser) and Arvind Panagariya (Vice-Chairperson, NITI Aayog) – out of American institutions.

A two-way flow of talent?

There have also been reports of brain gain with many Indians returning from abroad to work at academic institutions in the country. Unfortunately, there appear to be no reliable estimates on how much brain gain is actually taking place.

During his recent visit to the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took up the issue and attempted to reframe it:

What people see as a brain drain, I see as a “brain deposit.” 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.

There are claims that there is “a healthy two-way flow of talent“ to and from India but, even in the absence of reasonable estimates, it’s quite evident that the current rate of brain gain is not significant in terms of numbers and/or impact to negate the large outflow of skilled Indians to Western countries and elsewhere. Further, it matters very much if India is able to retain those who return.

Several obvious and less-obvious factors which drive out academics who return to India within a few years or even sooner can be identified. The reasons don’t usually have to do with salaries since, unlike entrepreneurs, who often return to take advantage of India’s growing economy, academics know well that the compensation for teachers and researchers is fixed.

Why don’t foreign-returned professors stay?

There are two variables that determine India’s inability to retain academics: the readiness and willingness of academic institutions, and those who are part of them, including faculty, students and administrators, to absorb ‘outsiders’. Of course, this still leaves out other factors which influence people’s decisions to stay on or leave: living conditions in different parts of the country, personal/family reasons, political and social turmoil, etc.

The readiness refers to factors like infrastructure, whether libraries or laboratories; availability of research funding; the abilities of faculty, students and administrators; and the governance of higher education institutions – factors that make the transition worth the time. And they’re relatively the more obvious parameters that returnees bother with. However, the quality of faculty and students also matters a lot. The best teachers and researchers (and not just those who return from abroad) value the overall academic environment at an institution of which the faculty and students are an integral part.

The willingness refers to attitudes displayed toward outsiders at India’s universities by its administrators. An Indian institution may be approximately comparable in some ways to the best in Asia or elsewhere in terms of infrastructure or salaries but an equally-important issue is whether it is sufficiently accommodating toward outsiders. It’s not uncommon to find that those returning from abroad with PhDs and/or work experience are either deliberately marginalised or excessively celebrated. Such extreme attitudes and reactions can be deeply unsettling for those who return. At the same time, it’s also not uncommon to see foreign-returned academics who are treated favourably at their respective institutions to misuse their exalted status to engage in the very same kinds of silly and serious misdemeanours as others. In most cases, however, foreign-returned professors tend to be treated somewhat harshly with their colleagues and university administrators determined to show them their proper place in the hierarchy.

Indian universities are neither ready nor willing

On the readiness front, it’s beyond doubt and debate that most of our universities and other academic institutions are badly run most of the time. As a result, an overall “culture of mediocrity” has become the norm rather than an exception. Denial is an important part of this culture. Recently, Smriti Irani, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, chose to extol the research performance of India’s universities rather than acknowledge it as a problem area:

A lot of hue and cry is raised about our higher education institutes not figuring in global ranking. The reason is not lack of high quality research work but the fact that in India, a large section of research work is done in vernacular languages, whereas global rankings only consider research in English.

The problems with readiness begin at the very top. Most appointees to positions of vice-chancellors, principals and directors are not those who are best qualified to run academic institutions but those who enjoy the confidence of the government in power. This, along with other deficiencies – whether poor infrastructure or incessant delays in processing all kinds of research-related administrative decisions and financial transactions – creates working conditions that are quite frustrating for outsiders and prompt them to seek other options in the country or abroad. On some rare occasions, when an effective administrator takes charge at the top, things do turn around but almost everything reverts to normal once the term of that vice-chancellor or director expires. As a result, many of our academic institutions are not quite ready to gain brains.

There are big problems regarding willingness to gain brains as well. Most university leaders, deans, heads of departments and faculty members don’t care much about the institutions they belong to and even less about gaining brains, whether from abroad or from within the country. Their primary concern is to maximise their personal fortunes, usually by seeking and securing administrative positions at the university that allow them to flaunt their power; the wellbeing of the institution is irrelevant. University babus as well as most faculty members tend to be biased or deliberately indifferent toward outsiders and more generally toward those who appear to be committed to doing their job of teaching and research. At the least, they demand that ordinary faculty members observe and subscribe to the same culture of subservience as them. Those who do not are made to suffer from everyday harassment of different kinds.

Blame those who return

It would be unfair, however, to post all the blame on the doors of India’s academic institutions and its peoples.

Many of those who return, after studying and/or working at universities in the West or at better ones in Asia, develop unrealistic expectations about life and work at India’s academic institutions. Subsequently, they fail to adjust or readjust to working under ‘Indian conditions’ and become sufficiently frustrated and disillusioned to quit. Others return because they buy into exaggerated reports on how much India has changed, including its higher education sector.

They leave after discovering that ministers, bureaucrats and university leaders and others often say the right things but, like in the past, they seldom do those things. In short, they discover that not enough has changed, certainly not at our universities. Finally, in many cases, as mentioned earlier, foreign-returned academics adjust all too well to Indian conditions and become exactly like those whom they despised from afar as incompetent and unsuitable for the academic profession.

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