Why lakhs of Indians go abroad to study?
A recent report estimates that nearly 8 million students travel abroad for higher education every year and spend $28 billion or 1 percent of our GDP on it. Of this, about $6 billion in fees is paid to foreign universities. This is around Rs 45,000 crore, which is enough capital to start and run 10 new IITs, IISERs or JNUs, or any such specialized institute every year. And yet, as per a recent CAG report, the eight new IITs launched in the period 2008-2009 are not doing well at all. A bunch of new private universities has not managed to break into the above exodus of students and money. Thus, after 70 years of independence, and even after vigorous policy initiatives of the last eight years, we are neither self-reliant nor have any value proposition in higher education.
Why is it like this?
First of all, it’s about jobs. From the Income Tax Department data for the last few years, we see that there are around 3 crore taxpayers. Taking two-thirds of these as the number of salaried people and assuming an average tax-paying life of 20 years, we see that there are only one million new jobs available every year. This includes both public and private sector jobs. More data from the Income Tax Department shows that of these, around 3 lakh are “good” jobs that pay Rs 5 lakh per annum (LPA) or more, and 30,000 are “posh” jobs with an initial start-up of Rs 10 lakh. Salary- plus per annum. Out of 3 lakh good jobs, close to 1 lakh come from IT giants. Posh jobs come from multinationals and are in marketing, finance, IT and global engineering services. Hardly any Indian company serving an Indian customer gives a starting salary of Rs 10 lakh per year.
According to the MHRD data
From the MHRD data, we see that India graduated around 3 million students from around 45,000 colleges last year. Looking at the recent employment statistics, around 1 crore unemployed graduates are looking for jobs. This is 10 times the number of salaried jobs, 30 times the good jobs and 300 times the number of posh jobs available every year. Now, it is impossible for companies or state agencies to meaningfully interview such a large number of applicants for each job. The short-listing work for private companies is done by branded institutions and colleges. Good jobs are concentrated in around 800 top colleges and posh jobs in 80-100 elite colleges like IITs and IIMs, St. Stephens in Delhi, Presidency College in Kolkata and emerging elite private universities. This is where good companies will go and recruit, and where a student expects their CV to be read. And hence the madness of competitive exams, closing ranks, and coaching classes in high school and placements and packages in college. If there was a choice, no intelligent parent would want to put their child to this test. and that partly explains the flight of students and capital to foreign shores.
Pariksha Pe Charcha
Sadly, the central and state governments also rely on such exams for their recruitment, for example, even the IAS. Can abilities in science, economics, or administrative ability be tested through exams with odds of 1-in-100? The answer is a firm no. JEE is perhaps the biggest disaster in India’s higher education, and yet there is no formal analysis of this exam in the public domain. Students should ask our PM for his opinion on this in their Pariksha Pe Charcha.
Why is there so little work?
But it is also about knowledge. Why is there so little work? The answer, our economists tell us, are outdated labor laws, inadequate investments, and bureaucratic cholesterol. Maybe, but here too there is a deep connection to higher education and it starts with the job description. It is the work that the employed person should do in a whole week or month. For example, consider a bus driver in the Maharashtra State Regional Bus Service MSRTC. His weekly schedule, number of service hours, routes, etc. should be carefully designed within the MSRTC along with other details of the job. Together, they decide the efficiency, profitability, and social value provided by MSRTC. The performance of the enterprise should be measured and analyzed from time to time and the job description should be updated. Such studies should be done by the concerned IAS officer and should be done by regional universities and consulting firms.
Unfortunately for MSRTC, and for most state agencies like irrigation, water supply, or city administration, this has not happened and they are now in a deadly spiral of diminishing efficiency and increasing losses. MSRTC itself is facing a severe strike and 93,000 jobs are in danger.
In fact, most job descriptions in the public sector have remained stagnant since independence. Thus there is neither a statistician in the district public health department nor an economist in the agriculture department. If this were the case, we would have a better understanding of the pandemic and its impact on our society.
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According to ICMR study
The role of our elite institutions in emerging areas is even more important. Take air pollution for example. An ICMR study estimates that air pollution caused around 1.7 million deaths and a loss of Rs 2.6 lakh crore. Ideally, if there were professional know-how and business models, it could have been a Rs 26,000 crore industry of measuring, reducing, and managing air pollution and employing 26,000 people in posh jobs. And yet, that hasn’t happened. There is a National Clean Air Program that has offered 300 crores to over 100 city administrations across India to start a basic study of the problem in their cities. It is sluggish because of bureaucratic lethargy, inefficiency, but mainly because there is no clear idea of what is to be done.
Thus, there was and is a clear role for elite central institutions, IITs, IISERs, JNU, and others. They must look at the problems of the day, formalize them, and convert them into business models and job definitions that create solutions that provide value. Then they should have supported local institutions and entrepreneurs in the deployment of these solutions. They have failed to do so. Instead, they have chosen to be instrumental in the globalization of knowledge and the highly unequal system of bringing the benefits of science to the people. As a result, they have little primary experience in solving the difficult problems the world is facing today. In short, our professors have little to teach.
Therefore, it is no surprise that many of our students choose to go abroad to study and eventually work there. Are there good days here for these professionals to return? To find meaningful work to solve the problems we face? To come back home and raise a family? The answer lies in our Air Quality Index, an environmental marker of social reality that we have collectively accepted. That’s why lakhs of Indians go abroad to study.