Student migration: An economic opportunity or a challenge?

By: |
New Delhi | September 17, 2018 1:15 AM

We should not stop people from migrating. We have to give them a better life and better study options at home. Migration is not a problem, it is a process.

In 2016-17, Indians spent $3.7 billion on ‘maintenance of close relatives’ and ‘studies abroad’. These outflows have grown 13-fold since FY12, from $279 million.

Consider this. Of the top 11 economies in the world—contributing to over 70% of global GDP—nine would have a shortage of skilled workforce by 2030, at current rates of growth. Countries like Germany, whose current skill shortage is about 4%, would see it dramatically rise to 23% by 2030. China, with the largest population as on date and till recently its one-child policy, would still have a workforce deficit of 3%. India would barely make it, but will struggle to ensure availability of highly skilled workforce to run own businesses.

This scenario is expected to encourage migration from populated countries to where jobs exist. Traditionally, migration of the youth triggers from the need for quality education or forced due to domestic political and social unrest. About 4.6 million students globally study away from their home countries, of which 53% are from Asia. India sends out 300,000 students annually, second to China (800,000). Is this an opportunity or a challenge?

In a globalised world, university education in another country is a real option. Employers also look for people who have global experience, cross-cultural competence and language skills. Among the reasons students go abroad, other than access to quality education, is the need for a better lifestyle and the belief that studying abroad is a passport to good life. For Indians, one of the reasons is abysmal quality of home universities—poor infrastructure, shortage of good teachers, jaded curriculum, industry disconnect. Despite strong ambitions, the higher education system in India lags behind—in a popular ranking, only three Indian universities featured in top 200, and 10 in top 700. Compare this with New Zealand, a small country with just eight universities, and all in top 100!

We will be one of the youngest nations by 2030—with 140 million people in the college-age group. Recent policy changes, including the setting up of a super regulator for managing universities, is an indication of the government’s resolve.

Indians who study abroad often stay back—most look at a country that allows staying back options, has liberal visa rules, low fees, before deciding on the course. This may be good for student development and skill acquisition, but we need to find answers to a fundamental question: Do we allow students to study aboard, acquire skills, migrate and support host countries, or encourage them to return and narrow the workforce shortage in our country?

Also, this comes at a cost. In 2016-17, Indians spent $3.7 billion towards ‘maintenance of close relatives’ and ‘studies abroad’, with these two items accounting for 45% of all outward remittances. Worryingly, for a country that runs a perpetual trade deficit, these outflows have grown 13-fold since FY12, from $279 million. This is a huge drain on our resources. The amount sent out is more than many of our mega federal social support programmes.

Most nations where students migrate from also receive foreign students to balance the outflows. China, for example, had more than 800,000 students in varsities abroad in 2016, but half as many foreign students in its own campuses. In Malaysia, inbound students equal those studying abroad. Singapore has more than twice the number of college students it sends overseas. In India, it’s largely a one-way street—the number of students lodged abroad is more than four times inbound numbers.

Is there a way to fix this?
Twinning programmes with local institutions, seamless credit transfers, recognition of prior skills are worth trying. Co-designing of long duration programmes delivered jointly with faculty of collaborative institutions leading to dual certifications hasn’t been tried aggressively. With modern educational technology, these can be delivered in a blended mode, bringing down the cost of delivery, yet maintaining world-class quality. The higher education regulator must take more pragmatic and liberal approach to credit mappings, certification guidelines, etc. It may also help to offer inbound student incentive plans, like Australia’s New Colombo Plan, where Australians can seek government scholarships to study in the Indo-Pacific region.

Another area is faculty exchange. While it’s being done, it is largely unstructured. Foreign faculty should be encouraged to teach in Indian universities and vice-versa, especially in the domain of research and technology. Not only will it cross-pollinate, it will also bring best practices from other world-class institutions and strengthen our own delivery and quality frameworks. With the foreign education Bill not seeing the light of day soon, an open-door policy for encouraging foreign universities to be in India through multiple models can be a short-term strategy.

A pitfall of a liberal study aboard programme is the misuse of policy. We carry a poor reputation of allowing low-skilled citizens applying to study aboard, then absconding from universities to migrate illegally. This leads to reputation damage and effects the social fabric of other countries. Sooner or later, many countries may create entry barriers for Indian-origin students. Part of the problem is also the way foreign universities mobilise Indian students—through unregulated agents.

While we may want to encourage students to study aboard and participate in the global labour force, we must also develop our own institutions to world-class standards. As someone said, we should not stop people from migrating. We have to give them better life at home. Migration is not a problem, it is a process.

-The author is MD & CEO of BSE Institute Ltd. Views are personal

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