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Brain-Drain is Going to Stagnate the Indian Economy

Indians are having much more success abroad than in their home country.

With its unique position as the world’s largest democracy, it is often considered a trove of human capital, waiting for development to transform the country into a geopolitical powerhouse. Government initiatives to encourage women’s education, improve college enrollment rates, and augmenting primary-level learning are frequent but ineffective.

India’s domestic labor is most often used to provide secondary-sector manufacturing functions to multinational corporations rather than providing tertiary services. That being said, when one looks at industries overseas, STEM fields in particular, most white-collar roles are dominated by individuals of Indian origin. India produces nearly three million STEM graduates a year, and a large majority of Indian students abroad are enrolled in STEM programs.

There is a large disparity between the quality of education in India and other developed nations such as the US, yet Indian students overseas continue to find a foothold in these aforementioned countries’ economies.

The root of the issue can be analyzed at three levels: Primary, secondary, and tertiary level schooling. In a country with such a densely populated youth demographic, it stands to reason that the government would invest significant amounts in ensuring its productivity. In fact, it is with this precise aim that India provides universal primary education to its citizens.

This is no small feat. Pre-independence, Mahatma Gandhi ridiculed this very proposal. But the quantity of the education provided does not in any way ensure its quality, and at every primary grade level Indian adolescents under-perform compared to their Chinese and European counterparts.

At the secondary level, the problem is exacerbated. This is partly due to the structuring of incentives for future employment. In India, schooling is organized around ‘board exams,’ which are finals to sum up the entirety of a student’s academic career. While in the US, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are used as academic indicators while other aspects of a child’s resume are weighted less heavily; the trajectory of one’s career is effectively determined by these exams.

By placing such an emphasis on these board exams, the central government encourages the competitive ‘rote learning’ that the Indian government-mandated system has become so well-known for. Here, learning shifts away from holistic development to absorbing large volumes of information. Consequently, when students graduate, they are knowledgeable in useless areas while lacking in real-world skills like critical thinking.

This underdevelopment of such essential skills stems directly from deficiencies in the educational institutions. One reason for this is a lack of centralized standards for a nation of five hundred million youths. Another reason, as previously mentioned, is that there is a lack of association between the material in the classroom and the realities faced by these students outside. Archaic teaching methods that are remnants of the post-colonial era results in widespread pedagogy that only serves to drive students away from education.

The students that remain follow a conspicuous pattern – a heavy emphasis on STEM subjects as compared to more qualitative fields. This is caused by a combination of factors. First, and perhaps most visibly, is societal pressure from ‘risk-averse’ parents. A large portion of previous generations place utmost value in job stability, discouraging fields like the humanities.

There is also a pervasive lack of appreciation for the education system as a vehicle for learning rather than a vehicle to a career. The structure of education results in a natural skew towards quantitative study over the development of ‘soft skills,’ hence creating an artificial aptitude for STEM.

Finally, there is the lack of alternative options. The majority (if not the entirety) of top-tier Indian higher education institutions are inclined toward engineering and medical sciences. The lack of avenues for the furthering the social sciences at the domestic level causes student aspirations to focus on the technology institutes.

This is why we see the above pattern at the tertiary level. The top percentage brackets borne of the cutthroat examination process travel abroad to supplement their education, and much of the rest are unable to switch collars from blue to white.

This results in an ongoing brain drain, where a lack of incentives for enterprise has put the country on a path to stagnation. The fix is clear, but not easily realized. Measures to improve teaching quality by tying compensation to the students’ results only cause academic malpractice, and an already stretched budget leaves little room for increased investment.

However, there is one route to rectification: public-private partnership. The system must become more meritocratic in its selection of teachers and promotion of students, so that nepotism does not result in educators being under-qualified, and so that students do not graduate without mastering the curriculum.

With effort, the half-baked education system can shift its focus from enrollment rates to inculcating enterprise, and the cycle can move from vicious to virtuous. As some business leaders put it, India’s burgeoning youth is its ‘demographic dividend,’ and in order to reap its benefits, existing mechanisms must be overhauled. As Gandhi said: “True education must correspond to the surrounding circumstances or it is not a healthy growth.”

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