Brain drain or brain gain? Kerala debates growing migration of students abroad for higher education

Kerala has been seeing a trend where students are increasingly migrating to nations like Canada, the UK, the US, New Zealand, and Australia.

BySreerag PS

Published Feb 09, 2023 | 8:00 AM Updated Feb 09, 2023 | 8:00 AM

A majority of the students go abroad by availing of educational loans from various banks in Kerala. (Creative Commons)

It was in March 2022 — during the initial stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — that most Malayalees became aware that thousands of students from Kerala were studying in the eastern European nation. The stranded students were brought back home through the intervention of the Central government.

Student migration from Kerala is not new. The state has been seeing an increasing trend where students are migrating to nations like Canada, the UK, the US, New Zealand, and Australia for higher studies.

But in recent years the flow has increased, and to unusual destinations — including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, several CIS countries and even the Isle of Man.

On Monday, 6 February, Manjalankuzhi Ali, the leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), moved a call attention motion in the Kerala Assembly to discuss the growing issue of student migration from Kerala.

He said the trend was earlier limited to professional courses like MBBS, but now students were migrating ay a young age after finishing higher secondary school education.

According to Ali, this migration resulted in over 25,000 vacant seats in the state’s engineering colleges and over 10,000 seats vacant in arts and science colleges.

He also raised concerns that the current migration trend could lead to Kerala becoming a state for the elderly.

However, Minister for Higher Education and Social Justice R Bindu responded that student migration was a global phenomenon and the state government was committed to strengthening its higher education sector.

Migration from Kerala

According to the 2018 Kerala Migration Survey, conducted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, there are 2.1 million emigrants from Kerala across the world. Among them, 15.8 percent are women.

The migration, primarily to the Gulf nations, resulted in significant remittances to the state’s exchequer.

According to the report, “The estimated total remittances to Kerala is ₹85,092 crore as per KMS 2018. Remittances to the state have increased. This is due to the fact that Keralites in the Gulf have climbed the social ladder and are earning higher wages, allowing them to remit more.”

However, while in the past Malayalis migrated to the Gulf in search of better opportunities, the recent increase in student migration is mostly to Western nations.

The liberal lifestyle of the developed nations and better salaries make students opt for Permanent Residence (PR) and later for the migrated nation’s citizenship.

A majority of the students go abroad by availing of educational loans from various banks in the state.

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Issue raised in Assembly

Opposition leader VD Satheesan was one of the first to raise the issue in the Assembly.

In August last year, he pointed out that there was an unprecedented increase in the number of students migrating to foreign nations for higher education.

“Thousands of students are migrating to nations like Canada, Germany, and the UK. The migration flow is irrespective of economic class. Thus, Kerala is going to lose the cream of its human resources, they are our strength and the greatest asset,” said Satheesan.

The changing situation has also forced the state’s ruling LDF government to compromise on its vehement opposition to the privatisation of the educational sector and invite foreign universities to start regional campuses in the state.

Not brain drain but brain gain, says minister

Responding to Ali, R Bindu said the migration of students was a phenomenon in a globalised world where national borders had become insignificant.

“A developed capitalist nation’s neo-liberal policies motivate the flow of human resources similar to our natural resources irrespective of the boundaries of nations and continents. Reports suggest that people have been migrating from India for many years,” she said.

She also pointed out that according to the data tabled by the Union government in Parliament until November 2022, more than six lakh students migrated from the country.

And, according to the studies done by Redseer and Oxford International, four percent of the total students who migrated from the country were from Kerala.

She also opined that the migration of students was not due to issues pertaining to universities in Kerala or due to a lack of new-generation courses offered by the universities.

Instead, the minister suggested that the total number of students enrolling in Kerala’s higher educational institutions had seen a gradual rise.

She also informed the House that the government had spent over ₹1,000 crore in the last two years to improve the basic infrastructure in higher education.

“We cannot stop students migrating to foreign universities, but the government is committed to providing the services that are offered by foreign nations in Kerala. I hope there will not be a brain drain as the member pointed out. Our aim is brain gain, not a brain drain,” she added.

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