Youth exodus: Kerala sees unprecedented rise in student emigration, sparks concerns of growing brain drain

The burgeoning student emigration figures have played a crucial role in maintaining overall emigration levels in 2023, cementing fears of a prolonged brain drain.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Jun 15, 2024 | 1:42 PM Updated Jun 15, 2024 | 1:42 PM

Youth exodus: Kerala sees unprecedented rise in student emigration, sparks concerns of growing brain drain

Kerala is grappling with an escalating brain drain crisis, as an unprecedented surge in student emigration is reshaping the state’s demographic and economic landscape.

According to the latest Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) 2023 report, the number of student emigrants has skyrocketed from 1,29,763 in 2018 to approximately 2,50,000 in 2023, underscoring a significant shift in the profile of those leaving the state.

The report highlighted that students now make up 11.3% of all emigrants from Kerala, marking a notable trend of younger individuals opting to pursue education abroad.

This demographic shift is particularly striking as many are leaving as early as 17 years old. The burgeoning student emigration figures have played a crucial role in maintaining overall emigration levels in 2023, cementing fears of a prolonged brain drain.

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

Need of policy interventions

According to the KMS 2023 report, the migration trends carry profound implications for Kerala’s demographic composition and economic future. And the dramatic rise in student migration necessitates urgent policy interventions.

The report stated, “One notable trend is the dramatic increase in student migration, with the number of student emigrants nearly doubling in the past five years.”

According to the report, enhancing the state’s educational infrastructure, providing resources for safe migration pathways, and rigorously monitoring language training centres and recruitment agencies are pivotal steps in curbing deceit and fraud in the migration processes.

It also observed that the state faces the challenge of fostering brain gain by encouraging Malayalee students who acquire valuable skills abroad to return home. The report emphasised the importance of developing new policies o facilitate this brain gain.

‘Desire for high-quality education, better career opportunities’

According to KMS 2023, while international student migration from India is a growing trend, Kerala is poised to become one of the top states in terms of students pursuing education abroad.

“This reflects the desire for high-quality education and better career opportunities among the students of Kerala,” read an excerpt from the report.

The KMS 2023 estimates 2.5 lakh student emigrants from Kerala with Ernakulam having the highest number of emigrant students at 43,990, followed by Thrissur and Kottayam with 35,873 and 35,382 students respectively.

International student migration by district, 2023

There is an increase of 92 percent when it comes to student migration from KMS 2018. Wayanad had the lowest number of student emigrants from Kerala at 3,750.

The KMS 2023 report revealed that over 80 percent of students aged above 16 years have gone abroad for higher studies after completing their graduation in Kerala.

The United Kingdom emerged as the most favored destination, with one out of four students from Kerala choosing to pursue higher education there. Canada follows closely, attracting one out of five students, with other European Union countries also being popular choices.

In terms of gender distribution, 54.4 percent of student emigrants from Kerala are males, while 45.6 percent are females.

Also read: Kerala leads India’s healthcare talent migration to MENA; demand for male nurses rising: Report

Six percent of state’s population – emigrants

According to the KMS 2023, the number of emigrants from Kerala stands at an estimated 2.2 million, closely aligning with the 2.1 million recorded in the KMS 2018.

This stability in international migration over the last five years is notable, observed the report, especially given the overall declining trend observed in previous rounds of the KMS over the past decade.

However, despite a slight increase of 32,388 emigrants in 2023, 9 out of the 14 districts in Kerala saw a considerable decline in emigrant numbers compared to 2018, indicating a potential saturation of international migration.

Trends in emigration 1998 to 2023

Tirur taluk in Malappuram district continues to lead in the number of emigrants, maintaining its top position from previous years with slightly more than 100,000 emigrants in 2023.

Conversely, Devikulam taluk in Idukki district recorded the lowest number of emigrants.

The northern region of Kerala remains a focal point for migration, encompassing the majority of emigrants.

Regional Distribution of Emigrants, 2023

Malappuram alone was the origin of nearly 3,77,647 emigrants in 2023.

Regarding religious distribution, Muslims lead at 41.9 percent, followed by Hindus at 35.2 percent, and Christians at 22.3 percent.

Also Read: Shortage of nurses in India, their emigration for jobs abroad cause of worry: Experts

Distress returnees

The KMS 2023 also reported a significant increase in the number of emigrants returning to Kerala, with figures rising to 1.8 million from 1.2 million in 2018 – 38.4 percent increase from 2018.

Trends in return emigrants from 1998 to 2023

This surge is attributed to the global health crisis-induced economic disruptions, stricter immigration policies, and dwindling job opportunities abroad.

According to the report, 71 percent of the return migrants are distress returnees. Many migrants were compelled to return due to job losses, compulsory resignations, and other pandemic-related challenges.

Reasons for return

Notably, job loss was the primary reason for return, affecting 18.4% of return migrants, while only 4.4% returned after achieving their migration goals.

The UAE, a favored destination for Kerala’s emigrants, also recorded the highest number of returnees, accounting for 36% of the total.

What the survey suggests

The report noted that a large portion of Kerala’s emigrants, nearly 77%, are classified as labour migrants.

It suggested that to improve their employment prospects and earnings abroad, the state should look for strengthening their skillsets.

According to the report, programmes like the Additional Skill Acquisition Programme (ASAP) will equip emigrants with job-ready skills. This initiative could also encourage them to explore destinations beyond the traditional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Another key suggestion is recommending the government to prioritize Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with emerging economies to create a smoother migration process. Additionally, with a growing number of returning emigrants, it stresses the need for having comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration measures.

The report also reminded the policymakers that with a diaspora of 5 million Malayalees, the time is ripe to think about a Migration Development bank, following the example set by the Asian Development Bank.

The KMS 2023 was conducted by the Gulati Institute of Finance Taxation (GIFT) with technical support from the International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD).

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)

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