Prajith. L chose to pursue a medical education programme at the Kharkiv National Medical University in Ukraine after weighing various local options in November 2021. Despite qualifying the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, his score was not enough to bag a seat for an MBBS programme in merit quota in a government medical college.
“Securing a seat in a private medical college in Kerala or Karnataka was not possible in view of the high annual fee structure and additional costs involved for getting admission. Ukraine was the natural best available option and I was equally impressed by the university’s international stature and infra facilities,” says the 20-year-old native of Kasaragod, who was among the over 3,000 Keralite students evacuated from the war-hit Ukraine in March 2022.
In Kochi, 18-year-old Bhadra preferred to enrol for a triple-major undergraduate programme in a deemed-to-be university in Bengaluru in the academic year 2021-22 for three key reasons. "Better perception, timely conduct of exams, and publication of results and improved placement opportunities prompted me to select a college outside the State,” she says.
The youngsters represent an increasing tribe of higher education aspirants who want to pursue their dreams outside the State, if not the country. As per leading educational consultancy firms in Kochi, there has been an average 20% to 30% rise in the number of students opting for higher education abroad in the current academic year compared to the enrolment in the pre-pandemic situation.
Though there is no official data available on the number of Keralite students who opted to study abroad in the new academic year, enquiries about the choices available in foreign countries have seen a surge of about 50% in this academic year compared to 2020-21, they say.
The popular destinations for undergraduate and postgraduate courses among Malayali students include the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi, and Mumbai figure on top among the options available in other Indian States.
A host of factors including post-study work options, immigration-friendly policies of select countries, and chances of permanent residency options attract aspirants to universities and colleges abroad. The increase in young talents joining premier educational institutions in other States has been aided by a variety of reasons such as improved exposure, learning facilities, industry linkages, and campus placement opportunities.
“Students go abroad looking at the excellent job placements available and the option of staying back in the country after the completion of their academic programme. Better living conditions and state-of-the-art facilities in colleges and universities abroad compared to the situation in Kerala are some of the other reasons,” says Sabu Thomas, Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University and member of the Commission for Reforms in Higher Education, which submitted its report before the government in July 2022.
Stating that the aspirants are impressed by the work and study possibilities available abroad, Dr. Thomas says international universities enjoy large flexibility in academic matters. "The students have a broad variety of courses available for study. The programmes are completed in a time-bound manner. In Kerala, we have a situation where even those holding PhD and post-doctoral qualifications have to pay donations for getting placements in aided colleges," he says.
Admitting that there are far too many systemic features in the State's higher education that restrict possibilities and delay processes, the Commission for Reforms in Higher Education has pointed out that it ends up harassing, discouraging, and disincentivising the core stakeholders, including students and teachers. It also stresses the need to expand the 'Ease of Doing Education' for them.
Explaining that the modernisation of higher education institutions in Kerala has faced a lag that stems from the failure in adopting the new managerialism in higher education institutions, Prof. Amruth G. Kumar, Dean, School of Education at the Central University of Kerala, says institutions in other States have followed a corporate managerial style.
"They are very competitive in ensuring placements for students and in maintaining a decent position in the ranking framework, both nationally and internationally. Higher education institutions in Kerala have yet to accept the fact that placements are largely an institutional responsibility. To take up this responsibility needs academic autonomy to design courses and programmes that are aligned to the demands of the labour market. Such autonomy not only allows teachers and institutions to prepare students for the market, but to apply their intellect and vision to shape a new generation of graduates who cater to the professional aspirations that align with their own tastes and interests," he says.
Prof. Amruth Kumar says the strictly hierarchical administrative and managerial systems, including the Board of Studies, Academic Council, and the Syndicate, in the State universities suppress institutional creativity in framing new courses and programmes. Thus, institutions have been reduced into factories that produce graduates in conventional programmes, he says.
The outflow of students has been mainly prompted by aspirations of earning a better and secure future. “Students are looking for quality education that helps them acquire human capital for meeting the needs of an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. The pattern of recent flow of students shows that it is mainly spurred by economic opportunity. Shortage of good-paying jobs in the country is one of the main reasons,” says Eldho Mathews, Deputy Advisor at the Unit for International Cooperation, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.
"The aspirations of millennials and the generation Z cohort of students are not matching the educational and employment opportunities available in the State and the country. For the majority of students, migration is a means to an end. Along with the growth of middle-class families capable of supporting foreign studies, easy availability of student loans helps students to study abroad. Foreign academic qualifications also help students find work and obtain permanent residency and post-study work visa after they graduate from host countries. Unfortunately, empirical data that influence student migration flow from the State are still unknown," he says.
Pointing out that the migration of students to other States and abroad is mainly for jobs, Dr. Rajan Varughese, Member Secretary of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, says developed countries are a new destination of migration.
“The growing demand for health workers across the world after the pandemic days is one of the reasons. The high competition for a limited number of seats in Kerala for certain areas of learning, particularly in medical and related education is another factor. This is not a reflection of the poor quality of higher education in the State. The search for better academic avenues, especially from second-generation learners is closely linked to employment opportunities prevailing in the labour-scarce countries in the west. Student mobility is also accelerated by liberal educational loans advanced by the cash-rich financial institutions in the State,” he says.
On the migration of Keralite students to other States, Mr. Eldho Mathews says many aspirants consider higher education outside the State as a stepping stone to get into prestigious institutions such as the IITs, IIMs, IISERs, JNU, and to pursue either Civil Services or go abroad for higher studies.
“Classrooms in metro cities help students to connect with peers from diverse backgrounds, which help them improve English proficiency. Students are aware of the benefits of studying in such a multicultural environment to thrive in an exponentially diverse world,” he says.
Prof. Amruth Kumar says Kerala has witnessed the emergence of a middle-income group that is able and willing to consume education. “Average income per person in Kerala was approximately 1.5 times the Indian average in 2020-21. Multidimensional poverty in the State is just 0.71% of the population which is the lowest in the country, according to the National Multidimensional Poverty index of NITI Aayog. This informed middle income group in Kerala are global citizens and their children are reasonably information literate (or digital literate) so as to explore the best suited academic programmes and institutions that fit to their expectations and budget. Easing of educational loan facilitated many parents to seek support from banks to bolster the education of their children. In fact, various governments motivated banks to provide loans to evade from its responsibility of providing higher education to the needy. These changes, growth of the middle-income group, and loan support, have fostered an attitude among the Keralites that education is an individual responsibility and its returns primarily goes to individuals, thus liberating the responsibility of the State to provide education to its citizens,” he says.
The low score in the ‘Perception’ category in the ranking by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) remains a concern for even colleges in the State that have figured in the top 100 in the latest ranking by the Ministry of Education.
However, Dr. Varughese says Kerala with a Gross Enrolment Ratio of 38.8% (higher than the national average of 27.1%) is on the threshold of a transformation in higher education. "Apart from the impressive quantitative indices, the latest NIRF ranking (2022) places Kerala in the third position with 17 colleges from the State on the first 100 list of colleges (Delhi and Tamil Nadu occupy the first and second position in this category). In the NIRF metrics, Kerala stands second in Teaching Learning Resources, Research and Professional Practice), Graduate Outcome, and Outreach Inclusivity, and it is only in Perception average score of Kerala is too low, he says.
Despite the soaring interest in higher education outside, the picture is not always rosy as only a section of the aspirants will get a chance to stay back in the foreign country of their choice after completing their higher studies. Not all of the students wishing to join a course abroad have been able to secure admission in leading colleges and universities in the popular destinations abroad in view of the stringent admission norms.
Experts have cautioned parents and students to make a thorough assessment of their future plans before deciding to opt for higher education outside. A careful study of the strengths and weaknesses of the students and their career options is a prerequisite before initiating a plan to pursue higher education outside.