Student exodus a reality check for Kerala

While the aspiration to migrate for higher studies and work has long been ubiquitous across Kerala, the growing tide of students setting their sights on institutions in other States and abroad has created a hard reality for Kerala’s colleges, writes Hiran Unnikrishnan

Updated - August 04, 2023 06:59 am IST

Published - August 03, 2023 07:44 pm IST

While the aspiration to migrate for higher studies and work has long been ubiquitous across Kerala, the growing tide of students setting their sights on institutions in other States and abroad has created a hard reality for Kerala’s colleges

While the aspiration to migrate for higher studies and work has long been ubiquitous across Kerala, the growing tide of students setting their sights on institutions in other States and abroad has created a hard reality for Kerala’s colleges | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Two months ago, a leading college in Kochi offered Neha Elizabeth Abraham a seat in its undergraduate programme. Her certificate of admission, received via email, validated her career plan to become a chartered accountant.

“I was naturally excited, but as the initial enthusiasm waned, I decided against joining that institution,” said the 18-year-old, who lives in Kottayam, over an hour’s drive from Kochi.

For Neha, finding a job after she graduated was her main goal because she felt her home State did not have enough employment opportunities in the financial sector. Bengaluru — a more vibrant city — beckoned and the teen netted an offer from a top college there for a bachelor’s degree in commerce integrated with a chartered accountant certification by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) — a career-oriented programme.

While the aspiration to migrate for higher studies and work has long been ubiquitous across Kerala, this growing tide of students setting their sights on institutions in other States and abroad has created a hard reality for Kerala’s colleges.

The All-India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2020-21 released in January this year says Kerala boasted a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 43.2% — the sixth highest in the country. GER is the the total enrolment within a specific region as a percentage of the population. The figure is much higher than the national average of 27.3%.

The courses that have recorded a sharp fall in enrolment are the undergraduate degree in some of the core science and humanities subjects such as BSc Mathematics, BSc Zoology, B.Sc Botany, BA English literature, BA History etc.

But the evidence of shrinking student strength for undergraduate programmes is everywhere on the ground. For instance, in central Travancore — a region that boasts some of the premier higher education institutions in the aided sector — the GER for undergraduate programmes in core science and humanities subjects has dropped to much below 40%. This slide , which began some years ago, has hit its peak since 2022.

This in turn has left college authorities and teaching staff scrambling for ways to tide over the crisis, which has put the future of some institutions at risk. It has forced the Kerala State Higher Education Council to launch a survey to identify the demand for undergraduate programmes in the State. Its results are expected later this month.

For what it is worth

“We are experiencing a tough time,” says Fr. Reji P. Kurien, Principal of St. Berchmans’ College at Changanassery, one of the premier institutes of higher education in central Kerala. He attributes the higher enrolment figures recorded by the autonomous institution this academic year, 82%, primarily to the huge demand for its self-financing programmes with subjects such as BSc Zoology and Industrial Microbiology, BSc Botany, and Biotechnology .

Fr. Kurien feels the crisis in the higher education sector is fuelled by mounting competition from education providers who focus mainly on job skills, and increasing scepticism among students and their parents that an investment in higher education will pay off.

“We have come to an age where the intrinsic quality and worth of a course is judged by what job and salary it unlocks. This is evident from the extremely high demand for our double-main programme which combines a skill-based degree with a core subject,” he explains. To bring students back onto the campus, the college is now focussing on expanding career training programmes.

Amidst the declining enrolment for traditional courses, the BCom degree — one of the most popular programmes offered by the college — has managed to weather the storm to an extent, although it, too, has seen a dip in the cut-off mark, the mark below which students are not given admission (usually based on Class XII results).

The pattern, at the same time, has also raised concerns over certain departments struggling to maintain adequate workloads as stipulated by the government. (stipulation to handle a stipulated number of hours for lectures, research and academic activities every week)

Meanwhile, the sharp rise in demand for nursing and allied jobs after the pandemic years has also started to exercise a suffocating chokehold over much of the region’s higher education sector. “We also have a handful of students from science undergraduate programmes dropping out midway and leaving the State to join nursing courses,’’ says the Principal of a leading women’s college.

Additionally, this college has also been issuing an annual average of 250 Letters of Recommendation (LOR) for higher studies, as necessitated by foreign universities.

In Pathanamthitta district’s Ranni, St. Thomas College has seen a GER of less that 40%.

Many college administrators such as Sneha Elsy Jacob, Principal of St Thomas College, are now resting their hopes on the academic restructuring programme initiated by the Department of Higher Education. “The four-year courses to be launched by MG University next year are expected to bring in a drastic change as they combine employability with flexibility through skill-based education,’’ she says.

But that looks like just one promise colleges are betting on. The academic community still remains divided on whether these colleges will rebound quickly enough. “Implementing the academic restructuring programme in its soul and spirit is much easier said than done. It may require a massive redeployment and fresh appointment of faculty members as the colleges will start functioning in different shifts. It is going to take several years for these things to fall in place,” says the Principal of another college.

Future ready

While the lack of employability has shocked the system, it is not the lone culprit. “Although Kochi is my home town, I decided to leave for Chennai and pursue my undergraduate degree at a college there. It offered me better facilities to prepare for the Service Selection Board (SSB) examinations,” says Arpitha Muraleedharan, a 20-year-old who is keen on a career with the armed forces.

Experts, meanwhile, regard the continuing enrolment slide as part of a long-term trend, driven by a host of other factors as well. “The growth of a new middle-income group in Kerala capable of buying education for their kids in metropolitan cities in India and abroad has shaken up the higher education sector. The notion that education coexists with the job market in metropolitan cities has further aided this exodus,” observes Amruth G. Kumar, Dean, School of Education, Central University of Kasaragod. Bigger cities have better placement opportunities too, through campus interviews.

The worrying fall in student enrolment in Kerala’s colleges, according to him, is set to worsen if the State fails to reimagine its higher education system in ways that match the priorities of the students as well as of the job market. “The loss of students is going to be even higher if the State lags behind in introducing dual-degree programmes and other progressive measures recommended as part of the National Education Policy 2020,” he warns.

Government speak

Even as colleges have started to feel the pinch, the authorities do not see a reason to panic. As estimated by Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, 65% of the 11,258 merit seats in aided colleges and 63% of the 1,132 seats in government colleges have been taken in the current academic year. The ratio of enrolment in self-financing colleges, which have 20,100 merit seats, is 45%.

“The admission process, including supplementary allotment (waiting list), is pending. On completion, the total enrolment ratio is expected to exceed 80%,” says C.T. Aravinda Kumar, Vice-Chancellor of the varsity, in a statement.

In February this year, R. Bindu, Minister for Higher Education in Kerala, stated in the Assembly that the State’s GER had increased by 10% in the past five years. As per the statement, the AISHE 2020-21 conducted by the Ministry of Education had shown that the GER in higher education in Kerala increased from 32.4% in 2016-17 to 43.2% in 2020-21. As many as 3.3 lakh students had enrolled in higher education institutions in the State during the past five years.

The exodus of students to foreign universities, according to the Minister, clearly aligns with the national trend. Besides the lure of permanent residency and post-graduate work permits, the perception of a more liberal social environment and better living standards, and the ease of obtaining education loans have fostered migration.

Pointing out that the share of Kerala among the annual overseas flight of students is just four %, the Minister says the drop-off is yet to set Kerala’s higher education system back by limiting its ability to secure higher paying jobs and by extension, social mobility.

“The road ahead is not as steep as projected. Efforts are on to retain student outflow and it will soon start paying dividends,” the Minister says.

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