Consider this. Of the top 11 economies in the world—contributing to over 70% of global GDP—nine would have a shortage of skilled workforce by 2030, at current rates of growth. Countries like Germany, whose current skill shortage is about 4%, would see it dramatically rise to 23% by 2030. China, with the largest population as on date and till recently its one-child policy, would still have a workforce deficit of 3%. India would barely make it, but will struggle to ensure availability of highly skilled workforce to run own businesses.
This scenario is expected to encourage migration from populated countries to where jobs exist. Traditionally, migration of the youth triggers from the need for quality education or forced due to domestic political and social unrest. About 4.6 million students globally study away from their home countries, of which 53% are from Asia. India sends out 300,000 students annually, second to China (800,000). Is this an opportunity or a challenge?
In a globalised world, university education in another country is a real option. Employers also look for people who have global experience, cross-cultural competence and language skills. Among the reasons students go abroad, other than access to quality education, is the need for a better lifestyle and the belief that studying abroad is a passport to good life. For Indians, one of the reasons is abysmal quality of home universities—poor infrastructure, shortage of good teachers, jaded curriculum, industry disconnect. Despite strong ambitions, the higher education system in India lags behind—in a popular ranking, only three Indian universities featured in top 200, and 10 in top 700. Compare this with New Zealand, a small country with just eight universities, and all in top 100!
We will be one of the youngest nations by 2030—with 140 million people in the college-age group. Recent policy changes, including the setting up of a super regulator for managing universities, is an indication of the government’s resolve.
Indians who study abroad often stay back—most look at a country that allows staying back options, has liberal visa rules, low fees, before deciding on the course. This may be good for student development and skill acquisition, but we need to find answers to a fundamental question: Do we allow students to study aboard, acquire skills, migrate and support host countries, or encourage them to return and narrow the workforce shortage in our country?
Also, this comes at a cost. In 2016-17, Indians spent $3.7 billion towards ‘maintenance of close relatives’ and ‘studies abroad’, with these two items accounting for 45% of all outward remittances. Worryingly, for a country that runs a perpetual trade deficit, these outflows have grown 13-fold since FY12, from $279 million. This is a huge drain on our resources. The amount sent out is more than many of our mega federal social support programmes.
Most nations where students migrate from also receive foreign students to balance the outflows. China, for example, had more than 800,000 students in varsities abroad in 2016, but half as many foreign students in its own campuses. In Malaysia, inbound students equal those studying abroad. Singapore has more than twice the number of college students it sends overseas. In India, it’s largely a one-way street—the number of students lodged abroad is more than four times inbound numbers.