Brain Drain – A Systemic Issue or a Natural Consequence?

Rahul: Hey, Do you want to have a reunion party?

Diya: Umm. Sure but any specific reason behind it?

Rahul: Oh, Yes! It’s a piece of good news, I have been selected at a prestigious university in the United States for my post-graduation. So, I’ll be going soon, hence, I thought we could meet.

Diya: Oh, Congratulations! Well, we should definitely meet then. I think we should also call Subhashree because even she got a job offer from abroad and would be leaving soon

Rahul: Yes, that would be great!

This conversation between young people would seem common and relatable as any middle class Indian would know someone or must have heard of someone who has gone abroad to avail better opportunities and if not they would definitely know or have heard of someone who has a strong desire to do so.

This casual conversation captures the extent of ‘Brain Drain’ from India. Brain Drain is defined as the migration of highly educated, talented and skilled citizens from their native place to another country in search of better career prospects and quality of life. It is a process similar to removing the cream off the top of milk only to leave it to produce a less quality product be it ice cream or custard or buttermilk. Thus, when Brain Drain occurs, it deprives the country of a proportion of the population that could contribute significantly to the country’s manpower and growth.

Now, there is an alternate line of thinking as well that says Brain Drain is a natural consequence of individualism, where people think of their own growth, which in turn would contribute to the overall human productivity at a global level. Such individualism has origins in human civilization, and thus, some proponents of Brain Drain say there is nothing wrong with the ‘concept’. While both the schools of thought have their own reasoning and justification, one must ponder over to what extent Brain Drain should be allowed or controlled for the benefit of a native country as against individualism.

More often than not, the Brain Drain is from emerging or developing countries to more advanced nations. It hampers the economy of an emerging country as it loses out on its best brains and potential contributors to the economy. As such, the emerging countries have a genuine reason for concern even if they support individual rights of their citizens to go abroad. If Brain Drain is a concern, then it becomes imperative to understand the factors causing it, its consequences, and how it could be mitigated for the benefit of potential migrant’s native country.

The most common reasons cited for Brain Drain (from any country) are – lack of modern education facilities, lack of job opportunities, inadequate healthcare facilities, political instability, poor standard of life, apathy towards environmental concerns, discrimination and corruption in the process of recruitment, high crime rate and social unrest.

Now let us observe these factors in terms of the Indian context. The first enticing factor for migration is often quality education in ‘prestigious’ universities abroad, which later translates into lucrative job offers. Barring few exceptions, Indian education system doesn’t emphasize much on the practical application of the theoretical concepts as much as the universities in North America and Western Europe do. Moreover, due to a large population in India, even students with decent grades cannot get admission into the institutions of their choice due to high admission criteria. The relative ease of admission, less competition, and more flexibility of study schedules in institutions of higher learning abroad attract these students. Also, the choice of subjects offered at the graduate and postgraduate levels is higher in universities abroad, which is an additional consideration for those wanting to exercise career options after the enrolment in a university.

Second, a good number of students think about higher standard of living as the primary factor for migration, and then use higher education abroad as the means to get there and assimilate with the people of that country. This category of students may not have a higher technical ability as compared the first category, however, they have financial resources to pay the tuition fee abroad. Thus, they don’t mind investing significantly in their education abroad, and get an attractive job and live a ‘comfortable life’ after their graduation.

Then, there is the third category where young professionals migrate only for jobs abroad. Though salaries have risen in India significantly in the last two decades, countries like the US, UK and Canada have much higher salary brackets, which attract these young professionals. These countries may not be their final destination from a long-term standpoint, and they may be willing to return to India. However, they spend a significant amount of time in their mid-20s or 30s, which is a considerable amount of Brain Drain as their productive years are spent outside of India.

Regardless, the higher standard of living coupled with higher income is the overarching reason students and young professionals migrate. If the native country has domestic issues of concern that have been persisting for a long time, the appetite to go abroad for a better quality of life rises. Even though India is a stable nation with a relatively good social setting, many young students and professionals (who believe they have higher technical abilities) don’t want to deal with extensive bureaucracy or other factors that hinder their progress. For instance, a student can attend college abroad and work part-time at the same time as an assistant, librarian, etc. In India, such part-time role is either deemed of low status or comes under an unorganized sector. These additional factors play a significant role in bright and smart students going abroad.

What if the Indian government tries to address most of the issues mentioned above? Will the youth stay back in India? While some might stay back, most others might still pursue opportunities abroad. This trend is evident because students graduating out of top universities in India (who face the least amount of bureaucracy, get attractive offers in India, and can work and study at the same time in India) too flock to study or work in North America or Western Europe. Why does it happen so? It has got to do with the concept of individualism, where an individual would like to pursue the best of opportunities, and not settle for anything else. While India has a substantial number of highly skilled good Samaritans who would like to contribute to the nation-building, there are a large number of (highly skilled) students and professionals who wouldn’t want to ‘deal’ with Indian system or process even if there are reasonably good opportunities for them. They think the quality of life is much better abroad while in India work culture is plagued with issues like incessant work politics or public infrastructure even if they are paid well. They ask – why should I deal with it when I have a better opportunity abroad?

Are There Any Positive Aspects of Brain Drain?

While Brain Drain causes a decline in intellectual wealth, the remittances sent to India by the students and professionals abroad are causing a huge surge in forex reserves and indirectly creating investment and employment opportunities in India. But does that offset the loss of talent (which translates to a monetary loss in more than one way) due to Brain Drain? Most likely, not. However, talent is an invisible asset and the monetary loss created by Brain Drain is invisible as well. Besides the (invisible) monetary loss, Brain Drain also creates a ‘domino effect’ as people seeing their peers living quality life abroad also develop the desire to do the same. Thus, we see positive news reports of ‘surge in remittances’ but never see something like ‘a depression in value’ when a large number of students are going abroad in July or August every year.

What Must the Government Do?

While one can easily understand that the brain drain is a negative phenomenon, it becomes imperative to understand what the government is doing or can do to reduce the process. While no country can stop its Brain Drain completely, there are certain programs a government can establish for the highly skilled, so they don’t migrate. The Indian government is taking different steps such as offering scholarships to more students through the Prime Minister Scholarship Scheme (PMSS), filling up vacancies at reputed universities, achieving good ranking for Indian universities in global ranking reports to build faith among students, taking up exchange programs to attract qualified faculty members, and investing in research programs to enhance the quality of education. The Indian government has also tried to rapidly expand the infrastructure for higher education in the recent years. In addition, there has been an increasing number of foreign direct investments and venture capitalists in India, which create jobs in the higher salary brackets for the highly skilled. All these factors combined with a typical Indian’s desire to stay close to one’s parents or family might reverse the Brain Drain in the coming years. The current context of Covid-19 pandemic might be another significant factor to reverse the Brain Drain in the near term. To retain highly skilled and best of the brains from a long-term standpoint, the Indian government must come up with additional incentives in higher education and scientific research, and eliminate further hurdles in bureaucracy for innovative companies.

-Contributed by Ishita Mittra, an intern at


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