Migration of youths for foreign education to have lasting impact on Kerala society

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Kerala is witnessing a steady trend of youngsters moving abroad for higher education and Malayali students can be found all over the world. In fact, even the tiny Dutch Caribbean country of Curacao having an area of 444 sq km and a population of a mere 1.55 lakh has students from Kerala.

While, earlier, Keralites travelled to other countries seeking employment, many now do so for studies. As a result, foreign education fairs, IELTS training centres and advertisements in the media as well as public places attracting students to study in places such as the UK, Canada and Australia are common in the South Indian state.

What would be the economic and social consequences of this flight of youths from Kerala? ‘Manorama’ examines the issues involved in detail.

One lakh students to leave state
The most reliable source of data regarding the number of students leaving Kerala for studies is the information provided by the Central Government in Parliament. According to the Centre’s figures, 30,948 Malayalis went abroad for studies in 2019. This was far higher than the number in 2016 - 18,428.

However, as this data was obtained from passport offices in Kerala, it does not include Malayalis who travelled from places outside the state and the Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, unofficial figures suggest that the migration abroad of Indian students is rising by 40 per cent every year. In South India, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu witness the highest student migration to foreign countries. However, Kerala leads in the number of students in proportion to the population. As per indications, the number of students from Kerala would cross one lakh in the next five years, which is a big figure. In 2020-21, the number of students who cleared the 12th standard exams under Kerala Higher Secondary, VHSE, CBSE and ICSE boards was 4,23,2028. If a quarter of these students shift abroad at any stage of their academic life – either during degree, PG or PhD – it would lead to major economic as well as social changes in Kerala society.

Speech in Assembly
A recent speech by Mathew Kuzhalnadan in the Kerala Legislative Assembly brought the issue to public attention. “The salary offered to a fresh candidate with an MBA or civil/mechanical engineering degree in Kerala is only Rs 10,000-14,000. As a result, the thought of a child clearing the Class 12 exam in the state is, “I have to somehow get out of this state and the country,’” he said.

In fact, a reasonable salary is paid only to IT professionals in the state’s private sector. The Kerala Government claims that it has provided jobs to one lakh persons during the past five years. This means 20,000 jobs each year. However, in 2020-21, as many as 1,01,686 students joined the arts and science colleges in the state and 27,916 candidates secured admission to engineering colleges, according to the State Planning Board report for 2021.

Why study abroad?
The survey conducted by ‘Manorama’ indicates why students from the state prefer an education abroad. The most number of respondents (33.51%) felt suitable jobs are not available in Kerala. Meanwhile, the second most common reason for the flight of students was the high standards of education abroad (29.56%).

The other reasons included poor pay in Kerala (12.61%); adverse social and economic situation in the state (6.55%); better social status in Kerala for people studying abroad (4.56%); stay back options in foreign countries (4.34%); poor living conditions in Kerala (3.59%); gender bias and male dominance in the state (3.38%); moral policing in Kerala (1.07%) and less parental interference abroad (0.83%).

A majority of the students study abroad without a scholarship. They obtain the money for the expenses from the family or by availing loans. Work permits which could be secured by studying abroad and permanent residence in other countries is the main goal of these students.

Historic role of education
Malayalis have been travelling abroad for better prospects over the last one hundred years. However, while examining the history of Kerala during the 1700s, it would be revealed that the situation was far different then. By the 1700s, Malayalis had been in contact with the Europeans for two centuries. Still, most Keralites lived in misery, strictly following caste and religious traditions. This fact was described in the book ‘Voyage to the East Indies’ by Carmelite missionary Bartholomew who visited Kerala in 1778.  

However, everything changed during the 1800s, when missionaries, followed by the local governments, launched a revolution in education. When Malayalis gained knowledge thanks to these efforts, they overcame their reluctance to travel and began moving to all parts of the globe.

Against this historic background, the present migration of students to foreign countries needs to be considered as a big opportunity.

Change needed in economy, society
Raising the standards of education in Kerala will not prevent students from travelling abroad for studies. Instead, the state’s economy has to improve in order to ensure better pay and living standards. For this, Kerala has to digitalise its economy and the local jobs have to be productive.

Student ID card
Government authorities in Kerala realized that a very large number of youngsters from the state were studying in China only after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. “That was how NORKA introduced the ‘Student ID card’ to update the database on Malayali students abroad,” said the agency’s CEO K Harikrishnan Namboodiri.

When war started in Ukraine, NORKA noticed that only 163 ID cards were issued for that country. However, as soon as the agency started registrations to evacuate students, 3,428 persons contacted NORKA.

“A NORKA ID card will help communicate with students and offer support when needed,” said the CEO. Students presently based abroad can obtain the card by paying a fee of Rs 315, he added. The card has a validity of three years, which can be extended.

(With inputs from Manorama)

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