Tharoor Line | Kerala must turn brain-drain into brain-gain

There were about 3.5 lakh professional and technical job seekers registered in Kerala’s employment exchanges in 2020 | Photo: Representational Image

Travelling around our state in recent weeks, I have become greatly conscious of the challenges facing Kerala’s youth. Whereas in India as a whole, 50.1% of the population is estimated to be under 25 – in other words, the young are already a majority of Indians – in Kerala they only constitute 23% of the population. Kerala is undoubtedly ageing, and reproducing much more slowly than other states. But even among this low figure, Kerala’s youth unemployment rate is over 40% as of April-June 2022 – one of the worst in the country, second only to Jammu & Kashmir.

What is really saddening is that whereas, in the rest of the country, it is mainly the uneducated and unskilled youth who are most of the unemployed, in Kerala it is educated graduates and post-graduates. There were about 3.5 lakh professional and technical job seekers registered in Kerala’s employment exchanges in 2020. A staggering 71% of these were ITI certificate holders, diploma holders and engineering graduates – and there were even 9000 medical graduates among them.

Much has been said, and rightly so, about the need to open Kerala for investment, to improve our abysmal last-place ranking in Niti Aayog’s Ease of Doing Business tables, and to create more job opportunities for our people. But meanwhile our young are simply leaving – for other states, and even, when possible, for other countries. It is no accident that when India was forced to evacuate Indian nationals from Ukraine upon the onset of war there in February, over 2000 were medical students from Kerala. Nor should we have been surprised that the first-ever Covid case in India was a Kerala student returning from China in January 2020. Our children are everywhere else, because we do not offer them enough to stay here.

A startling 30,948 Malayalis went abroad for studies in 2019, far higher than the 18,428 in 2016. When I asked a few of them why they didn’t want to stay here, one asked bluntly: “What is there for me here? Isn’t Kerala an old-age home?” Reports suggest that the average number of students leaving Kerala to study abroad will be around two lakhs a year; this means that in the next 5 years, more than a million young people will leave Kerala.

Add to it the young people who move to other states to study in leading national institutions, and this migration will have a profound impact on our society’s make-up and undermine the very base of our growth model, which requires the presence of professionally-competent young people.

We have rested on our laurels for long enough in the field of education. There is no doubt that our school education system is among the best in the country. But the glory days of our higher education system are well behind us. The very high ratio of unemployment that we currently have, especially educated unemployment, reflects the inadequacy of the education that is being provided in Kerala. The organisation I lead in the Congress Party, the All-India Professionals’ Congress, conducted a survey among employed Kerala engineering graduates and found that 66% of them were in jobs that did not require an engineering degree. Either what they had learned was unsuitable, or it was unrelated to the needs of the workplace.

We need to ensure that the education that our students are receiving, especially in higher education institutions, is suited to the best outcomes for themselves and the wider society. For one thing, university curricula have to be in tune with emerging sectors and technologies. There is immense scope for technologies of the future– Robotics, Machine Learning, Blockchain, Renewable Energy Technology– but our students are under-served in this regard.

The choice-based curriculum system that the National Education Policy 2020 has proposed provides the ideal setting to introduce these into our universities and colleges to permit students greater, and better, avenues to find jobs and roles that they desire. We need to capitalise on our human capital and, indeed, the first-mover advantage we had (but have largely lost) in the field of ICT.

Along with this, we need to bring our academia and industry ever closer. We have in our Technopark and Infopark some of the leading companies in the world, for which young Malayalis are an important talent base both within and outside the state. We need to leverage the opportunity that this presents.

Not only will closer collaboration provide our universities a greater resource pool to tap into while operationalising their new courses, in the form of subject-matter expertise and practical knowledge, but it will help in sensitising students about the emerging trends in their potential work domains in real time.

In the US, it is quite common for companies to approach universities with an idea and fund graduate students to research it and work out its feasibility; if a marketable product emerges from this combined effort, the company typically offers a share of the royalties to the University. We need to usher in this culture, which is one of the cornerstones of university-industry collaboration in the West.

Such collaboration can be taken to the next level by putting in place internship and work-placement opportunities for students while they are still pursuing their education. This will go a long way in providing students much needed exposure to the demands and opportunities in the workplace while they are still studying.

I would think of these as being reasonably paid opportunities for students, who certainly stand to gain more than just the modest remuneration offered for their part-time work, but also experience and familiarity with the companies– which will, in turn, benefit from the dynamism and capacity that educated young students can bring to them inexpensively. It would, in short, be a win-win opportunity for both.

These steps will strengthen the symbiotic relationship between academia and industry and help us mitigate the problem of educated unemployment. Needless to say, the political interference and controversies that currently abound in our university spaces are not conducive to the kind of reforms needed.

Through these steps, we can hope to achieve not only better quality education for our own students but also attract young minds from outside Kerala and even outside India to our campuses. Kerala has the natural beauty and the liberal spirit to welcome them, but instead we are witnessing an exodus of our own best and brightest. We must convert our current ‘brain-drain’ into a ‘brain-gain’. The time to start is now.

Economic model must change
In a survey conducted by Malayala Manorama, 33% of the respondents said that they were moving aboard for studies as they felt that suitable jobs are not available in Kerala. There is no doubt that, both to attract them and to absorb returning emigrants from the Gulf, we need to drastically change our economic model. I will return to this theme in a future column.

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