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Will They Return? Indian Students in the United States

India is estimated to require at least one million new faculty for its colleges and universities if it is to meet the government's ambitious target to offer higher education to 20% of all young people by 2020. But the output of the current Indian higher education system falls far short of meeting this need. A report of a survey of about 1,000 Indians who are currently undertaking or have completed graduate studies in the United States to find out their willingness to return to India and the key factors affecting their decisions.

COMMENTARY

Will They Return? Indian Students in the United States

David Finegold, B Venkatesh Kumar, Anne-Laure Winkler, Vikas Argod

sample, and faculty at universities often receive major non-monetary benefits, such as on-campus housing. On the other at an average of $1,547/month in 2005-06 (ranging from $1,151 for entry-level faculty to $2,071 for senior faculty), Indian faculty earn just over a half of the international

India is estimated to require at least one million new faculty for its colleges and universities if it is to meet the government’s ambitious target to offer higher education to 20% of all young people by 2020. But the output of the current Indian higher education system falls far short of meeting this need. A report of a survey of about 1,000 Indians who are currently undertaking or have completed graduate studies in the United States to find out their willingness to return to India and the key factors affecting their decisions.

We thank David Post, College of Education, Penn State University who helped in shaping the survey content; Leila M Bradaschia of Penn State University who provided institutional support for the project; Joanne Mangels of Rutgers’ SMLR who provided assistance with production of the report, and finally the survey respondents. However, the authors are solely responsible for the research and policy options and any errors that the study may contain.

David Finegold (dfinegold@smlr.rutgers.edu) is with the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the US. B Venkatesh Kumar (venk71@gmail.com) is with the School of Labour and Management Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Anne-Laure Winkler is a doctoral student at the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Vikas Argod is a doctoral student in the Department of Computing and Cyber infrastructure at Penn State University.

T
he Government of India has set very ambitious targets for enhancing both the number and quality of places available in higher education (HE). India already has the largest number of colleges and universities in the world and the government has plans to more than double HE capacity in the next decade. To reach the goal of providing HE opportunities for 20% of Indian young people (40 million/year) by 2020, the government would need to add roughly 800 universities to the 504 operating in 2009-10 and expand the number of colleges from roughly 26,000 to 61,000, as a recent report of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry on Indian HE demonstrates.1

The Faculty Supply Challenge

A major constraint on meeting these ambitious growth targets while improving, rather than diminishing quality is the lack of availability of enough well-qualified faculty members with advanced degrees. India already has one of the worst faculty-tostudent ratios of any nation: at 26:1, it is roughly twice the ratio of China. And the number of faculty has been growing at less than half the rate of student numbers. Faculty shortages at universities and colleges are alarming and growing, as roughly half of faculty positions are going unfilled. If India is simply to maintain its current faculty-student ratio it will need to add over a million new faculty members to the current base of roughly 6,00,000. And this does not include replacing faculty who leave or retire.

This challenge is made all the more difficult by the limits on faculty salaries and the accompanying high turnover rates, as professors leave HE for more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.2 (India’s HE salaries are difficult to assess in comparative perspective.) On the one hand, relative to the average domestic per capita gross domestic product, India’s faculty ranked highest among the countries in the average, and also experience over the course of their careers, the lowest level of salary progression in any of the 15 countries surveyed. These are major drawbacks when competing for global talent. To address this issue, the government has recently made significant improvements in the salaries of faculty and doctoral students in public universities.

To meet these very ambitious HE growth targets, India will have to recruit an unprecedented number of both postgraduate and PhD students to become faculty members. India is far away from producing a sufficient supply of qualified graduates domestically who want to become academics to fill the projected growth in faculty positions. The number of PhD students has failed to keep pace with the growth in overall student numbers – PhD students accounted for 0.7% of all students in 1985, falling to 0.5% by 2000 and then rebounding to 0.64% by 2005. If this ratio were maintained, that would suggest that roughly 1,00,000 of the 13.6 million students in India in 2010 were in PhD programmes. If the average student takes three years to complete their studies, there is no attrition, and all of these doctoral students chose to pursue academic careers (all assumptions that are likely far too optimistic), this would suggest there are roughly 33,000 PhD students ready to enter faculty positions. At this rate of PhD students, it would take 30 years to meet the projected need for faculty growth, by which time many of the existing faculty will have retired or left the system.

Thus, if India is to meet this pressing need for new faculty, it is vital that it be able to attract back some of the large number of Indians who obtain graduate degrees abroad. This study provides data from a new survey of 998 of these potential future faculty members to explore their willingness to return to India and the key factors affecting their decisions.

We designed a web-based survey, administered between November 2010 and

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COMMENTARY

January 2011 to current and past graduate students at the US public and private research universities. Two-thirds of our sample

– 40% postgraduate students and 26% PhD students – were still studying and 8% were postdoctoral fellows. Another 17% had entered the US workforce, while 3% had returned to India. Nearly three-quarters of the sample were male (73%). The vast majority (85%) are under the age of 30 – 52% are 20-25, 33% are 26-30, with another 10% between the age of 31 and 35. The current degree/working status of respondents differs significantly from one field of study to another. Natural science is a field dominated by PhD students and post-doctorates (79%) as is medicine and health (56%). Half the engineering and over half the professional degree (business, law) respondents are pursuing a postgraduation.

Desire to Return to India

The most striking finding from the study and encouraging news for Indian policymakers is that the vast majority of current graduate students and of those who have already completed their studies indicate an openness to returning to work in India. Nearly three-quarters of the 998 respondents (74%) plan to return to India eventually or had already done so, with most (53% of whole sample) preferring to get a few years of work experience in the US prior to returning. In contrast, only 8% of respondents said that they preferred not to return, with half of these indicating they would take any job they could to avoid returning. Another 16% were looking for the best job in whatever location they could find it.

Not surprisingly, as individuals progress in their studies and careers, they clarify their preferences regarding where they wish to work. Over four out of five postgraduate students are undecided where they would like to work, or keen to spend some time in the US before returning to India, compared with 67% of PhD students and only 48% of post-doctorates. In contrast, post-doctorates, most of whom are actively

looking for their next position, are both the most likely to declare firmly that they do not want to return to India (10%) and also more likely than any group (other than those who have already returned to India) to say they are actively looking to return (42%). The survey response suggests that only a small percentage of the US graduates who returned to work in India would have preferred to remain in the US. A similar pattern holds based on respondent’s age, with 25-and-under the most undecided, while those 30 and over have developed significantly more set preferences about the desire to return or avoid returning if at all possible. Individuals who are single are less likely to want to return to India than those who are or have been married. Neither the number of children an individual has nor the number of relatives they have in the US had a significant effect on the desire to return. Individuals’ willingness to return also differs significantly by their field of study. Over a third (36%) of both natural science and medicine/health

COMMENTARY

Table 1: Factors Influencing Decision to Locate in the US vs India reason to return to India (Table 1). The

Factor (-2): (-1) 0-(+1) (+2): Mean Variance Strong Reason Neutral Strong Reason to Remain in to Return the US to India

Giveback Quality of life Career Hurdles
ʜ ʜ ʜ ʜ ʜ
-5 0 5 1 + 2 Return
India

versities were attractive to about half of all those interested in HE careers, while under one-quarter were interested in careers in state universities, deemed universities or private colleges.

Key Factors Affecting Return

Given the very high percentage of Indian nationals open to potentially returning to work in India, the next key question for policymakers and researchers is: what are the key factors affecting individuals’ decisions on whether or not to return to India? Our survey included a wide range of both work-related and other factors that could affect this decision, and asked respondents to rate each on a 5-point scale, from strong reason to remain in the US to strong most significant reasons individuals cited for wanting to return to India are family and a desire to give back to the motherland, while corruption, red tape and the academic work environment were the strongest deterrents to returning and instead remaining in the US.

Further analysis suggests that four items (family, giving back, helping to build India’s HE system, and comfort with the society and culture) are clear reasons for most to return to India. In contrast, five items (earning, research support, academic environment, red tape and corruption) are clear reasons to remain in the US. For all the other items, the median is a neutral response.

There are clear commonalities among the responses to many of these specific questions. We conducted a factor analysis to determine the underlying structure of individuals’ preferences on what is most or least important to them when deciding where to live and work. This analysis yielded natural grouping of 11 of the 18 items into four factors, eliminating the other seven that overlapped among two or more of the factors. These factors are: quality of life (standard of living, housing, quality of life, comfort with society/culture), career (career growth opportunities, support for research, chance to secure a good job), Hurdles (red tape, corruption) and giveback (helping to give back to the motherland, supporting growth of Indian HE). Just one of these four factors – the desire to give back – is strongly associated with a desire to return to India (Figure 1). Quality of life and career factors are more mixed, but tend to be seen as more positive in the US, while “red tape” and

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fields indicated that they would return or have already returned compared to 21% on average. Engineers (77%) and professional degree students (business, law) (86%) were the most likely to be undecided.

Over 75% of graduates are interested in returning to India for jobs in the private sector, either to work

Figure 1: Four Key Factors

Family reasons 35 32 145 176 475 4.19 1.20
Giving back to the motherland 20 8 166 262 406 4.19 0.87
Help build Indian higher education system 15 28 257 328 228 3.85 0.83
Comfort with society/culture 112 82 199 220 238 3.46 1.79
Schooling options for my children 77 82 338 191 161 3.33 1.34
Overall health of the economy 54 91 347 250 113 3.32 1.08
Housing 142 115 348 164 85 2.92 1.39
Crime/threats of terrorism 85 94 590 64 19 2.81 0.64
Quality of life 199 180 222 146 115 2.77 1.78
Career growth opportunities 251 141 181 137 138 2.73 2.09
Environment/physical surroundings 181 227 220 147 79 2.67 1.55
Chance to secure a good first job 189 142 351 105 60 2.65 1.35
Standard of living 249 178 259 115 54 2.47 1.48
Earning potential 251 239 217 92 53 2.36 1.41
Support for research/opportunities to publish 252 212 277 72 42 2.35 1.28
Academic work environment 293 245 212 70 28 2.17 1.20
Amount of red tape 300 187 292 42 18 2.15 1.08
Corruption 396 235 188 15 20 1.86 0.95
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cally have constituted most of India’s HE sector, are attractive to only a minority of respondents. More worryingly from the perspective of strengthening the Indian state, far fewer individuals are interested in returning to India to pursue careers in the public sector or politics. While postgraduate students are attracted to private sector jobs in India, the vast majority of PhD and post-doctorate students are most interested in pursuing positions that combine teaching and research in an Indian university (79% and 81%, respectively) or research-only careers (64% and 76%).

The other encouraging finding for Indian policymakers is that 84% of those who have decided to return to India are potentially interested in HE careers. When asked which specific types of institutions they would find most attractive, not surprisingly the Indian Institutes of Technology/ Indian Institutes of Management, National Institutes of Technology (IITs/IIMs/and NITs) topped the list, along with other national institutes. Centrally-funded uni-

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May 21, 2011 vol xlvi no 21

COMMENTARY

“corruption” are what we label the major “hurdles” that need to be removed or at least addressed if institutions are to succeed in attracting the most able academics back to India. All four of these factors are significant predictors of whether an individual wishes to return to India: quality of life, career and hurdles are associated with less willingness to return, while giving back, not surprisingly, is positively related to desire to return to India.

There are significant variations in how individuals at different educational and career stages view these four factors. Hurdles in India are a stronger reason to remain in the US for PhDs (31%), post-doctorates (36%), and those currently working in the US (35%), while post-doctorates (52%) are the ones most eager to give back to the motherland. The comparison of different age groups suggests that older graduates see the opportunity to give back as a greater reason to go to India, but also view the hurdles of corruption and red tape as bigger deterrents for returning. Nearly twice as many women as men (22% vs 12%) indicated that career variables are a strong reason to remain in the US. The hurdles – red tape and corruption – are a greater deterrent for those with children

– four-fifths of those who had children saw this as a strong reason to stay in the US compared to two-thirds of those who did not or may have children in the future.

The survey reveals that the desire to give back is stronger for those in natural sciences and in health/medicine fields. “Support for research/opportunities to publish” is a strong reason to remain in the US for 39% and 34% of the PhDs and post-doctorates, respectively, compared to 26% of postgraduate students. However, the post-doctorates are also more willing to return to India for research opportunities (26% compared to only 13% for postgraduate students, 12% for doctorates), suggesting that they will go wherever it takes to find a good research position, in contrast with those already working, who are more neutral on this factor.

As a final step to determining which of these many different elements are most salient in understanding the decision graduates make on whether to return to India, we conducted a four-step regression, looking first at demographic variables, degree field, educational stage or working status, and finally at the impact of the four main environmental factors on individuals’ perspective on the US and India. Taken together, our model can explain one-third (33%) of the differences among individuals in their willingness to return to India (results of the factor analysis and regression are available in the full report of this study at: www.smlr.rutgers.edu).

Once all variables are entered into the model, we find that current degree status has the most explanatory power (18%), with PhDs and post-doctorates significantly more likely to plan to return than postgraduate students. The field of study was a significant but modest predictor of the desire to return (2%). Career opportunities, quality of life and giving back all had a strong impact on the desire to return, accounting for 12% of the predictive value of returning to India, while the hurdles were not significant. Women were also found to be more likely than men to wish to return to India when controlling for all other factors.

Conclusions

The core finding from this research is that Indian policymakers and HE leaders have a huge opportunity to meet their pressing need for high-quality faculty: the vast majority of Indians who have studied abroad are interested in the idea of returning to India, either right after they graduate, or after gaining a few years of valuable work experience. Our results also suggest a number of steps the Indian colleges and universities and the leaders who oversee them can take if they wish to attract this talent back to India, in particular expanding opportunities for professors to conduct research, while reducing red tape and perceived corruption within the HE system.

Going forward, our goal is to institutionalise and strengthen this research by creating an annual survey with a refined set of questions that would allow us to track responses over time, and adding a comparative dimension, by expanding the sample to include Indian graduates in the UK, Canada and Australia, along with their peers from China.

Notes

1 FICCI, Making the Indian Higher Education System Future Ready, 2010, http://education.usibc.com/ wp-content/uploads/2010/09/EY-FICCI-report09-Making-Indian-Higher-Education-Future-Ready.pdf (accessed on 27 February 2011).

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