Half a century ago, Keralites migrated to the Gulf countries in search of jobs. Their contribution to the economic progress of Kerala never needs an explanation. They were all bound to return to their homeland at some point. But today, a visible trend of the outflow of young people from Kerala to western countries for higher education can be seen. This increasing departure is quite surprising. Unlike the Gulf migrants, these groups of migrants do not cherish the attitude of returning home.

This ‘brain drain’ will create repercussions in the state. As the West does not promote the migration of unskilled youth, the youths in Kerala find refuge in education as a solution. Further, migration for education is considered an easy way to obtain permanent residency or citizenship in those countries. Here, the host countries are effectively benefiting from every penny the migrants spend in the form of educational fees and other living expenditures.

Today, students from Kerala migrate to 54 countries, such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Russia, New Zealand, Mexico, Iceland, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Barbados, Slovenia, and Slovakia. A good number of students go to the Balkan countries and former Soviet countries because of affordability and comparatively lower living cost. Educational consultancies, admissions facilitators, international education fairs, and IELTS/TOEFL training centers are common even in the small towns of Kerala. Some are advertising accommodation facilities and even part-time jobs for students studying in foreign universities. Banks are also seeing this as a big catch. They are competing to provide education loans to young people who want to pursue their studies abroad. The repayment rate of this loan category is around 97 per cent. Further, students who want to go abroad can find many academies and online platforms to learn foreign languages in Kerala. 

The number of students migrating to foreign countries from India, especially from Kerala, has been surprising in the last few years. It is alarming that while the number of Indian students abroad was 40 lakh in 2012, it is expected to exceed 75 lakhs by 2025. Unofficial figures also indicate an increase of 40 per cent per year. The majority of these students are from South Indian states. If we consider the number of students in proportion to the population, Kerala is at the forefront. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, in 2016, 18,428 Malayali students went abroad for higher studies, which increased to 30,948 by 2019. However, according to unofficial figures, it is said to be more than 35,000. 

According to current indications, the number of student migrants from Kerala is estimated to cross one lakh in the next five years. The state government is often unaware of the realities of massive student migration and lacks an effective monitoring mechanism. During the outbreak of Covid-19, it was reported that there were more than 5000 students from Kerala in Wuhan and other parts of China. Similarly, during the Ukraine-Russia war, it was identified that about 3000 Malayali students were in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the state government does not have any statistics/studies on the outflow of students and its repercussions. The Kerala government is unable to provide sufficient infrastructure and better jobs to its youth. Moreover, many universities and colleges in the state are still teaching traditional and superannuated courses that are obsolete in modern times. Many of them face a dearth of students to fill vacant seats in various courses. Educated youth find it difficult to get jobs or salaries commensurate with their qualifications. Inefficiencies in the education sector, lack of institutional infrastructure, violence against the youth and unemployment are rampant in the state. Obtaining a job after studies has become a herculean task. Resentment and anger towards the current system of the country and the state may also prompt the youth to leave the country.

High standards of living and education in foreign countries, post-education job opportunities, personal freedom, a better quality of life, respect at work, social security, immigration-friendly policies and knowledge-based opportunities attract Kerala youth to foreign countries. Moreover, parents’ awareness of better academic and career opportunities outside the state and abroad have also contributed to the migration. 

On average, one youth from every middle-class family in the state is trying to move out of Kerala today. Studies indicate that two-thirds of young people want to migrate abroad for work and related activities in the future. In the case of Kerala, migration will become an essential factor in achieving the life goals of the youth in the next decade. An average student needs at least 20 lakh rupees per year to study at a foreign university. In this way, a huge amount of money is being presumably drained from the economy of Kerala. These students later become permanent residents or citizens of host countries. Therefore, money may not return to Kerala’s economy as it does from Gulf. 

The migration of such a scale also exposed another issue in the state, the vacant houses. More than a million houses are left vacant across Kerala. According to the 2011 census, 12 lakh houses are vacant in the state. This constitutes almost 11 per cent of the vacant houses in the country. 60 per cent of these belong to Keralites who are settled in European countries. Notably, these are 13 years old figures. And a huge number of households, only the elderly parents remain. This is why the number of old age homes in the state is increasing. If the next generation of Kerala continues to immigrate to other countries by leaving their property, the state will become a land of the old. 

The talented young generation’s ‘brain drain’ will create unprecedented changes in social, economic, cultural and political spheres. Kerala’s school education system is undoubtedly the best in the country. But it is also true that our higher education system is lagging behind. A higher rate of unemployment, particularly among the educated, reflects the inadequacy of the higher education sector. Needless to say, the political interference and controversies going on in our universities are not conducive to the much-needed reforms. Our students are deprived of quality education and our campuses are bereft of the academic charm that attracts students and experts from even foreign countries. 

In short, we are witnessing a growing trend of the departure of our bright and creative youth. The time has come to adopt a market-oriented educational system in the state. It is possible to reduce migration by introducing up-to-date curricula encompassing new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, blockchain and renewable energy. It is distressing that while there are many favourable conditions to make our state a centre of higher education, the state cannot modernize higher education as it should.