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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Brain Gain?

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Amiya Dev


The Union Ministry of Education is toying with the idea of setting up a few ‘world-class’ national universities, and to that effect a concept note has been circulated. It is titled ‘Brain Gain’, meaning retrieval of the brain that has gone overseas.

There was a time when we talked of ‘Brain Drain’ feeling helpless about the migration of some of our better brains. Various reasons were in the air for that phenomenon: lack of adequate research facilities, red tape, neglect of merit and the thumb rule of mediocrity. What we call ‘diaspora’ now had not yet attained its many-sidedness. Besides, the NRI status was yet unthought of. We merely moaned and quoted morality.

Things have changed in the intervening decades. We are no longer angry with Indians that have added lustre to overseas universities and laboratories. On the contrary, we are proud of their achievement. And they too are giving proof that they have a concern for the country they had left. Some even seem to be saying, it is for work we are there, but at heart we are yours. On occasions we seek their help and they too give us advice. Probably by now the meaning of the word ‘country’ or ‘land’ has changed. If it is conceivable to be an outsider in one’s own land, then why can’t we conceive of patriotic expatriates?


Then, is the Union Ministry not doing right by speaking of ‘Brain Gain’ and entrusting absolute teaching and research in the proposed ‘world-class’ universities to outstanding NRIs, not only that, but keeping them outside the purview of all rules and regulations?

No. For: (1) The supposed superiority on which this attempt at bringing the brainy NRIs back rests, rises out of an inferiority complex. The brains that have gone and are at work overseas are superior to the brains that have stayed and been trying to work at home—now, where are the data to bear out this measure? Of course there is an element of relativism in this, but suppose we overlook that and simply raise the issue of measure? (2) By our own measure we are aware of the deterioration that has taken place to higher education, but to impute that to lack of brains alone will be unfair. Based on the assumption that knowledge search, knowledge storing and knowledge imparting are all of a piece, universities were once our custodian of learning and research. By setting up central councils and research-alone institutes under them we gradually took away major research from the hands of universities. The fall began. Decades have since passed. One could not expect to hold on to the tradition of P. C. Ray in dwindling candle-light! In fact a kind of ‘brain drain’ also then resulted from teach-alone institutions. (As to the other causes of the deterioration of university education, surely the inferiority of brain was not to blame.) (3) However, some attempt has of late been made to stem this deterioration. Neither the University Grants Commission nor the National Assessment and Accreditation Council created by it is solely geared to putting checks on universities in the name of quality, but also to charting out ways of bringing it about, though they often forget that quality cannot be showered from above but has to be built from below, each to its own promise. That brains may be scattered all over the country and not concentrated in a few places, is also often forgotten. (4) Indeed the word ‘world-class’ is an outcome of this attitude, though much magnified, the highest common factor as it were of the world’s brains engaged in teaching and research. Now, our need being the lowest common multiples of our brains, we may do without that. ‘World-class’ is a rhetoric of exclusion while we must strive to be inclusive.

In other words, these ‘world-class’ national universities proposed by the Ministry of Education will form an airy aristocracy, with no roots anywhere, utterly isolated from our higher education system which, no matter how tainted, is trying to mend. They will be a mere exception, an inconsequential niche outside history. Instead of interacting with brains at home and helping resuscitation, the ‘re-drained brains’ will be an end to themselves, a limbo so to speak, by no means a ‘gain’. Such may be the irony of high thinking!

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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