Nimesh G Desai
The Russia-Ukraine face-off for the last one week has caused universal concern in many ways. It has led to apprehensions about the Third World War and the nuclear trigger. After a long time, people are binge-watching television for News coverage of the conflict. However, besides the general fears of escalation, we are also anxious about the safe return of hundreds of Indian students from Ukraine.
With the efforts of the Indian Government more than half of the Indian students have returned home; an almost equal number of them are still stuck in the war zone.
The highest political functionaries making promises in the public domain about bringing everyone safely home is reassuring. The recent case of an Indian student who lost his life in the shelling in Kharkiv while he was waiting to procure groceries has added to the fear of the families of the Indian students. They had to face such a harrowing time only because they were on foreign soil for pursuing medicine or engineering courses.
The underlying deeper issue that merits consideration for the long term is the larger background to the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of students from India, pursuing their quest for a degree in medicine or engineering. The freedom to pursue educational and/or occupational career anywhere in the World is of course recognized, and yet the situation begs the question of the mass phenomenon of this kind, especially from India to the countries of the former USSR can be examined and corrected, to be able to avoid more such crises.
One of the major factors contributing to this recent trend is the unbelievable competition for obtaining admission to publicly funded medical or engineering colleges in India leading those not willing to modify their career plans to seek avenues elsewhere. The exorbitant costs for training in private institutions in India make that desperation even sharper for many young students from the middle classes.
The long persisting social dimension from the immediate post Independence era, of every family being not just desirous but almost critical to have their children as a medical doctor and engineer seem to have become only stronger, despite the emerging evidence and social acceptance about many other professional career paths being equally rewarding. The easily available options for these careers in the countries of Eastern Europe, for those who cannot qualify for public institutions on academic percentage marks obtained and/or cannot afford to pay the large amounts of money for admission to private institutions, seems to have rekindled and invigorated the social tradition of it being a matter of prestige to have one or more of the children in a family pursuing medicine or engineering courses.
The social expectation of this nature, with the phenomenon of the push by the parents for their satisfaction, has ensured that while many other professional careers are gaining acceptance and even prestige, the centrality of these two coveted career paths has not diminished. The interesting aspect is that in the case of parents being medical doctors, the drive for children to become medical doctors is for different reasons, while for many other parents it seems to be a case of fulfillment of the parents' unfulfilled ambitions through the children. Every second parent or family is keen to get the child to become a medical doctor or an engineer, often despite lack of aptitude in the child or even some resistance.
It can be easily said that the quality of education provided in almost all of those countries and their institutions leaves a whole lot to be desired. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the Indian students with those foreign degrees seem to pick up the knowledge and the skills after returning home to India, during their post-graduate studies, and/ or on the job. The cultural and linguistic adjustments the young boys and girls have to make in doing these courses in that part of the World as well as the difficulties of ensuring smooth pursuit after coming back home with the educational degrees also seem to have been taken in stride by thousands, if not millions.
It can only be hoped that the efforts of the Indian Government and the cooperation of other countries, will succeed in bringing all the students from Ukraine. Regardless of that as it may turn out, the multi-faceted phenomenon of young Indian boys and girls going away to these foreign countries, not for getting better training, but more as a last option of pursuing the dream quest needs careful consideration. The current critical political and military situation between Russia and Ukraine seems to have led to many associated crises, which will continue to be debated for some time. One such spin-off and social consideration need to be on the locally prevalent factors in India behind this phenomenon of something that did not make much sense at any time but seems to carry a heavy costs for the students and their families.
Surely,with the population explosion and the emphasis on science and technology in different domains, the country needs more medical doctors and engineers, . The recent pandemic has also enhanced the need for more medical graduates and other health care professionals. It seems that the Government is doing its bit at the policy level by encouraging more medical and engineering colleages in the private sector while building more institutions in the public sector. The policy challenge remains tto maintain the quality of the education and keeping a check on the fee structure. The social scenario requires deeper and fundamental changes in terms of the morbid preoccupation of wanting to ensure social prestige or career success only through these two professional career paths.
The current geopolitical crisis and the experience of its effects on our young people and their families would be useful for the country and society to examine and review if the irrational and dangerous quest for becoming a medical doctor or an engineer is worth all the cost involved, not only terms of the finances involved, but also the cost of all the psychological pain and the social suffering, including the unfortunate ultimate cost of losing young lives.
(Dr. Nimesh G Desai is the former director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), New Delhi)