Sheikh Yamina (24) from Kashmir’s Srinagar district has just begun her academic journey at Oxford University this year. She is the first from Kashmir to pursue BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) from the prestigious university.
However, what pushed her to move abroad is not just the uniqueness of her course but a hundred other reasons including the deficiencies in the valley’s education system. Yamina is not an isolated case, she is one of the many students who are leaving the state to continue their academic journey.
According to data provided by Ministry of Education in Feb 2023, the number of students from India going abroad for higher education has increased by 68.79 percent in the past year.
For the past few years, there has also been a trend among students from Jammu and Kashmir to study outside. As per data accessed by the daily newspaper Kashmir Monitor in 2023, over 30,000 students from J&K prefer foreign countries for studies each year.
This year more than 312 seats are vacant in different campuses of Kashmir University, as per the stats by news agency, KNO.
Students too have genuine reasons for this mass movement away from the valley – limited career choices, wrecked administration, delayed exams, old school methods, no student-friendly approach, and an unprecedented political situation.
As per the official record of J&K higher education department, there are 142 government degree colleges and 208 private colleges across the state. However, is it enough? NO .
The unavailability of preferred subjects in the colleges is the number one reason for students to move out. As per the students, universities and colleges outside the state are offering a more diverse range of programmes, including specialised courses that are not yet available in Jammu and Kashmir.
These include aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning, renewable energy systems, robotics and automation, film studies, sports management, and marketing.
Syed Alizah (22) from Srinagar is applying to USA and UK-based universities this year after having studied History from Amar Singh College, Srinagar.
“I want to pursue masters in Ancient History or International and Modern History combined but this course is not provided by even a single university in the country,” she says, adding that there is only a single university in the valley that offers a postgraduate programme in history, that too with the most basic subject combinations.
The medical students' side of the story is no different. Many students pursuing MBBS believe that less than 15 government medical colleges across J&K for so many aspirants are not enough.
Shortage of seats in India and relatively lower fee in other countries are the reasons that a good number of students go to foreign countries to study medicine.
According to the Ministry of Health, there were 88,120 undergraduate seats in medical colleges in India as of December 2021 and over 15.44 lakh candidates appeared for NEET-UG (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test - Undergraduate) at that time.
Around 8.70 lakh candidates cleared the exam, which means the number of undergraduate medical seats available (88,120) could only accommodate around 10 percent of the total qualifying candidates.
Shahanda Shafi, a second year student pursuing MBBS from GMC Anantnag, says that the issue worsens at the PG level.
“Over 1,000 medical graduates are passing out from Kashmir each year and in addition to them are the students who complete their MBBS from other countries but want to pursue their MD from J&K. However, the seats in PG are not even sufficient to accommodate half of this population,” says Shafi.
The Difference in the Educational Atmosphere
While a much greater number of students from Kashmir move out for further studies, other states and union territories in India also do not present a satisfying figure.
As many as 1.8 million Indians are estimated to spend USD 85 billion on education abroad by 2024, according to a report by RedSeer.
Data shared in the Lok Sabha by Union Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar in February 2023 shows that a total of 30.13 lakh Indian students have gone abroad for higher studies since 2017, touching a six-year high in 2022.
India has also surpassed China to become the country with the most number of international students in the US.
There must be some compelling reasons for the same. Students say it is the difference in the educational atmosphere or rather the deficiencies in our system.
Yamina agrees. “In today’s age, our education system is still assessing the competence of children through paper-pen exams. We need to grow up and understand that formal examination is just a test of a student’s memory not their ability and skills,” she opines.
She further puts the blame of the potential brain drain on the administration and those heading the education sector. According to her, students are forced to move out since there's no value of merit and talent in the valley.
However, Yamina does want to come back to serve the people, women and children of Kashmir. She is duty-bound to serve, says she.
Longing for a Normal Life
For the longest time, students in Kashmir have borne the brunt of the region's conflict. It was not uncommon for schools to be closed down for months every time something unprecedented happened.
College students from the batches of 2010, 2016, and 2019 suffered due to the clampdowns and were unable to complete their syllabus on time leading to delay in exams and finishing of degrees.
But it's not just the practical education that took a backseat for many students in Kashmir. There is collateral damage in terms of mental health too.
Being exposed to civil unrest during an early age has not only affected the educational quality, but also the mental well being of students. The trauma of various violent episodes and the anxiety of 'what if they occur again' has also become a factor for many students to move to other places.
Ansa Khurshid (22) from Srinagar studies at a top university in Italy, the Sapienza Universita Di Roma. She pursues engineering in sustainable building.
She says it was the quest for exposure and better learning opportunities that took her to Italy, but more than that it was the urge to live a for normal student life.
“On some days, I hate it here, while on other days, I don’t want to come back,” she sighs, adding that there is no guarantee of the proper functioning of educational institutions in Kashmir due to the unpredictability of the political atmosphere.
“Studying outside, especially in a foreign country comes with its baggage. You’re alone, taking care of a hundred different things. However, it is worth it because after so many years you finally begin to live a NORMAL life, a life without fear..,” says Khurshid.
An assistant professor at a degree college in Kashmir, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes that increasing awareness, accessibility, and affordability have led to more and more students wishing to move out for studies.
“Yes, there are flaws in our education system, apart from limited career options, the major problem lies in the failure to follow the academic calendar. Often due to socio-political crisis and sometimes even without that, we are unable to complete our degrees on time which stresses the students,” she says.
She adds that, as per teachers' observations, the current educational policy is taking a toll on students’ precious time, the core degrees they’re pursuing are not prioritised.
“Students are lost among so many subjects that they are becoming the jack of all and the master of none,” she says.
And on the Other Side?
There have been several steps taken by the government to improve the educational opportunities in J&K. The National Education Policy 2020 focuses on equipping students with the necessary skills leading to their growth.
The government has established new educational institutions in the state. Some of the biggest investments made are the GMCs in Handwara and Udhampur, with a capacity of 100 seats each that will start functioning this year.
Uzma Hameed, an assistant professor at Cluster University in Srinagar, claims that no compromise is made with the quality of education provided to students in educational institutions of the valley. She says that there are definitely areas to work on such as offering more seats and options in PG. However, to call education full of faults is wrong.
“The rising number of students going to study outside is sad. I believe it is a student’s personal interest and approach toward studies that can lead them to success. No place can guarantee success if the student is not willing to work hard,” she says.
To upgrade the skills of teachers, the government runs several initiatives including regular teacher training programs, curriculum development and capacity building to create a more robust and diverse education system in the state.
It is true that when students from Jammu and Kashmir leave for abroad to pursue higher education, it can result in a loss of talent for the state. After completing their education, they may choose to remain abroad to pursue job opportunities that may not be available in the state. This can result in a brain drain for the state, negatively impacting the state's economy, development, and growth.
However, it's also important to note that students who study abroad can bring back valuable knowledge, skills, and experiences to the state. They may also develop networks and connections that can be beneficial for the state in the long term. Many students plan to come back to the state and use their potential to serve their motherland.
(Sualiha Zubair is pursuing a Master’s in Journalism and Mass Communication.)