A new study shows that graduating in a top spot from one of the five most prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) puts students in a good position to migrate, mainly to pursue higher education, with most heading to the United States of America.
About one-third (36%) of the top 1,000 students at India’s five oldest and most prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology have left the country in the past decade or so – mainly for the United States, according to a newly released study. This is even more pronounced among the crème de la crème of academic achievers: two-thirds (62%) of the top 100 students at top IITs have migrated.
The study*, published this month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that nine of the highest 10 Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) scorers from 2010 who attended the five top IITs have left the country. The majority (two-thirds) went to the United States for higher degrees and PhDs, while 5% went to the United Kingdom, 3% to Canada and 16% to other countries, according to the study.
The paper found “a salient correlation” between an individual’s score in the ferociously competitive annual JEE, which selects entrants into the country’s 23 IITs, and migration up to eight years later among the top exam takers and noted that “the incidence of migration rises dramatically among the most extraordinarily able”, measured by how high up the ranking of top-scoring individuals in the JEE they come.
Most top 800 JEE scorers attend the five oldest and most prestigious IITs: Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kanpur and Kharagpur.
In 2023 around 189,744 candidates registered for the JEE, competing for 16,598 seats.
Top IIT graduates more likely to migrate
While the incidence of migration is ‘sizeable’ in the group studied, the study also found that graduates of the five elite IITs are four percentage points more likely to migrate abroad compared to “equally-talented individuals who chose other IITs”, according to one of the study authors Patrick Gaule, associate professor in economics at Bristol University, UK.
These similarly talented students attended institutions such as IIT Roorkee, IIT Guwahati, or Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
This migration phenomenon was as true for top-scoring female IIT graduates as male. “We don’t find a difference [between and male and female]; if anything, women IIT graduates are more likely to emigrate,” Gaule said.
The study found 83% of individuals migrated to pursue a masters or PhD degree, with only 17% migrating for work. Among the top 10 JEE scorers, only four migrated for graduate school and the others to work.
The case of BHU
BHU unexpectedly received IIT status in 2012, without any concomitant changes to its staff or curriculum. Comparing around 2,000 students who were enrolled at BHU from 2005-2015, the authors found that BHU students who received an IIT degree were 10% more likely to migrate than those of preceding cohorts.
The designation of BHU as an IIT led to a 5.4% increase in the probability of migration for further studies and corresponded to a roughly 50% increase in the propensity to migrate for graduate school, the authors found.
According to the paper, this seems to suggest that “the IIT brand by itself facilitates migration and that signalling may play a role in the greater incidence of migration among IIT graduates.
“Importantly, the unanticipated nature of the BHU change implies that we are comparing students who were not expecting to receive an IIT degree and would be similar in terms of unobservable factors such as motivation or ambition,” the paper said.
Signalling of ability
The study suggests that migration is not necessarily linked to in-demand technology subjects studied at the IITs. While known for producing engineers and computer scientists, IITs have broader programmes. “Those who attend a top five IIT are less likely to complete a computer science, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering major,” the study found.
Rather than “the quality of acquired human capital” as a mechanism driving the migration, the evidence supported the idea that “elite education” signals a potential migrant’s ability or quality and provides access to valuable networks.
The study noted that US graduate programmes – a key pathway for migration— are “especially keen to recruit the best and brightest”, but must rely on various information to identify them, such as elite home universities.
Gaule acknowledged that as the top five IITs have not appeared in international rankings in the past few years, due to a boycott of some rankings, there were other factors at play in the success of IIT graduates in obtaining places in major US universities for further study. He noted that other global talent schemes, such as the UK’s, rely on the top 50 or 100 institutions in global university rankings.
It is clear there is “greater appreciation of the IITs in the US” than in some other countries, said Gaule. “So [an IIT graduate] will have the option to go to Stanford [University] or these types of places, adding value to the degree, and so will have really good options if they are among the top and can show it.”