Migration from Kerala to foreign countries for employment is not a new phenomenon, but a significant shift has recently occurred in the migration pattern, characterised by a notable increase in Kerala’s youth heading to various nations for higher education. A study by Sulaiman KM and Bhagat RB surveyed 491 Kerala students and published it in May 2022, revealing that the majority aspire to seek education and career opportunities abroad. The trend of gravitating towards foreign education and migration is further substantiated by notable events, such as a travel agency in Kochi facilitating visas for 7,236 students heading to Canada in a single intake in July 2023. A recent report in the newspaper dated 6/11/2023 about seat allotment at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, revealed that upon the completion of the admissions process for first-year degree courses at arts and sciences-aided colleges under MG University, a notable 5,706 seats remain unfilled out of a total of 16,358.

Through the survey on “Youth Student Migration from Kerala” conducted in 2023 as part of the CPPR Youth Leadership Fellowship, among 104 student migrants, interviews with a few of their family members, and extensive secondary studies, valuable insights have emerged about the subject at hand. 

Under the methodical approach of snowball sampling, the survey delves deep into the socio-economic and academic backgrounds of the respondents. It further seeks to understand their present situations and the circumstances that led them there, while also probing into their future aspirations and considerations. This comprehensive survey offers a panoramic view of the many facets of student migration. 

As per the findings from the study undertaken, Kerala’s youth are increasingly preferring popular destinations, including the UK, Canada, Germany, the USA, and Australia, to migrate for studies. Many students see education as a way to migrate, and financial barriers are not a significant issue due to available loans and travel agency support. However, post-migration life brings challenges like cultural adaptation and finding appropriate  job opportunities.

Diversity in  Student Migration 

From the study we undertook, a diverse spectrum of student migrants becomes apparent. These range from individuals aspiring to secure positions at top-tier universities to those opting for shorter courses focusing on obtaining permanent residency. It is noteworthy that 59% of the respondents in the study are aged between 23 and 25, predominantly originating from central Kerala.

The 2018 Kerala Migration Survey reported women’s participation in migration at 15.8%. Yet, in our study, females represented 32% of the respondents, aligning with data showing nearly half of over 7200 students securing Canadian visas from one facilitator being female. Therefore, the findings suggest that more women from Kerala are pursuing overseas education. 

The study also showcased the distribution of migrant students predominantly between general and other backward caste (OBC) categories, with the representation of both Scheduled Castes (SC/ST) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) being minimal. The low migration trends of students hailing from the SC/ST category are also supported by the Kerala Migration Survey, illuminating that at present, youth migrating for education is still dominated more by youth from general and OBC categories. 

Upon closer analysis, the study found diversity among migrants based on their academic and financial backgrounds. It revealed that 38% of student migrants scored below 75% in their previous degree course. With regard to their financial backgrounds, people often assume overseas education is for the wealthy, but the survey data shows otherwise. A notable 60% of these students hail from families earning less than Rs 5 lakh annually. This statistic sheds light on the financial situation of a significant portion of migrants, indicating that they do not come from financially well-off families. Despite financial challenges, migration is feasible for many, largely owing to accessible bank loans and travel agency services.

Drawing from these insights, student migrants can be divided into two groups based on their advantages. The first group has either a financial or academic edge. Those with financial benefits can comfortably fund their overseas education and living. Meanwhile, those with academic advantages, marked by superior grades or esteemed credentials, can access top-tier universities, enhancing opportunities. In contrast, the second group, often influenced by family expectations, peer stories and their social media updates, migrates to improve their current situation. The survey notes that individuals from affluent backgrounds are less likely to seek permanent residency compared to their counterparts from modest backgrounds, showcasing the leverage their financial stability provides in navigating foreign terrains and temporary migration intentions. Among individuals with an annual income below 10 lakhs, 16% have decided against applying for PR. In contrast, within the higher income bracket of above 10 lakhs, a larger percentage of 35% have opted not to apply for PR.

Expectation vs Reality Mismatch

The survey shows that while various expectations motivate Kerala’s youth to migrate, the family stands as a central influence, guiding 40% of migration decisions. These families, often bounded by their own financial constraints, are willing to take significant risks, be it mortgaging property or securing large loans. While the quest for academic excellence is undeniably a motivating factor, it’s intriguing to note that for 45% of participants, the primary motive is the promise of an enriched social life and improved economic conditions in their host country. In such cases, foreign education is not the end but rather a means, a bridge serving broader aspirations. This complex interplay of academic ambitions intertwined with socio-economic aspirations paints a vivid picture of the multifaceted expectations at the time of migration.

However, the transition isn’t always seamless. The realities awaiting these aspirants post-arrival may be quite jarring. Echoing this sentiment, Sebin, a migrant (name changed) from Kottayam, now living in the UK, stated that:

“Huge financial liabilities and unfamiliar living experiences make life here very challenging and difficult to meet our needs. Many people come here to find a job without a plan or goal. They just need to find a job, regardless of whether it matches their educational qualifications or is simply a random job. This is contradictory to the fact that these people come here as student migrants”

These difficulties are particularly daunting for those who lack the advantages we discussed earlier, making their lives harder than they were prepared for before choosing to migrate. The disparity between what many expect prior to migration and what they encounter is stark. This discrepancy stems largely from decisions made on impulse, swayed by peer opinions and immediate situations, rather than thorough research and planning, even with all the information at their disposal at the click of a button. Upon interviewing a few of the respondents, it was found that many did not factor in even a crucial aspect, such as the daily expenses they would incur in the foreign country while paying off the loans undertaken to fund their foreign education. 

State and Migrant Students

One of the key insights from our survey was the lack of ties to NORKA for 93% of the respondents, highlighting a considerable disconnection between the government and the migrant population. 

NORKA ConnectionDestination CountryCountNORKA ConnectionDestination CountryCount
NOAustralia8NOUnited States5
NOSingapore2YESSaudi Arabia1
NOSweden1YESUnited Kingdom1
NOUnited Kingdom31YESUnited States1

The disconnect of the majority of student migrants from state institutions that cater to migrant workers is critical and prompts important questions. In Kerala, where migration is a significant part of almost every family’s life, why do 93% of student migrants surveyed not have links to NORKA, an initiative that offers a range of services for migrants, such as information dissemination, health ID cards, job training, both pre- and post-migration processes, etc.?

The evidence suggests that a fundamental reason for the disconnect between migrant students and NORKA is the abundance of travel agencies promising to make doorstep delivery of visas a reality, making the migration process easier and involving as little planning by the to-be migrant as possible.

Additionally, foreign universities invest heavily in marketing their programmes, as foreign education has become a lucrative industry in the state. In this competitive landscape of foreign education, especially in the case of student migration, NORKA may appear inadequate or less visible, and students may not be reaching out to them for information and assistance. This raises concerns about the effectiveness of a well-informed and structured migration process. Therefore, the urgency of addressing the disconnect of NORKA needs to be further studied, reviewed and brought into the necessary policy changes. Since NORKA has the ability to greatly enhance the migration experience for students and help solve the expectation-versus-reality mismatch upon migration, all the while promoting available benefits at the disposal of the migrant, it’s imperative to strengthen the state’s relationship with its migrant students via NORKA, which has been a successful tool for Gulf migrants in the past time and again. 

Making Informed Migration Decisions

It’s crucial to stress that migration is not inherently negative. The Kerala Migration Survey (2018) shows that over Rs 85,000 crores flow into the state through migrant remittances, significantly boosting the state’s economy. The many nurses who have migrated and now earn up to ten times more are an example of this positive impact. One key habit to inculcate is to choose to migrate after carefully researching your destination, considering your finances, understanding your goals, and preparing for the new culture, all in a thoughtful process. Societal and peer pressure should have less influence on such a significant decision. Individuals must assess the opportunity costs and benefits before deciding to migrate, considering both their financial situation and clear goals. Meanwhile, the state must analyse how migration influences economic health and societal dynamics. 

The author is a youth leadership fellows at CPPR

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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