NEWARK, N.J. — Satish Viswanath has been working on prostate cancer research at Rutgers University in New Jersey since coming to the United States in 2006 from his native Mumbai. When the 28-year-old completes his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering later this year, he plans to forgo a job in the U.S., where his chosen field is well-established, and return to India, where such research is still nascent.
“The more I work over here, and interact with scientists over here, I realize there’s no reason India can’t be more active,” Viswanath says. “I should try and go back at a point when I can contribute more.”
Most graduate students from India who are studying in the United States are like Viswanath and would prefer to return home and contribute to their own country, according to a study released this week.
The survey by Rutgers University, Pennsylvania State University and the India-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences found only 8 percent of the 1,000 Indian graduate students polled say they would strongly prefer to remain in the U.S. after completing their studies. The rest either planned to return to India after some work experience abroad or were undecided.
A study co-author, B. Venkatesh Kumar, is a political science professor at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute who is on a yearlong fellowship at Penn State. He says the findings mark a major shift in perspective among Indians studying abroad.
“We’ve seen a trend of these students thinking about India and looking at opportunities in India,” Kumar says. “It’s been a significant change in attitude, given the changes in India, its rise as an economic power, and with it, this willingness to go back and help develop it into a knowledge society.”
The study’s authors say its findings and recommendations could be useful for Indian government officials as they debate higher education reforms and seek to recruit 1 million new faculty members toward their goal of offering higher education to 20 percent of India’s young people by 2020.
An estimated 100,000 Indians are studying in U.S. graduate programs, according to the study. That pool of academic talent could be a fertile recruiting ground for the Indian government if it is willing to address key reforms and increase opportunities for returning students, the study said.
Despite a willingness to return to India, many of those studying in the U.S. had reservations about the obstacles they expect to find upon returning. The things most commonly cited as preventing master’s, Ph.D. and post-doctoral students from returning to India included red tape, corruption and the absence of academic freedom or research opportunities, according to the study.
David Finegold, dean of the Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations and another study co-author, says foreign students, even if they ultimately return to their countries, are still hugely beneficial to U.S. universities. In addition to paying the highest tuition rates at a time when universities are suffering economically, foreign students enrich the classroom for everyone, he says.
“When Indian students, or any country’s students, come and build relationships and have a positive experience here, that has all sorts of long-term benefits in terms of trade, tourism and social exchange between the countries even if they go back,” Finegold says.
India’s 10 percent per year growth rate, the dramatic expansion of its higher education sector, and the country’s 550 million people under the age of 25 make it an important academic partner for the U.S., according to Finegold.
“These are the world’s two largest democracies, and India is one of our most natural allies out there, so I think having [Indian students] here, working on research, and partnering with our professors, has lots of potential for building new businesses and for new opportunities that span the two countries,” he says.