Calcutta, Aug. 6: Not many minutes had ticked by since two vice-chancellors said their universities were the best and the state education minister referred to a reverse brain drain in Bengal.
Then a principal, seated among the audience, stood up and said: "We hand over our students to you (the universities). Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot because our students move out to other states and even other countries after completing Class XII. We don't want that at all."
Damayanti Mukherjee, the principal of Modern High School for Girls, was being neither confrontational nor argumentative.
During the question-and-answer session at the end of a seminar, the teacher was merely stating something that most Calcuttans have been suspecting but rarely gets highlighted. The focus so far has largely been on flight of youth after higher education and driven by the scarcity of jobs in the state.
In fact, the focus of the principal's question was not on the shift of the students. She made the statement while mooting a platform that will help schools align with those with lesser opportunities and nurture talent together.
Among the listeners was education minister Partha Chatterjee and the event was a seminar titled "Excellence in Higher Education and Attracting Students in West Bengal".
Chatterjee had said a few minutes earlier: "The rate of return of students to Bengal from foreign countries is increasing.... There is a sign of improvement in every sphere in Bengal, be it the industry sector or higher education. Our challenge is to retain these students and ensure that they do not leave the state again...."
At the same event, Jadavpur University vice-chancellor Suranjan Das had said: "We have been rated No. 1 among all other state universities in the country by several agencies."
Calcutta University interim VC Ashutosh Ghosh, too, had said: "We are so old. And still our teaching and our teachers are the best."
Yet, some of Calcutta's reputable schools said they were witnessing a growing trend.
Nearly 65 per cent of the students of La Martiniere School for Girls leave Bengal after Class XII, according to officials.
At Heritage Academy, close to 50 per cent students leave the city after completing the Plus-II course. St James' School put the number at 35 to 40 per cent. A South Point School official did not quote a figure but said it was "substantial".
Mukherjee, the Modern High School principal, later drew attention to a deeper problem. "Exceptionally meritorious students who wanted to pursue engineering and medical courses at national-level institutes always had the inclination to move outside Bengal.
"But we need to find out why students are now inclined to leave the city to study conventional courses although we have so many good universities," she told The Telegraph.
Several schools said the trend had started about a decade ago and "the rate of exodus is on the rise".
Frequent unrest in universities and "lack of academic atmosphere on campuses" were two reasons cited by some parents.
At Presidency University, a 23-hour gherao of the registrar and other senior officials by students ended this afternoon with the threat to enforce an encore.
Presidency vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia said: "Students who study less are mostly behind such disruptions. Not the other group that studies. But they are the ones who suffer."
A girl with 97 per cent in ISC humanities and now studying at St Stephen's in New Delhi said Calcutta was not an option for most of her friends. Her grandmother had said: "Don't even apply to (a university in the city). There is trouble everyday there."
Her mother spoke how difficult it was for the family to let their daughter leave them at 18. "But what could we do?"
Mukherjee said: "We need to introspect to find out why these children are leaving Calcutta. Our universities are so reputable but we don't know why students who want to pursue subjects like English, sociology and history are leaving."
Asked tonight, Jadavpur VC Das said: "I appreciate the point raised by the principal. It is true that some good students tend to leave the city to study undergraduate courses. But it is also true that a large section of students who study undergraduate courses offered by our university is very meritorious."
According to him, some high-performing students tend to move to cities like Delhi because of "better facilities". "For example, they get better exposure to the kind of training they should get for pursuing a postgraduate course in a foreign university. The number of libraries is more in Delhi and those who want to prepare themselves for the civil service examination find Delhi a better place for studying their undergraduate course," Das said.
It is not clear why Calcutta is not offering similar exposure and more libraries - if those indeed were drawing students to Delhi.