Indian Descendants in Elite Education

Sekina Helen Finne has written her master’s thesis as part of the EUMARGINS project. The Norwegian title of the thesis is ‘Indiske etterkommere i eliteutdanninger. En kvalitativ studie av utdanningsvalg blant indiske etterkommere i eliteutdanninger’, and is about Indian descendants living in Norway and their educational choices. The qualitative study is based on ten in-depth interviews with students in elite educations at the University of Oslo. Read the Norwegian summary or read the thesis in Norwegian. An English summary is given in the following.

Descendants of Indians Excel in Norwegian Higher Education 

Most people with an Indian background in Norway immigrated in the 1970s as labour migrants and later through family reunification. In later years, a few highly skilled Indians have immigrated on the basis of specialist permits. The descendants of the Indian labour migrants have excelled in higher education. Their participation percentage is higher than that of ethnic Norwegians and other minority groups such as Pakistani and Vietnamese descendants. Additionally, Indian descendants are more likely than ethnic Norwegians to complete higher education on the master’s level.

According to previous research, students with an Indian background more often chose dentistry, medicine and psychology than ethnic Norwegians or students with a Pakistani or Vietnamese background. All Sekina’s informants are in elite health profession fields: psychology (psychologist degree), medicine, pharmacy dentistry.

Social Background Does Not Explain Educational Performance

Indian immigrants in Norway represent one of the two most educated immigrant groups in Norway (Vietnamese immigrants being the other). Despite this, previous research has shown that social background can not explain the educational performance of Indian descendants in Norway. This is also the case in Finne’s study.

Half of the informants have a high social background, half of them somewhat lower social background. Overall, the educational level of the fathers in Finne’s study is high, whereas the mothers’ education is slightly lower. Many of the fathers have typical working class jobs in Norway. Some run their own businesses. Almost all of the mothers have working class jobs, but some are self-employed or work in middle-class jobs such as nursing. It seemed that most of the parents were relatively well-off; some of the informants reported frequent holidays, economic support and large houses and fancy cars.

Based on the informants’ reports, practically all the parents in the study had high ambitions on their children’s behalf. Regardless of their own educational level, the parents in the study expected their children to pursue higher education. This concurs with research on Indian immigrants in Britain where the parents’ educational ambitions for their children also were high regardless of their own educational background.

Some of the parents have influenced strongly the particular education of their child. The descendants’ choice of an elite education is particularly striking. Generally speaking, social reproduction is very high in elite education.

Since social background can not explain Indian descendants’ performance, other explanations have been suggested: that the parents’ migration was motivated by a wish for a better future for one’s children, belief in education as a means for success, high parental ambitions, tight family relations and having an extra drive for working hard. Finne looks into these and other explanations in her analysis.

Migrating for Upward Mobility

All the parents of all the informants came as labour migrants to Norway. For most of them, the migration was economically motivated. In addition, most of them migrated because they wanted better opportunities for themselves and their children.

Many of Finne’s informants express that their parents wanted their children to obtain upward social mobility. Many of the parents encouraged their children to make use of the educational opportunities in Norway. “Taiba”, for instance, describes her parents’ influence this way:

”the importance of taking higher education was always pointed out to me. (…). We are constantly told that we are lucky because we don’t have to pay for education and the opportunities we get.”

The Optimism Hypothesis

In accordance with previous research, Finne argues that the descendants internalize their parents’ expectations and ambitions.

Sociologist Anders Bakken has launched an “optimism hypothesis” to explain educational success of certain ethnic minorities. According to the hypothesis, the minority parents have a strong desire for upward mobility in the country they immigrate to. They convey high educational ambitions to their children, who internalize the ambitions. Through the parents’ own hard work, the parents can create an expectation that a certain extent of upward social mobility is accessible through hard work and determination.

According to Bakken, the parents’ expectations that one will have mobility through education are only effective to the extent that the children are aware of what their parents have sacrificed for the sake of their opportunities.

Debt of Gratitude

Many of the parents worked hard in Norway in order to give their children better opportunities. Because of everything the parents have sacrificed, there was a tendency among the informants to feel that they owe it to their parents to do well. “Bashir”, for instance, states:

”my mother and father have worked very hard. At times, they had three jobs so that we could get a good life her (…). So just hanging out on the streets, only thinking about oneself, doesn’t feel right. It feels right to do something with the educational opportunities one has in Norway.”

Comparison Culture

A central tendency in Finne’s research was the prevalence of a comparison culture among the informants’ parents and in the Indian communities in Norway. In order to motivate their children to pursue the “right” education, the parents often referred to young people with an Indian background who had done well in their studies, often in particular study fields.

Another aspect of the comparison culture was a tendency of parents bragging about their children’s achievements to other people in their Indian community. A similar tendency has been seen on Punjabi Sikhs in Britain. The researcher Parminder Bhachu has observed that the parents in the Punjabi community in Britain often compare and compete on their children’s achievements and educational performance.

One of Finne’s informants, “Gagan”, experienced comparison culture also in other areas than education and profession. In Gagan’s experience, there are strong social norms among Indians in Norway when it comes to the kind of car you buy, the clothes you wear etc. According to him, a whole range of decisions are taken on the grounds of what others will say.

Another of Finne’s informants, "Sara", pointed out that a comparison culture isn’t necessarily a particularly Indian thing. What she found more typically Indian was the directness of the comparison – the weighing of one’s own relative status takes place in very explicit ways.

According to the informants, medicine is particularly highly esteemed among Indians in Norway. Four of the ten informants in Finne’s study were in the medicine field. Some of the informants expressed disdain against the focus on becoming a doctor and the constant striving for status. It seems that some opted out the becoming a doctor almost as a counter-reaction. At the same time, they chose other elite professions that give status among Indians in Norway.

The informants did not approve of the comparison culture. All the same, it is likely that their parents’ frequent use of role models has influenced their educational choices.

Strict Upbringing

Previous research shows that some minority groups perform better in school in their teens than what would normally be expected on the basis of social background. An explanation that has been launched for this, is that they have less freedom to go out and party than ethnic Norwegians.

Both the male and female informants in Finne’s study had relatively strict rules at home compared to ethnic Norwegian peers. For instance, one of the female informants was not allowed to go to school camps. Other typical restrictions among the informants were strict rules about when to come home in the evenings, parental control over who the informants spent time with in their spare time and where they could go. Finne suggests that the relatively strict control of the children was largely motivated by the parents’ wish for their children to do well at school. Indeed, some informants reported that as they got older and could show good school results, their parents started to slacken their control.

Parental Support of Studies

Most of the parents actively supported their children’s school work – financially and/or emotionally. The parents of “Daiva”, for instance, always tried to make her life as comfortable as possible before her exams so that she could focus and wouldn’t be stressed. They drove her to school, exempted her from housework and she was also allowed to influence which of her brother’s friends visited their house when she studied for exams. Another informant’s parents bought their daughter holidays and clothes so that she didn’t have to work beside studies and waited anxiously with her for the exam results.

Creolized Identities

Many of the parents encouraged their children to master “the majority culture” well, whilst also encouraging them to keep their ethnic identity and resist complete assimilation. Few of the informants felt more Norwegian than Indian.

Most of the informants combined elements from Indian and Norwegian cultural streams in their identity. Contrary to much research on identity and adjustment, few of the informants seemed to struggle a balancing act between “two cultures”. Many of the informants had a creolized identity where they chose the cultural elements that suited them, creating their own “cultural package”. For instance, “Bashir” explained his approach to his dual cultural background this way:

“It’s like having your cake and eating it – one learns twice as much! And one can distinguish between good and not so good values in both cultures. In that way, one makes one’s own ultimate package based on what one wants.”

High Salary and Job Security Important

Many of the parents in the study sought the elite professions because of the high salaries. Finne explains that an emphasis on high pay may again be related to collectivistic values and expectations that children, if necessary, will support their parents in old age. In this cultural context, one is sometimes also expected to support financially younger siblings and other relatives.

Job security was another important criterion for the informants’ educational choice. Furthermore, the elite professions were highly esteemed in the Indian communities because of high social status.

Some of the informants expressed a particular interest for the field they had chosen. However, in the other end of the spectrum, one of the informants expressed that he would never have chosen to study medicine had it not been for his parents. He did not have an interest for working as a doctor. However, the informant did not regret his educational choice because he saw many objective advantages of the medical profession.

Counteracting Discrimination

“I sometimes feel that one has to perform a bit better than one’s ethnic Norwegian class mates in order to excel”

The quote above comes from “Taiba”. Most of the informants had experienced discrimination and racism from the majority population. Some also reported that they had been discriminated against when they applied for part-time work.

Some of the informants seemed to have an extra drive to excel in order to counteract discrimination. In this respect, high educational achievements can be interpreted as a compensatory measure. For example, “Mahan” seemed to think that he had to work extra hard and get a good education to deal with discrimination barriers. In addition, his father had always told him that he had to work harder than the majority population in order to be accepted.

By Brit Lynnebakke
Published Sep. 22, 2010 2:01 PM - Last modified Jan. 10, 2011 3:26 PM