Violent attacks against Indian students in Australia have made headlines in India this week. It started with Times Now making the case of Shravan Kumar a prime time issue - not for a day, but over the entire week. Now, it's been taken up across the Indian media.
And many more such stories are tumbling out of the closet. Baljinder Singh was stabbed last week while Rajesh Kumar suffered 30 per cent burns after a petrol bomb was hurled at him - in his home - in Sydney.
Actually, back in March, the Economic Times had reported on this issue as follows:
The growing number of attacks on Indian students in Australia has become a big cause for concern at the Indian High Commission in Canberra. A senior diplomat at the High Commission told ET that in the last six months, there have been 500 cases of assault on Indian students, registered by the police authorities across Australia.
FIVE HUNDRED attacks and it did not make a ripple in India. And students too sat silent, I think because of two reasons:
a) Once you've invested in an education in Australia, you want to complete it - no matter what.
b) You know your own government will do nothing for you apart from lip service. So why make a fuss?
As a panelist observed on Times Now, "If a government does not care for the safety of its citizens abroad, why should the host nation?"
Well, in this case, because of economic interests. Indian students are cash cows for Australian universities- they've been heading Down Under in ever larger numbers over the last few years. Why?
Well, Australia is perceived as being cheaper than the US and friendlier than the UK. It's also relatively easy to get admission.
While Australia does attract some high achievers the general profile is the kid with average marks and above average bank balance. Business families, kids of corporate executives, well-to-do farmers. And the Oz-exodus is fuelled by a concerted marketing effort - in the media and at the grassroots level.
Canadian newspaper TheStar.com reports: Joyta Gupta, principal of K.R. Mangalam World School, a private school in central New Delhi says she and some of her teachers and students have been flown by the Australian government to cities such as Brisbane and Sydney to take part in seminars, a move Gupta said has made students more inclined to go to Australia to pursue diplomas and degrees.
One fourth of the graduates from the school go abroad to study every year.
Then there are students from smaller towns who would rather go phoren than settle for a B or C grade college in an metro town. And increasingly there are middle class Indians heading for foreign shores, with the help of loans.
Incidentally, hospitality, management and commerce courses are the most popular options.
So all in all, 95,000 Indians joined Australian universities in in 2008, making us the second largest foreign student group in the country after China. In fact, the education sector generated $15.5 billion in 2008 and has become Australia’s “third largest export industry” after coal and iron ore.
The Australian government was planning a $3.5-million campaign to attract more Indian students. But they'll need to use those funds more constructively now!
I have never been to Australia but the impression I have of the country is friendly and easy-going. No doubt there are anti-social elements in any and every society. And some who would be racist in their outlook.
But is the situaton getting aggravated by the current economic situation?
The report in ET noted: There are fears that such incidents of muggings, theft, racial abuse, car jackings and even murder are on the increase because of the economic meltdown and loss of jobs.
Last year Australia changed its visa rules, giving Indian students studying in Australia automatic eligibility to work part time during their courses. Earlier you had to seek permission to work as a student.
Some years ago it was next to impossible to stay on and work in Australia after completing your degree. Unless you had skills which were classified by the government as 'shortage' area. So MBAs and journalism graduates, for example, had to head straight back home.
But more recently I believe there is an option called the 'Skilled-Graduate (subclass 485) visa, valid for 18 months and carrying unrestricted work rights.
Foreign students who may not be eligible for permanent residency can apply for this visa and get some work experience.
I'm sure these graduates are willing to work harder and longer than locals - and maybe even at lower salaries. This could be a source of tension for locals in a dwindling job market.
So, what happens now? Will the flow of Indian students to Australia get affected?
I think it will, in the short term. 'Sentiment' thoda down ho jayega. And the attitude of the authorities - so far - has not been very convincing. Last month the Melbourne police asked young Indians to “moderate their social behavior,” by not making conspicuous displays of wealth, such as laptop computers (seriously - no jokes!)
The country which will benefit the most from all this is Singapore. Safety is assured in that country - and the economics of getting an education are similar to Australia. In fact many Australian universities have 'branches' in Singapore and "there is a view that Australian institutions should make more courses available in India, which students can attend at home".
Ahem. Firstly we need to pass a bill in Parliament to legally allow that to happen. And secondly, I think for many many students going abroad will still be the preferred option.
'Education' is not just about attending a college but the whole experience of a new culture and its people. Kids who have never picked up a glass of water in their own home learn to cook their own meals. My cousin who drove to college in his car went to America and happily worked at a gas station.
So - I am all for studying abroad - wherever. But safety and civility are things we can and must expect from the host country.
Let's hope the issue which has exploded in Australia is taken seriously and resolved quickly! And it is nipped in the bud... if simmering elsewhere.
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