Indian lessons: Australian opportunities in education
In May 2009, Indian student Sravan Kumar Theerthala was stabbed with a screwdriver. Word got around that the attack was racially motivated and before you could say ‘diplomatic incident’ there were protests on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney about a lack of police protection and a media frenzy to boot. Needless to say the Australian education brand suffered; at the time, India was our second largest source of foreign students.
Unfortunately the incident occurred as our dollar rose, competition from Canada, the UK and the USA became fierce, and our visa categories changed, which led to a significant fall in Indian student numbers, says Peter Linford, Austrade senior trade commissioner for South Asia.
“So we’ve undertaken a fairly comprehensive roadshow in India, reintroducing Australia as a study destination for Indian students. The focus of it is quality education: it’s not cheap education with sunshine and a great lifestyle, it’s quality education with the added benefit of an Australian lifestyle,” he explains of the new campaign designed to re-engage the market.
Ravi Bhatia, national vice chairman of the Australia India Business Council and CEO of Primus Australia, says the media coverage of the protests was part real, part hyperbole, but it clearly dented confidence in the sector. In the next few months, however, he expects to see a major improvement due to Austrade’s campaign, as well as the formation of the Committee of Student Related Activities (COSRA).
“The Indian diaspora in Australia has taken upon itself to enhance confidence. The diaspora has formed a group called COSRA, which is supported by the Indian Consulate General, and it consists of 10-to-15 very prominent Australians,” Bhatia relays.
In mid-July this year COSRA began hosting support workshops for incoming Indian students, an orientation “familiarising them with Australia, talking about cultural sensitivities, modes of behaviour including police as a friend and so on,” he says. In addition to the workshops, to be held every six months, COSRA will also develop into a network to provide individual support for students tackling issues such as medical emergencies and accommodation and employment problems.
While Bhatia says Australia’s tough language requirements may dampen numbers, he believes initiatives like COSRA will go a long way to enticing Indian students back to our shores. “It is being conducted by some very well known members of the diaspora who have credibility. It is soft stuff, but the word is going to travel back and I think it is a good way to address the confidence issue.”
Another key factor is stakeholder support. “The Australian representation in India at a diplomatic level has been superb. That extends also to DFAT and Austrade. People are very proactive, they are full of fresh ideas, and they are projecting an excellent image for Australia and opening a lot of opportunities,” he states, adding: “The Indian diaspora in Australia has expanded substantially, which is leading to a better understanding of the opportunities on one hand, better political relationships on the other.
A trend on the horizon is hybrid education, “whereby an Indian student can complete part of his higher education to Australian standards within certain institutions in India and come and complete the degree in Australia and possibly work here for a few years and take that experience back to India,” Bhatia predicts.
Linford says industry/education hybrid programs already exist in areas short of talent. This initiative, separate from the inbound education drive, delivers training in India linked to industry. An Indian company that has invested in an n Australia mine approached Austrade. “They said: ‘We can’t get enough people to work on this mine, we need to bring in Indian workers’,” Linford recalls. These workers, however, would need the requisite skills for the new roles, as well as training in Australian safety standards, and so the model was born.