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.
"There’s a shortage of people in the mining sector already and we’re seeing an expansion in the number of projects, so that’s going to be exacerbated even further. Either we need to skill up more people in Australia or bring in skilled people from outside to fill these places," explains Linford. "They said: 'We have training facilities in-country. We’ll provide you with all the people you need to train-some of them will be in vocational areas such as electricians, drivers, and some will be geologists and architects-we’ll pay all of their fees, you train them they get an accredited qualification and then we’ll have qualified Indian workers." Austrade saw this as a low-risk, high-yield venture. The educators wouldn't need to set up schools and collect fees and the students wouldn't need to worry about visas or living costs as everything would be run through the companies who required these skilled workers. From that one case, the model has now been rolled out to other Indian and Australian mining companies. "It’s all paid for by industry and it actually costs industry less because they get the right people with the right skills so they have better retention, productivity and efficiency and they have better skills," says Linford. "For the Indian people, they get appropriate skills, a pathway to a visa. The message is the right skills in the right area and it isn't offensive to Australia because it’s in an area where we have a shortage." Austrade have since broadened its approach and have had discussions with the Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Mines, Ministry of Higher Education, and the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) in India. The NDSC, which has a charter to upskill 500 million people by 2015, asked if Australia could upskill a million people in the resources industry. "The drop in student numbers in Australia is from 100,000 to 30,000, but a lot of those were not legitimate students. So we’ve said, 'no we can’t do a million people, but let’s aim for 100,000'," Linford says. Funded by industry, Australian educational institutions will partner with their Indian equivalents to deliver courses, and the NDSC will contribute funds towards the tuition costs of students not covered by that sector. The model would also be appropriate for other industries, adds Linford. "Other areas that we’re looking at are agriculture, health and medical, entertainment, hospitality, sport."
The benefit of the model is not only "a solution for us in visas, in education and in industry" but will also contribute to attracting investment, mentions Linford. "If an Indian company has the confidence that they can upskill their workers through an Australian project, as opposed to an Indonesian or African project, they will invest into it and we will attract more investment because of it." Compared to China, Indian investment "is being driven by entrepreneurs" rather than large state-owned corporations, says Bhatia. "There's a huge difference: commercial decisions will not lead to an impact on our political ties." He also predicts bilateral investment will grow. "The Indian investment in Australia will keep on growing and we will see larger investment from Australia in India. There are huge opportunities; India is expected to spend $1 trillion in infrastructure." Binding the two countries will be a relationship fostered by direct and indirect processes. "The [Australian] Government was very smart in establishing the Australia India Institute last year and then nominating Dr Mattoo as the director. That is now leading to weekly, if not daily, contact between opinion makers and influencers at political, academic and also business levels between the two countries." It seems we've learnt our lessons well and are now applying it in our education exports. Interview with Peter Linford conducted by Gillian Samuel.