Editor’s note: this contribution, by Christopher Ziguras examines the complex factors shaping ongoing debates, and recent crisis, about Indian students in Australia. Christopher Ziguras (pictured to the right) is Associate Professor of International Studies in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, RMIT, Melbourne. His research focuses on international education policy, particularly related to higher education in the Asia Pacific region. Dr Ziguras teaches within the Global Studies discipline at RMIT University. He was a founding member of the Globalism Research Centre and has continued to be closely involved with the Centre since its establishment in 2002. He manages the Learning Cities program within RMIT’s Global Cities Research Institute, and established RMIT’s Research in International and Comparative Education (RICE) network in 2007. Our thanks to Chris for his illuminating contribution.
Eventually something had to give. The number of Indian students coming to study in Australia had been growing for several years at extraordinary rates, and nobody expected the bubble to last. But it was difficult to predict what would trigger the collapse.
In 2002 there was just over 11,000 Indian students in Australia, and by 2005 this number had grown to over 27,000. Australia is accustomed to such sudden surges in demand from particular countries, and this number was still a very small proportion of the total international student population of around 400,000 in 2005. However, by last year enrolments had grown even more rapidly up to nearly 100,00 students, and most of the growth was in private vocational colleges where enrolments of Indian students increased at a startling rate, from 2,600 to 47,400 in three years.
- VET = Vocational Education and Training (postsecondary certificate and diploma programs from one to four semesters duration)
- ELICOS = English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students
- Higher Education = degree level and graduate programs
- Other includes private higher education and public and private primary and secondary schools
(Data source: Australian Education International)
Up until around 2005 most Indian students seeking permanent residency in Australia undertook masters programs, usually in information technology and accounting. This was a perfectly rational response to the key planks of Australia’s skilled migration framework, which seeks to identify those occupations where graduates are in high demand in the labour market, and prioritises applicants with Australian tertiary qualifications, who in the past have been shown to been more successful in the labour market than migrants with overseas qualifications. So Indian students quite rightly reasoned, “I would like to live in Australia and Australia wants accounting graduates so I will do an accounting degree and stay on in Australia”. Enrolments of international students in programs that enabled students to obtain residence (subject to various other conditions), grew very rapidly. In 2004-05 three quarters Indian students graduating from Australian university programs obtained permanent residency.
The only problem with this had been that many international graduates in these areas of migration demand were not subsequently employed in the fields for which they had studied. Migration requirements were tightened to mandate higher levels of English proficiency and professional experience, and these had the effect of dampening demand somewhat for some university programs.
In 2005 the Australian government increased the number of points international graduates needed to obtain permanent residency, meaning that many international students had to undertake further studies in an area of migration demand that would provide extra points. A number of trades (including hairdressing) had been included on the occupations in demand list for some time, and soon after raising the number of points required cooking was added to the list of occupations for which extra points would be awarded. Private colleges responded quickly be developing new cooking and hairdressing programs that would give students enough points to get through. Some private colleges are very high quality institutions with a wide range of programs for local and international students, but there are low quality providers who cater almost exclusively to international students seeking fast and easy qualifications to support migration applications. By last year, 14,400 Indian students were studying in private colleges in programs grouped under the ‘food, hospitality and personal services’ classification, accounting more than a quarter of all students in these programs.
For several years many in the Australian international education industry have been warning that the rapid growth of private colleges providers focused on migration pathway programs posed serious threats to vulnerable students, who were sometimes willing to pay hefty fees and tolerate poor facilities and teaching in return for a piece of paper that would assist them to gain residency. There was also a concern that the actions of these colleges could bring the entire Australian education system into disrepute internationally. The industry group representing private educational institutions, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, was the most outspoken voice calling for more active investigation and prosecution of substandard providers, recognising that the organisation’s members had most to lose from the actions of rogue providers.
Enrolments in migration oriented programs in private colleges continued to grow, with no sign of slowing, however, the numbers of students in certain programs was beginning to far exceed Australia’s workforce requirements in those occupations. The head of the Professional Hairdressers Association complained last year that private colleges were “bastardising the industry”, by taking in large numbers of international students intending to apply for permanent residency, very few of whom intended to work in the industry. This situation has been compounded by rising unemployment in Australia, as elsewhere. A significant tightening of the student migration policy appears inevitable, but would be devastating for tens of thousands of young people who had invested heavily in study in Australia only to return home with qualifications of very limited value in their home country after wasting much time and money chasing permanent residency.
Australia’s Indian student bubble appears now to have been popped, but by thugs rather than by government. After the terrible attacks on Indian international students, and the extensive media coverage in India, the number of Indian students coming to Australia is expected to drop dramatically.
Last year there were several cases of violent attacks on Indian taxi drivers, which led to highly publicised street protests. At around 3:00 am on 29 April 2008 a 23 year-old Indian international student, Jalvinder Singh, working as a taxi driver in Melbourne was stabbed by a passenger. The following night Indian taxi drivers staged a 24-hour protest blocking one of the city’s most prominent intersections, calling for improved security for drivers, including security screens to be installed in all taxis, and for improved security around suburban railway stations.
The state government agreed to phase in security screens and to fully investigate all attacks. A 45 year-old man was charged with attempted murder. On 18 May 2008 in Adelaide an Indian international student, Balraj Singh, driving a taxi was assaulted late at night by two 24 year-old men, who were subsequently charged with aggravated assault and robbery. Hundreds of taxi drivers staged protests in Adelaide, with similar demands to the Melbourne protests.
There has been a long history of violent attacks against taxi drivers in Australia, but what has changed is the ethnic composition of the workforce. A very large proportion of taxi drivers are now Indian, and the more experienced drivers, who are usually from more established migrant communities, tend to work day shifts while Indian students who study during the day and have less ability to pick and choose their shifts, are left to work night shifts, especially on weekends, which are notoriously dangerous. After the Adelaide attach the head of the Cab Drivers Association told local media, “We’ve got drivers out there that are not properly trained that the government refuses to recognise this – it’s a critical issue in inflaming these assaults. We are exploiting our immigrants by getting them to become cheap labour in the taxi industry…. I mean we should have the decency at least to train them properly, to skill them on what sort of situations they could face out there and we should have more interest in the work environment.” These attacks led to discussions between the Indian consul general, South Australian government and police, as well as taxi industry, and drivers’ representatives. However, while some branches of government were working hard to try to improve driver security, many international students driving taxis were in fear of immigration authorities who were carrying out inspections at taxi ranks to ensure that international students were not working more than the 20 hour limit imposed by student visas.
Last year the attacks seemed confined to taxi drivers, but in 2009 a series of serious assaults against Indian students in a one-month period in Melbourne and Sydney resulted in street protests in both cities and a media storm in India, with serious political repercussions in both countries. On 9 May Sourabh Sharma, 21, a hospitality management student was beaten up on a train by a group of teenagers. He was returning home in the evening after a shift at KFC. Four teenagers were charged over the assault. Security video footage of the attack, made public later in May, was broadcast extensively in Australia and India, showing a group of teenage boys who appeared to be of diverse racial backgrounds repeatedly punching and kicking Sourabh, who sustained a broken jaw and extensive bruising from the attack. On 25 May Baljinder Singh, 25, an Indian cookery student, was stabbed in the stomach in an attempted robbery while leaving a suburban railway station. The following day four Indian students were attacked when a birthday party at their home was gatecrashed by two teenage boys. One of the students, Sravan Kumar Theerthala, 25, who studied automotive technology in a private college, was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver by one of the intruders, putting him in a coma. A 17 year-old has been charged with attempted murder.
Photographs of Kumar and Singh, one unconscious in hospital with head bandaged and tubes protruding from his nose and mouth, the other on a hospital bed displaying a large bandaged stab wound, were shown prominently on Indian television and in newspapers. Television current affairs programs and newspaper editorials speculated about the root causes of this apparent “wave of racist attacks”. Was this caused by Australian resentment at India’s growing status in the world and the newfound affluence of Indians abroad, some asked. As stories of previous assaults on Indians in Australia emerged others asked whether the Australian media had been covering up these racist attacks.
The political response in India was fast and furious. On 29 May Australia’s High Commissioner to India was summoned to a meeting with Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi, who urged Australia to ensure the events were not repeated. India’s High Commissioner to Australia travelled to Melbourne to convey her government’s concern to Victorian police, government and educational representatives. The Prime Ministers and the Foreign Ministers of the two countries discussed the issue with their counterparts, all expressing their abhorrence at the attacks. On 30 May Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan announced he would turn down an honorary doctorate from the Queensland University of Technology that he had previously agreed to accept. On 6 June Bollywood’s largest union, the Federation of Western India Cine Employees called on its members to stop filming in Australia, its leader proclaiming, “We prefer to call it a non-cooperation movement because we feel what is happening in Australia is painful and shameful. The Australian government is just not taking adequate steps to find the culprits”. This comes after a string of big-budget Bollywood films have been filmed and set in Australia in recent years.
In Australia, the response was quite different. Violent attacks by young men against other young men are not uncommon occurrences, and as around one in three people living in Melbourne and Sydney was born outside Australia it is very common for either the victim or perpetrator to be a foreigner. In Australia debate hinged on whether the attacks were racially motivated, that is whether some young men (of various ethnic backgrounds) were targeting Indian students, or whether Indian students were finding themselves in the wrong places at the wrong times. For example, one senior editor with the Australian newspaper criticized the Victorian government for downplaying the racist character of the attacks, while other articles in that newspaper have pointed to the diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds of the perpetrators of the attacks. While there are some young Anglo-Australian men who are xenophobic and who have mounted ugly demonstrations against the “invasion” of their suburbs by immigrants (most famously in Cronulla in Sydney), there has been little indication that these particular assaults were motivated by such white racist backlash, though some surely are. The “survival tips” put forward by an Indian graduate from an Adelaide university paint a frightening picture of the threat posed by violent white teenagers. The student’s advice, titled ‘Adopt their culture without compromising on yours’, concludes that “Mostly all matured Australians are quite friendly with a great sense of humour. The whole Australian community should not be judged just because of the behaviour and the manners of some of the most ill bred Aussie teenagers.”
A major incident in early June in Sydney highlighted the complexity of the racial issues. On 8 and 9 June Indian students staged large protests in a low-income neighbourhood where in recent years Indians have surpassed Lebanese as the largest ethnic group. The protests were sparked by an attack on an Indian student by a group of young men of Middle Eastern background. Indian students claimed that the police were not doing enough to protect them from Lebanese gangs. Indian protesters attacked three uninvolved Lebanese men and police brought in the reinforcements to control the crowd.
(Students at a Melbourne private college participate in the city’s ‘Harmony Walk’, held in response to attacks on Indian international students, photograph: Christopher Ziguras)
But why Indian students? Nearly half a million international students studied in Australia last year, but Indian students seem to be suffering the most from violent attacks. Some research has suggested that many of the Indian students who are attracted to vocational programs in private colleges are from less affluent backgrounds, and have lower levels of English language proficiency, compared with those who enrol in university programs. These students are able to obtain loans with which they can pass the financial means test to obtain a student visa to Australia, but they are understandably reluctant to draw down on those loans and instead seek to earn enough in Australia to pay their tuition fees and living expenses. Compared with other international students in Australia, students from India appear to be more dependent upon income from shift work, such as driving taxis, stacking supermarket shelves, and working in convenience stores and as security guards. They are more likely to be living in outer suburbs with cheaper housing, and therefore travelling late on trains more often, and in areas where street violence is more common. Gender is an issue too, as assaults against strangers on and around public transport are generally perpetrated by young men on other young men, the vast majority of Indian students are male whereas East and South East Asian students are evenly split by gender. As a result one would expect a greater rate of assaults against Indian students.
In a subsequent post I will discuss the responses of Australian federal and state governments, which have been diverse and ever-expanding. What started with a damage-control response to publicity about violence against students from India may well lead to significant changes in international education policy, with most attention being focused on some private colleges and their overseas agents, and many people asking how Australia’s major cities can better ensure the safety and security of the hundreds of thousands of young people from abroad who study in Australia each year.
 Birrell, B. (2006). Implications of Low English Standards Among Overseas Students at Australian Universities. People and Place, 14(4), 53-64.