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The mystery behind the student débâcle August 2, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Problems with overseas students are not new. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously cried over the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and agreed to let 10,000 Chinese students stay. Many of them were on dubious short courses and on visas of doubtful provenance. Nevertheless, those who stayed have mostly made excellent citizens.

Nor are the twin problems of dodgy training providers and violence against overseas students unique to Australia. According to the BBC, “Tens of thousands of foreign students may have entered the UK to study at bogus colleges … before the system of accreditation was tightened up this year”. That system was tightened up not because of concerns about providers, but on grounds of security. Ten Pakistani ‘students’ suspected of terrorism were found to be ‘attending’ colleges for various short courses that were clearly little more than an immigration scam.

As to violence against Asians, one has only to recall the wave of so-called ‘Paki-bashings’  perpetrated by extreme-right louts in the UK and to a lesser extent Canada since the 1960s to realise that Asians in Australia are not necessarily any more at threat than they are in other Western countries. Then there were the anti-Asian riots in Burnley and elsewhere in the Midlands in 2001. Australia has experienced nothing on this scale – certainly not the Cronulla riots. In Russia, Asian students are regularly hunted down and attacked by overtly racist, skinhead gangs. Many have been killed in these encounters.

None of this, of course, excuses Australians or their government for what has happened to overseas students here.  But it does raise an important and hitherto un-asked question about India. 

Why Australia? Why has the Indian media chosen to signal Australia out for what has in some cases been a completely ‘over the top’ response – a response that was never witnessed in relation to similar problems elsewhere?

The first point to be made before tackling this sensitive issue is that there is an element of the Indian media – just as there is in the Australian media – that is only concerned with sales and sensation, not balance or truth. Then there is a responsible element, represented by aware and sensitive commentary, for example in The Hindu and its sister publication Frontline. But unfortunately, at the moment the agenda in India is driven largely by the bourgeoning 24 hour TV news channels, not the quality media.

That said, the issue ‘Why Australia?’ does need to be addressed. The answer is likely to be found both in India and Australia.

Australian authorities have not been particularly adept at dealing with the problem once it became apparent. Hindsight is, of course, easy. But let us see what we can learn from what has happened.

We need to be far more culturally sensitive to our overseas communities. To call Indians ‘soft targets’ or ‘targets of opportunity’ has a strong negative cultural resonance going back to the days of the Raj and the view that then prevailed amongst the British that Hindus were physically weak and to be juxtaposed with the so-called ‘martial races’. This is a view the ‘Hindu Right’ has been attempting to set right ever since, sometimes with negative consequences. The Australian Indian community and their leaders should have been urgently and closely consulted through mechanisms already in place before any such statements were released.

Further, the ability of the Australian federal system to lift up tactical warning and present it as strategic intelligence, and then to act on it effectively, has been shown to be dangerously ‘clunky’. As illustrated above, the problem of dodgy training providers is nothing new. Nor were the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.  They had reportedly been in evidence over the preceding 18 months.

This is a $15 billion industry on which many livelihoods depend. Many students have also suffered as a result of what has happened. Perhaps more importantly, Australia’s relationship with India has also suffered.  India is an emerging Asia-Pacific power that is of considerable importance to Australia and will be even more so in future.

As well as obvious systemic failings in Australia, which certainly need to be addressed, there are also problems to be addressed in India.

India, like China, is a rising power – one long oppressed by the European-imposed colonial and neo-colonial systems. Those of its people who have recently entered the rapidly rising middle-class are becoming  aware (or partially aware) of the wider world and India’s potential place in it. Many of them are impatient for India to gain the recognition and rectification that they feel it deserves.

Often they are poorly informed about Australia, just as many Australians are poorly informed about India. They perceive Australia to be a European outpost at the periphery of their vision, but still in their part of the world – one moreover with a ‘white Australia’ racist past. Nor is Australia seen as a powerful regional country capable of affecting the destiny of India in the way, say, the US or major European powers can affect it. Essentially, Australia is regarded in such quarters as a country of little consequence to India.

Putting all of that together, what you have is the potential for Australia to become a kind of surrogate for all the expression of bitterness to do with the past and impatience for recognition in the future.

If this interpretation is true, how should it inform Canberra’s policy towards India?

The first thing to understand is that those Indians who hold the view that Australia is a white, racist country of no consequence somewhere down to the south east, are not going to be interested in moving on from that view. No number of official visits or attempts to cultivate the Indian press moguls will change this view.

The solutions, to the extent there are solutions, lie in Australia and are long-term.

Australia has a systemic problem with its overseas student strategy. That strategy has been built on the perceived economic necessity to prop up Australian universities and other education institutions and augment skills through foreign students. Such students are consequently seen as a resource to be milked, not as a long-term strategic asset to assist  Australia  to integrate with the Asian region. Australia needs to think in more strategic, long-term ways about Asia and Asian students.

Australia’s knowledge of South Asia and India has been degraded in the education system for generations. While paying lip-service to the importance of India, Australia’s strategic and educational focus has been basically north, not north-west.  More balance needs to be applied to Australia’s conception of ‘Asia’ to reflect what Canberra claims to be a new interest in India and South Asia. A decent program of scholarships needs to be set in place to assit the best Indian and other South Asian students to study here without the excessive burden imposed by working at jobs Australian’s refuse to do.

Australia’s higher-level dealings with India are being taken more seriously but still not seriously enough. Canberra’s refusal to sell uranium to India, while understandable in terms of Labor’s arcane factional deliberations and real concerns about the NPT, must be difficult to understand in New Delhi, given Canberra’s claim it wants a long-term, close, even ‘strategic’ relationship. In weighing the costs and benefits of a change in policy, Labor leaders and party cadres should more deeply consider what weight Australia should be giving to its long-term relationship with India.

But Indians also need to examine their own ideas about what kind of power they would like India to be once it is truly powerful. India has a long history of oppression by outside powers, including the white colonial powers. It is understandable Indians now want to ‘stand up’, as Mao said of China. This desire to ‘stand up’ has both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, we see the strong moral stream in Indian discourse and policy reaching back to Gandhi and Nehru now tempered with a new realism. Manmohan Singh is an excellent representative of that voice. But there is also a more strident, less attractive voice jostling to be heard.

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