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A (rocky) road to India September 2, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

While no-one likes an ‘I told you so’ story, it is frequently instructive to remember where we have been in order to assess the strength of where we seem to be going.  That is especially so with the present Indo-Australian relationship, which has been the subject of some recent writings here.

This response is prompted by two iceberg tips that reveal much about why the present circumstances have arisen, and why there is so much cultural misunderstanding.

The first tip concerns a report that Victorian universities are telling a national inquiry into transnational education that a failure to provide international students with local travel concessions is a significant deterrent to recruitment.

The astonishing thing is that this matter has been a criticism of several state governments by universities now for several years.  For example, the Victorian government itself no more than five years ago commissioned a report investigating how the state might increase the numbers of international students coming there.  The consultants duly canvassed university opinion that emphasised a series of support issues that would help bring in more students to boost the state’s economy.

Among the top three recommendations were: provide local travel concessions to all international students; and cut if not eliminate school fees for the dependent children of international students – the point here being that such students are often postgraduates whose research activities and publications help add to university research profiles that in turn help drive university income.

That report went to the Victorian Government and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again, no doubt locked in a crate similar to that seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. None of the recommendations were adopted, and now the Victorian universities are reprising the issues.

One consequential matter here concerns the way in which government departments at both federal and state level deal with these sorts of challenges.  Transnational education immediately presents a bureaucratic clash:  education authorities have the task of recruiting students while immigration ones (protectors of ‘border integrity’) are charged to keep them out.

This is not unique to Australia.  The UK is currently going through a difficult period in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester Pakistani student terrorist roundup.  Universities there now have an enormous problem getting even Australian fee-paying students into the country, and there is a bank up of student visa applications.

Australia, however, has always had this problem, and in the early 2000s Canberra decided that an IDC (Inter Departmental Committee) would solve the problem.  This was on the back of a change in student visa assessment procedures where, predictably, students from northern Europe were judged to be less of a risk while those from China and India were thought to be amongst the highest risk group according to alleged levels of document forgery and identity switching.

The problem for universities was obvious: China and India were even then emerging as major suppliers of student numbers but gaining visas for those students became increasingly difficult.  The IDC was to settle that issue and some related ones, but it never met and the gulf between education and immigration has continued to this day.  Of course, that divide never will be and probably never should be settled.  But the situation needs to be far more streamlined in the interests of both parties.

The second iceberg tip connects into that, symbolised by the high level of risk ascribed to Chinese and Indian applicants.  Whatever the reality – and the evidence was elusive – the perception created was that Australia was more interested in non-Asian students than Asian ones, despite the fact that large numbers of Malaysian and Hong Kong students had already been recruited.  Most Asian media outlets ran regular stories about how Australia was blocking entry, and the Australian image in the broad Asian region sustained regular damage.

The non-meeting of the IDC reflected the cultural reservations held about many of these regions in large areas of bureaucratic Australia, and institutional Australia was not exempt.  Put baldly, for example, it was much more difficult to attract senior Australian university executives on to official delegations to India five or ten years ago than it is now.  One official Australian university delegation to an annual meeting of the Indian Vice-Chancellors’ group around the turn of the millennium contained just one Australian Vice-Chancellor.  The other delegates all came from the second level management levels, a fact noted and commented upon by the Indian hosts – they perceived a lack of respect.

That cultural reservation and suspicion over time is a principal reason now why Indian authorities are giving Australian ones such a hard time, because Australia’s approach looks like a cargo cult one.  It is laudable that Minister Gillard has gone to India in the present circumstances, but it looks and is a patch job when the real need is for long-term relationship building.  The official rhetoric out of Day One of the visit, of course, suggests that the recent difficulties are now a thing of the past, as India prepares to open the way for foreign campuses operating in-country among other things.  But no seasoned observer should be convinced that one meeting is going to break down a long history of skepticism about Australian interests.

And neither will the mooted annual Ministerial talks.   The real way ahead will require serious Australian educational commitment into Indian learning and especially research, because co-investment will be a watched-for sign in India, and Australia has not been particularly good at that in most if not all of its principal recruitment spheres.  There is a long way to go yet before Australia’s road to India is strewn with gold rather than rocks.

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