Australian international students march against racist practices

FOREIGN STUDENTS in Australia are becoming increasingly dismayed with what they perceive to be a “climate of intolerance”.  This perception has been generated not only by racist attacks on foreign students, but also by the recent exploitation of overseas students by businessmen and colleges alike.

As a result, students have taken to the streets in a series of demonstrations and protests.  This discord has culminated in a delegation convening in Canberra to lobby Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, on this myriad of issues.
Australia has long had difficulty with race related issues.  Such struggles were evident in the infamous “White Australia” immigration policies, which limited the immigration of non-white individuals to Australia up until 1985, and also the prevention of citizenship for Aboriginal people until 1973.

More recently, the Cronulla race riots of 2005 have put racial tensions into the spotlight once more.  As a result, foreign students arriving in Australia, particularly from India, feel they are being victimised on account of their race.   

Education in Australia is a lucrative business.  Worth AU$15.5 Billion per year, education is Australia’s third greatest export and the estimated 100,000 Indian students contribute a large amount to this total.  There are fears however, that these numbers could diminish with the recent pattern of racist attacks.  Reports suggest that in the 2008-2009 period there were 1447 robberies and assaults against Indians.

In a shocking illustration of these statistics, Melbourne based student Sravan Kumar Theerthala was left in a coma after he was brutally stabbed in the head with a screwdriver.  The attack on Sravan was allegedly made without provocation. On the same day as this attack, another Indian student named Rajesh Kumar was hit with a petrol bomb, leaving him seriously injured.  These are just two of the many assaults that have prompted Gautam Gupta, founder of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA) to release a statement saying that Indian students were “in fear after these attacks.”  

In the face of such protests, the Canberra government has taken steps to convince foreign students of their safety. In June, Kevin Rudd PM issued an official statement insisting that Australia was not a racist country and is in fact safe for overseas students. Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, made an official visit to India in early September in an attempt to ease relations between the states.  In addition to Rudd’s guarantee and Gillard’s diplomacy mission, the legislative authorities are considering the imposition of tougher punishments for hate crimes.  The proposed measures would allow judges to consider whether bigotry was the motivation behind a particular assault.

However, the steps being taken in Canberra are only, if at all, addressing a component of a twofold problem.  In addition to the fear of assaults or robberies, Indian students are also suffering at the hands of exploitative colleges and businessmen.  Overseas students are falling victim to what is described by Amit Menghani, president of FISA, as “glossy brochure syndrome”.  Menghani was referencing the unscrupulous institutions that promote their college as “state of the art” but when the student arrives however, they discover a reality that does not match the brochure representation.  Former lecturers at such institutions have alleged that they lacked the most basic of equipment such as textbooks and overhead projectors.  The FISA is concerned that Indian students are now being seen as “cash cows”.

This perception was best exemplified by the closure of Sterling College in July.  The Sydney based college went into administration leaving around 500 overseas students without education.  Sterling had increased its fees by 40% four months prior to its closure. Many students had paid up to $25,000 in tuition fees.    

The FISA are demanding stricter checks on institutions as a measure of protection for Indian nationals who in most cases will not have the opportunity to visit the college before registration.  However, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training has defended itself by stating that it is only a small number of institutions that are guilty.

Despite Australia’s apparent problem with racism, the government claims that the number of Indian students enrolling has not dropped.  On her visit to India in early September, Julia Gillard stated that there had not been a drop in the number of Indian students coming to institutions in Australia.  Gillard also offered assurances to potential students that policing had been stepped up in Melbourne and Sydney and was operating a zero tolerance policy.

The government offered further assurances when a delegation of international students met in Canberra.  Gillard called the students attention to a new complaints hotline that has been made available to students.  However, the delegation, with the support of Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, want to see a permanent body established.  Such a commission could deal with all problems faced by international students.  Gillard emphasised that the government was open to the idea of establishing some kind of permanent body. To date however, there have been no movements to support her statement. 

The problems faced by Indian students have brought thousands to the streets in protest.  These demonstrations are attended not just by Indian students, but also by Australian nationals and other immigrant populations. Such popular support underlines the gravity of Australia’s problem.  With international education playing such an integral role in the Australian economy it is the government’s prerogative to ensure that potential students are not put off by a perception of xenophobia.