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'Australia is still a popular education destination'

Last updated on: August 03, 2009 11:03 IST

Recent events in Australia have shaken many students in India waiting in the wings to join various universities and colleges Down Under. As the situation limps back to normalcy, RMS Atwal talks to Sonya Singh, one of India's leading Australia study visa expert.

"Australia is bouncing back and is still a leading study destination for Indian students who want to pursue higher education abroad," says Singh, who is also heading SIEC India, one of the country's top overseas education consultants.

It is noteworthy that SIEC India is the only education services company which has its students' support office in Melbourne and doing yeoman's service for Indian students in a crisis situation.

Excerpts from the interview:

Indian students are wary of coming to Australia these days. How would you allay their fears?
Indian students are not scared of Australia at all but it is the media that have made them so by blowing the issue out of proportion. Our students have been going there for the past 20 years. One of the reasons for the present unrest in Australia is the socio-economic factor.

Common crime in Australia is adding to the crisis. For example, Indian students typically work late night shifts at 7-Elevens or gas stations. So, when they leave at around midnight and are alone in trains they fall victim to young, bad elements that don't care about nationality. It is the racially pre-meditated thought which is actually troubling Indian students, which I don't think exists. Also, some of our students in Australia have vested interests. They don't want their friends and other students come in because they think they will limit their opportunities there.

To allay those fears we can say that every Aussie university/college, as its mandatory component, has a welfare officer who can actually provide support services to the students. We (SIEC) have a local office in Melbourne which is providing enough support services and guidance through seminars, etc. Our staff there is quite approachable and talk to the students and every university facilitate that. We are an only agency which has a support office in Melbourne -- which only deals in support services rather recruitment there. Unfortunately, these positive student welfare activities are not being highlighted by the media.

Would you say that Australia's loss is other small countries' gain?
I don't think so. Australia continues to be a popular destination and still provides more opportunities to students. A typical Indian student needs some kind of part-time job to support hiself/herself and gain some local experience, which Australia provides. If you can qualify for jobs you are like any other student and there is no cut-out for nationalities. I think Australia will continue to hold strong.

Of late, the Aussie government, as a damage control exercise, sent a delegation to India which has blamed Indian consultants for 'insufficient' pre-departure briefings for students. What you have to say?
If you look at the Australia education agents' market, it is most unregulated in India at this point of time. Any person who has a relative in Australia or a connection with a large or a small agency, is touting himself as an education consultant or an agent. Now that's the major problem. In a way there is a mushrooming growth of agents who have never been to Australia and never visited the institute they are sending students to. These agents have no clue to the hardships our students face in that country. Also, there's a big growth of private colleges in Australia being nurtured by its government. These colleges are trying to bend the laws and are not providing enough support services to the students they are recruiting through private agents. The 'nexus' between private colleges in Australia and private agents in India has worsened the problem over the last few years. The modus operandi is simple. A private college crops up in one small building kind of thing without any agency representing it. Just because they want to save money on commission and marketing, they ask one of its relatives in India, particularly in Punjab, to act as an agent for them.

Being a member of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI), do you feel your responsibility has increased manifold under the present circumstances?
I think the responsibility has always been there. Since its inception, every AAERI member has been working hard for the welfare of Indian students in Australia. The recent events there will in fact make Australian and Indians notice the real problem that has been ignored for long. Now the AAERI, Australian government and Australian agents will all wake up to address the real issues. Hopefully, other countries will also take a note of this.

Do you think the current Aussie crises will impact the permanent residency prospects of future students?
No, I don't think so. Under the critical shortage list, Australia needs high-end professionals. Unfortunately, what is today happening is even an engineer wants to go under a cookery programme because an agent is selling not the education but PR points. Students don't realise that rules can change any time within the course of two-year course which can leave them high and dry. It is difficult for these agents to sell these programmes because they don't actually help students. The other factor which comes in is the economic factor. High-end courses in engineering etc are more expensive. Our student has limited funds which makes it prohibitive for him. Keeping that in mind and the PR policy, it is being misused at various levels.

My advice to our students is: there are opportunities in all fields at this point of time. Australia needs people in technical, electrical engineering, mining engineering, paramedical sciences. A student should be true to his/her own profession, should do what s/he enjoys studying and do well in that. S/he should keep in mind that there is also an option for applying for temporary residency as well. If s/he does a degree and gets temporary residency, it is not difficult to find a job in his/her own area. If s/he studies in a good institution s/he can get a job. Unfortunately, what is happening now is students are going from a very low academic background and have no confidence. They speak among their own group which is akin to living in an Australian village. That's why opportunities are very limited.

Can you suggest some Australian courses which can make an Indian student employable globally?
If a student does a course in engineering, mining or software, s/he will be employable anywhere in the world. However, my advice is don't pick up courses just because they are in demand. For example, India needs people in retail management. If a student studies for two years in Australia and brings back that knowledge here in helping retail units, s/he will get a much higher salaries in India than in Australia. The idea is not to get education but acquire skills that are in demand in the global job market. That's how a student should choose career options rather than just focusing on gathering points that will get him permanent residency.

Speaking of MBA, Australia does not give too much importance to MBAs simply because the Australian education system itself qualifies the student for basic management skills. Their system emphasises specialisation in various fields. This is very difficult under the Indian education system which provides you a very general degree. According to the Australian education system, an MBA is just the hyped version of basic management skills which a student has to learn while s/he is doing his /her engineering or business studies. If you look for Masters in Business, you will either go into banking or finance or international marketing. So, Australian management courses are very different from the American MBAs also. For example, my son is doing engineering in Australia. One of his core subjects is engineering management.

Financing foreign study is hard for some parents. How liberal are Indian banks in extending loans, particularly for Australia?
Currently, Indian banks are not tightening up loans for Australia specifically, but are doing so for students across the board where the documentation is not satisfactory. The banks have noticed that some of our students are lacking in their repayment capacityand that is a huge issue with Indian banks. There is a need for more stringent rules in giving collateral and showing funding in order to get the loan. It is not Australia-specific, it is the same for any loan, any country.

Maintaining a work-study balance is getting tougher these days for our students. What's the solution in the present scenario?
My advice to students is taking along enough money -- for tuition fees and living expenses -- to support their education, so that they are not worried about finding a job as soon as they land there. It takes about four to five months to find a job in the local job market. Part-time jobs are available but they are not instant. A student should have enough funds to support his/her entire education, so that his/her focus on education and adjusting to a new environment does not get diluted. Otherwise desperation sets in, one is neither able to study nor able to work.

So, if you don't have money to fund your entire education don't go. Parents too should also think practically: part-time work is just pocket money for their wards and can't fund their studies.

Is the IELTS a true test of student's English language skills in view of reported cases of fraudulent documentation?
The IELTS should not be the only criteria; it could be one of the means of measuring the student's English but there should be further criteria of selecting students to go to Australia. It can be a personal interview to know about the schools and colleges they have studied in. It should be ascertained if s/he has attended any English language training from six months to one year.

I think the IELTS is a very simplistic approach to gauge a student's English skills. That is why there is a mushrooming growth of IELTS training centres where teachers themselves can't speak English. That has contributed to the problem. Also, linking of the IETLS score with Aussie permanent residency. The problem is a student who has scored 5.5 in Punjab fails in Australia because marking over here is done on an average basis. The marking over here is lenient as compared to Australia. For example, a 5.5 scored here is reduced to just 4 over there in Australia.

As an expert on Australian study visas, what advice would you give migrating students?
In this age of the internet, my advice is that students should collect as much information from various sources and then make their own decisions. Talk to embassies and the universities you are going to and go well informed. Find information from 10 different consultants. Unfortunately, we Indians have the habit of depending on other people. Most of the time our students make a wrong choice of courses and universities under peer pressure. Also, don't go by what your relatives in Australia say. Make your own well-informed choice, that suits your interests.

RMS Atwal