Keeping in view sporadic incidents of attacks on Indian students in Australia, the situation seems to be far from normal Down Under. But there is a silver lining on the horizon if education representatives from the country are to be believed.
RMS Atwal spoke to Jeffrey R Smart, pro vice-chancellor (International and Recruitment), Swinburne University, Melbourne, at Ludhiana recently.
Excerpts from the interview:
Currently, Indian students and their parents quite apprehensive about Australia. How would you allay their fears?
I can only say that it is very important for prospective Indian students to choose a college or university with a strong student support network. Australian universities are the best in the world for caring international students. Every university in Australia has a very large network of student support. For example, we are in India and we talk about our university's courses, accommodations, living in Melbourne and free pick up from the airport. We provide temporary accommodations for the first two weeks in Melbourne. We have an orientation programme for the students too. So, we ensure they don't undergo any trouble at all when they reach there. And, in case something happens to them, we help them in every possible way.
Are there any specific steps you are taking to ensure students' safety?
It is impossible to ensure anyone's safety because young people when they study overseas they get involved with the life in the city but we provide them things like orientation sessions with the Victoria Police. When students first arrive in the city, the police explain to them how to live safely in the city. We provide the students with a security card (wallet size) which has a list of contact numbers in a crisis situation.
In some forums Indians have been blamed for the attacks. Your comments.
I think no (Indian) student is responsible for the attacks on them. That is the most reprehensible thing to suggest. Some unfortunate incidents did happen to students who are studying in small colleges, more or less vocational colleges, which don't provide the level of support which the Australian universities provide, where they are not supported when they run into trouble. It is the responsibility of the university to take care of students' safety. This week I met students' parents in India and assured them that it's my job to ensure their kids' safety.
Do you think the attacks are a result of a glut of Indian students in Australia?
I don't think the population has anything to do with the attacks. There are half a million international students studying in Australia. Melbourne has one-third of that number. We have many students from India, China, Vietnam and Singapore. Some opportunistic elements are behind the attacks. I think the attacks are a result of students being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, it is the duty of universities to ensure students' safety.
Despite reports of attacks every other day, would you say the situation will bounce back to normalcy soon?
I think so. We have spoken to Indian students in Melbourne and they said they were fine. They said they get the news (about attacks) from India. We have also introduced a new 24x7 helpline to help international students. If you ask our students in Melbourne, they are not facing the kind of issues other students are facing.
The biggest repercussion in India is the Australian High Commission now taking a longer time for visa file clearance. How do you see this?
Well, I have been to the High Commission in Delhi and found that they (visa officers) are processing visas like they always have been. Of course, they are interested in weeding out students who are not genuine. It's good if they take time in finding out if the student going to Australia is genuine or not.
Are you satisfied with the steps taken by the Indian government in rooting out fake education agents?
I think the Indian government is magnificent. The friendship shown between the Indian and Aussie governments is really appreciable, especially while dealing with the current situation. Both the governments have set up a joint working body to improve the situation. The Indian government is helping weeding out unscrupulous agents. Education agents no doubt play an important part in spreading international education. The Australian Association of Education Representatives in India (AAERI) is doing a great job in looking into the fact that only genuine agents send genuine students to Australia. I am very happy that the Indian government has said that it would look into the issue of unscrupulous agents.
What are the courses that Indian students should consider?
Indian students desiring to study in Australia need to follow their heart and talent. It is very important to choose a right course. They should choose a course in which they have an academic interest. Nothing can be worse than choosing a course that will not get them jobs or do not match their academic qualifications. Students can take up popular courses like international information technology, engineering, accountancy and business programmes, media communication, design, films and television, among others.
How has the current recession affected the job situation down under?
Australia has a very strong economy and has survived well in the global economic market. Talking about Melbourne, its economy is booming and is the strongest in the country. The employment rate has not been affected; in fact it is going up. We ensure jobs for our students if they are intelligent and motivated.
Do you see many Indian students applying for permament residency after course completion?
International students are motivated by all sorts of things while choosing to study in Australia. Many of them are choosing to earn a degree and advance their careers. Some students like to settle down in Australia in the end. There are 6,000 students in Australia who are on the pathway to permanent settlement. On the other hand, we have a large number of students in our university who have returned home on study completion.
Some Australian universities are wooing back Indian students by offering free gifts like laptops. How do you see this?
Indian students before coming to Australia have lots of choices. They can go to China, Singapore, and the UK etc. Ultimately, a student knows the kind of course he is choosing is investing in the future. Some students are tempted to take free laptops with their courses. But we are not interested in giving that sort of stuff because we believe that student's investment is investment in their own future.
Any words of advice for students?
Our university is famous for quality. We are ranked Melbourne's best university in terms of quality. We have 2,000 Indian students and India is the number one market for us. We are very proud of that fact. The message I would like to give Indian students is make Australians their friends, join the Punjabi club in the university and celebrate Indian culture because that way Australian students will also take an interest in India, which will help in creating a warm and cordial atmosphere.