Australia: Is education export bubble set to burst?

Australia: Is education export bubble set to burst?

It engulfed the country in a racial ambush, soon followed by a larger set of problems, greatly imperiling the country’s education export industry. The outrage that started with episodes of curry bashings recently, has now escalated to even deeper crises and issues.

Australian media has ruthlessly exposed the unsavoury nexus between some unscrupulous immigration agents and the dismally low quality private colleges in the country. The popular Four Corners programme, nationally aired by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) television on July 27, created ripples with some stunning revelations.

The programme among others, exposed (1) fraudulent agents offering fake work certificates, (2) colleges which failed to deliver the bargained-for and promised education, and (3) agents who sought to manipulate the English language test for around $5,000. So scathing was the report that the young Indian reporter, hired by ABC as a dummy candidate to interview the two immigration agents was attacked after the telecast.
Four Corners was truly an eye-opener in that Karl Conrad, an education and migration agent also conceded that the black market had been functioning on dodgy documents for years.

But there’s no doubt that the plight of international students, particularly Indians, has now become a major concern for the government. It led the federal police and immigration officials to raid two fake immigration agents in Sydney. The Aerospace Aviation School in Melbourne, run by a husband-wife team, has been deregistered for failing to deliver promised flying classes to students. So has been the Melbourne International College (MIC), putting the fate of nearly 300 students in peril. A fraudulent cooking college in Sydney has also been closed.

With the negative publicity affecting Australia, country’s reputed universities may have to pay a heavy price for the Indian student crisis. Though no official figures are yet available or predictable for next year’s enrolments, migration agents are indicating a shift of focus towards Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US. Agents are apprehensive that middle-class Indian parents, worried for their children’s safety, may not feel comfortable in sending them to Australia.

A recruitment body has also pointed out nearly 80 per cent decline in appointments by students at its dozen Indian offices. If it really translates into actual dropout figures, Australia’s third largest export sector, education, will be savagely affected. There have also been reports of many Indian students withdrawing from courses in recent weeks, despite having been granted the coveted study visas.

More demands
The anticipated decline in the number of Indian students, opting for Australia, will also depend on its oft-stated skilled migration policy, driven by national economic needs, and not by the educational choices of overseas students. Nevertheless, the government has now become aware, like never before, of the possible social conflict in the offing, when hundreds of foreign students seek Permanent Residency (PR), giving rise to competition for jobs, housing, healthcare and other entitlements.

The international education sector, worth more than $15 billion a year, is Australia’s third-largest export earner behind coal and iron ore. So the government, while trying to decouple migration from education, will still want to keep the sector alive and going. An international roundtable, scheduled to take place in Canberra in September, is an important step in the direction.

Another significant step is the proposed comprehensive review into international education in Australia by former minister, Bruce Baird. In particular, he will review the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act and suggest changes designed to ensure Australia as a world class centre for international learning in the challenging environment.

A register of highly qualified overseas education agents, working for private vocational colleges, has been also developed to address concerns of international students for better and reliable information.

The recent visit by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, has been soothing to the victims of alleged racial assaults, and has given Indian students in general some hope for corrective measures, at the government level of both the countries. During his five-day visit, Krishna was assured by Australia that action would be taken against perpetrators and every student in the country would be protected.

But, ironically, just hours after Australia’s assurance, two Indian students were again attacked in Melbourne, posing a big recidivist question mark over the safety issue. The announcement of a new Australia India institute at the University of Melbourne was also a positive outcome of Krishna’s visit.

The institute, with a government funding of more than $8 million, over three years will aim to strengthen and sustain bilateral relations between Australia and India. In addition, under a joint project of the universities of Melbourne, La Trobe and New South Wales, the universities will invest another $2 million in the institute.

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