Australia has the chance to reset its reputation in the eyes of 10 influential Indian school principals who will travel here this month for meetings with the higher education sector.
Sponsored by Austrade, the visit is part of ongoing efforts to mend bridges after last year’s student attacks, which have contributed to a worrisome downturn in tertiary enrolments and commencements from India.
Austrade national education manager Quentin Stevenson–Perks blamed erroneous and sensationalised media reports within India for the damage. He said the visit would allow opinion leaders to observe the safety and quality of Australian campuses for themselves.
“The story that’s reported in Australia is not often the story that’s reported overseas,” Stevenson–Perks said.
“If we can dispel some of the misconceptions and misreporting that are influencing some of our key markets overseas, then this is a valuable step forward.”
The 12-day visit is the brainchild of the Sonya International Education Centre (SIEC), a higher education agency that has long represented Australia in India.
The principals, who come from schools across the subcontinent, will meet with TAFE directors and university representatives from La Trobe, Swinburne, the University of Western Sydney and University of Technology, Sydney, among others.
Universities Australia and the safe community unit of the Victorian police also will hold talks with the delegation.
“Upon their return, the principals will be able to share their first-hand experience with their students and fellow teachers and, with support from SIEC, can encourage them to take up further education in Australia,” managing director Sonya Singh said in a statement.
Stevenson–Perks said Indian school principals played a critical role in healing Australia’s reputation within that country, because they were “seen as leaders in their communities, and their views and comments are taken very strongly by parents and the students themselves”.
Student violence and subsequent protests last May in Melbourne and Sydney are widely blamed for a 15 per cent drop in Indian student enrolments and a 16 per cent drop in commencements measured this July compared to July 2009.
About 26,000 fewer Indian students were granted visas to study here in 2009-10 than the previous year, representing a 52 per cent downturn.
The slump has caused anxiety within the sector, which relies on India as its second largest source of international students after China.
Those fears were likely discussed during high-level ministerial talks last August between India’s external affairs minister SM Krishna, and then-education minister Julia Gillard, who promised such talks would continue annually. Higher education was the subject again in April, when Gillard met with the Indian minister for human resources, Kapil Sibal, on his visit to Australia.
There’s no doubt misconceptions of Australia as a dangerous and hostile environment for Indian students are contributing to the decline in student numbers.
However, Professor Lesleyanne Hawthorne, associate dean international with the University of Melbourne, said other factors were to blame, too, including a strong Australian dollar and especially changes to Australia’s skilled migration rules.
Research shows the skilled migration pathway into Australia has been popular with Indian students for a long time. And they perform exceptionally well, with more than 90 per cent who enter as skilled migrants achieving employment here.
But Hawthorne said the new laws meant most skilled migrants now required employer sponsorship, placing Indian students under deeper scrutiny in terms of their grades and English language skills.
She said all factors combined, Australia’s international student market would continue to see a decline from India for the next two years. It was not yet clear whether universities or the VET sector would be hardest hit.
However, she said Australia remained a “very good deal” for international students compared to the UK and the US, both of which were shrinking student pathways to migration. She forecast Indian student numbers would bounce back here.
“They will learn the new rules, they will see the options still exist … and after the kind of shake out that’s certain to occur in the next couple of years, my prediction would be that many of them will reposition again with a pathway that will lead to migration,” said Hawthorne.
Likewise, Australia’s negative publicity in India – which had unfairly smeared the nation’s entire tertiary education system – would correct itself through incremental steps, such as the upcoming visit by the school principals’ delegation, she said.
“These kinds of problems do not get corrected overnight,” said Hawthorne.
“I understand people in India have been really very afraid for the personal safety of their family members or friends located in Australia.
“Even if there is assurance given that the risk of danger is extremely slight, and by some reports is actually lower than will be experienced by a variety of other people, it takes time and a margin of safety before people really believe what they’re told.”