Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 13:14 UK

Australia foreign student abuse proves expensive

Vicious lessons in Australia

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Australia

When Indian students arrive in Australia, probably the last thing they think they will end up doing is taking to the streets in a series of boisterous protests.

First, they were voicing anger over a spate of muggings and attacks in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Police confirm there have been 97 attacks since late May, although the true figure is probably much higher since many assaults go unreported.

Rally against attacks on South Asians in Melbourne - 31/5/2009
There have been large rallies against the attacks in Australian cities

Now, the ranks of disgruntled Indian students have been swelled by those who believe they are being ripped off by a private system keen to take their money, but unable to offer value for money or even a proper education.

Twin demands of protection from attacks and safeguards from unscrupulous private education providers are now motivating what has fast become a student movement.

And it has drawn multi-racial support not only from Australian students but also from Chinese and other nationalities too.

For the Australian government it is a particularly sensitive issue.

Australia is an educational powerhouse, with 70,000 Indian students alone.

After coal and iron ore, it is the country's third most lucrative industry, worth around £7.5bn ($14.35bn AUD).

Punched and kicked

It was the beauty of Sydney that drew Sumit Purdani from Delhi to study for an MBA, but he will remember his time here for the ugliness of the welcome.

Less than a month after arriving Sumit was set upon by a gang of three youths of Middle Eastern descent while he was on his way to a Hindu temple.

Lecturers talk about how students were out of pocket and desperate by college collapse

He was punched and kicked in an attack that lasted 10-15 minutes. His attackers only ran off when a local football team, who had just finished a match, came into view.

I asked him how he could be sure he was attacked because of his nationality.

There was no doubt, he said, "because of the comments they made, because I was carrying a bag with an Indian logo and because of the comments they made of my country and background".

More recently, Sumit was attacked for a second time. He says Indian students have come to expect being the victims of racist violence, and he knows a dozen friends who have been targeted.

'Curry diplomacy'

Back in India - a country determined to assert itself much more forcefully on the international stage, and unwilling to sit back while its citizens experience trouble abroad - the Indian student attacks have received extensive coverage on both cable news channels and special programmes devoted to the issue.

Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd sought to ease tensions with praise for India

"So what will it take to get Mr Kevin Rudd to finally wake up?" asked one commentator, reproachfully.

Alert to the diplomatic, as well as the economic, fall-out from the controversy, Prime Minister Rudd spoke to Indian reporters, and tried to convey his respect and admiration for a country which Australia has traditionally tended to ignore.

"Our Indian community has been such a vital contributor to our culture, to our life, to our food, to our music," he said.

He even opted for some curry diplomacy. "Bollywood is a thing with all of our kids, they just love it," he said. "And I always say this too. Imagine if we never had Indian food in Australia. We would be sentenced to 100 years of English cuisine."

To some Indian tastes, however, this only trivialised the issue.

Since Mr Rudd made those comments, in the midst of the southern winter, the debate has moved on.

Lack of equipment

The assaults against Indian students have received less attention than concerns over the quality of education being offered.

Sashi Ray
We are not here only for the milking, we are not the cash cow. We are here for education
Former Sterling College student Sashi Ray

These concerns were crystallised following the closure of Sterling College in Sydney, a private college offering vocational qualifications which went into administration in late July.

Sterling College shut its door on 500 mainly overseas students, all of whom had spent thousands of dollars in tuition fees.

The controversy brought to the fore the issue of financial mismanagement in this lucrative sector, and substandard courses.

I spoke to former lecturers at Sterling College who complained about not being given even the most rudimentary teaching tools, like overhead projectors, hand-outs and textbooks.

One lecturer told me she had been teaching a course on ethics at the college, but felt there was something deeply unethical about the courses being offered.

Worried parents

Hardeep Kaur was close to completing her course when Sterling College went into administration. She has not yet told her parents, who have forked out tens of thousands of dollars for her education:

You don't want to kill the goose. You have to figure out a way by which you look after the goose
Amit Dasgupta, Indian consul general in Australia

"They are calling every day and asking how the studies are going. I had to just say everything is fine, because I can't tell them. They will be in shock. I didn't tell anything to them."

"We spent thousands of dollars,' she says. "How would they feel? They will be in shock."

Her friend, Sashi Ray, is in a similar predicament. "Someone please take care of the international students. We are not here only for the milking, we are not the cash cow. We are here for education."

Amit Dasgupta, the Indian consul general, requested a posting to Sydney because his daughter is studying in the city.

He wants tighter regulation of this multi-billion dollar industry from the state and federal government, and believes it is now happening.

"It has got the goose that lays the golden egg," he says of the Australian government. "You don't want to kill the goose. You have to figure out a way by which you look after the goose. And the only way you can do that is to get the foxes out of the way."

The state and federal governments are implementing reforms which will strengthen the accreditation process for private colleges, and clamp down on unscrupulous colleges.

Global ambitions

With student interest from India already showing signs of trailing off, it has also mounted a diplomatic offensive.

The Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, visited India this month. Mr Rudd plans to make his own visit before Christmas.

At a protest march in Sydney this month, the Australian authorities might have been unnerved by the presence of so many camera crews from China, another lucrative market in the overseas student industry.

Australia is often stereotyped as an unusually racist country, partly because its White Australia immigration policy lasted until the early 1970s.

But perhaps the bigger story of the post-war years is how a mono-cultural society became a successfully multi-cultural society, without much of a backlash.

Geographically and diplomatically, it is well placed to have an enhanced international role in what is likely to be an Asia-dominated century.

But alienating students from the emerging giants of India and China could impede its global ambitions.

Watch Nick Bryant's full report on Indian students in Australia on Newsnight on Tuesday 8 September 2009 at 2230 BST.

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