Australia, a country shaped by migration, is again being challenged to define itself by a new wave of migration from its giant Asian neighbours. How Australia deals with the new and different influx from China and India will also affect its political and strategic relations. Reeling from a spate of violence against Indian students, Australia, where racism now is a dirty word, has engaged in soul searching and the outcome might be a blessing in disguise. A deepening of relations with India that could follow might help to put more flesh and blood in the emerging political ties.
In late February, Australians celebrated a day of ‘Vindaloo against Violence’ by nation-wide eating of Indian food, captured in the name of one of the favourite dishes, vindaloo. The occasion highlighted 30 years of change in the Asia-Pacific region and particularly in a country where “White Australia” once tripped off the tongue as readily as “East Germany” or “North Korea.”
Vindaloo against Violence was planned as an expression of solidarity with Indian students, 100,000 of whom have come to Australia since 2004. In the past year, it became clear that they were being assaulted and robbed in numbers out of proportion to their presence in the population. In the two worst cases, a man was murdered on his way to his late-night job and another was maimed for life after an assault. There have been dozens of other assaults.
The dramatic growth in the number of Indian students is a complex tale which reveals a lot about the latest phase of globalization affecting Australia. In the past, migrants flocked to Australia in search of a better life. The same trend continues today but often under the guise of seeking education.
The newest phase is related to Australia’s success in selling education to foreign students over the past 20 years. Australia attracted close to 500,000 foreign students in 2009, making it the world’s third largest student destination after the USA and the UK. But investment in education in Australia has not kept pace, and a number of Australian universities have become foreign-student junkies, their budgets dependent on an annual hit of fee-paying, foreign-student income.
In the past 10 years, “training institutions,” rather than universities, have joined the hunt, and by 2008 about half of the students were coming for “vocational education and training” or to study English. Conscious of the international competition for fee-paying students, the previous national government offered an extra carrot to potential overseas students: additional points towards permanent-residency status for people who completed training courses in occupations where Australia was thought to have shortages, including things like accounting, cookery and hair-dressing.
That’s when the numbers of Indian students skyrocketed, driven in part by fly-by-night training schools in Australia working with shady recruiting agents in India. The number of Indian students grew from 20,000 to about 100,000 between 2004 and 2009, close to 80 percent enrolled in training courses, not universities. Families took loans to pay the costs. The reward sought was often permanent residency, not the educational qualification.
Indian students became the second largest group of overseas students in Australia – after China. The contrast between the circumstances of Chinese and Indian students in Australia says a lot about all three countries.
The build-up of Chinese students was steady and took longer. An authoritarian government prevents students from enrolling in trivial courses, ensuring that students come in groups, are adequately financed, and are watched. Over time, reasonable accommodation was found and passed on from one cohort to another. Chinese students complained only when told to.
Indian students, on the other hand, arrived like a whirlwind in five years. They came as a result of individual initiative with little preparation for their arrival and little support once they arrived. Working at odd jobs at odd hours, living cheap in rough parts of Australian cities, they were picked on by louts, exploiting their vulnerability.
But Indian students also come from a tradition of protest. When the assaults on Indian students in 2009 produced serious injuries, demonstrations tied up traffic in downtown Melbourne. If your national hero is Mahatma Gandhi, you may well have different ideas about how to solve problems than if your national capital has a billboard-size picture of Chairman Mao looming over its central square.
Indian media are embarrassingly like Australian media. India’s 50 or more TV news channels have run hard on the assaults on students and on the degree to which “racism” is the motivator. Mail Today, which aims to bring the blessings of British tabloid journalism to India, cartooned the police of the state of Victoria in ku klux klan gear. Australian tabloid journalism and shock-jock radio traded allegations with their Indian counterparts. Such publicity probably increased the smart-aleck incentive for urban hooligans to target solitary Indian students.
Yet in spite of the hurt and tragedy of the past year, the events indicate a striking change and constructive long-term potential. Vindaloo against Violence was a rollicking success with supporters ranging from the prime minister and the parliamentary dining room to regulars in country pubs.
The Indian student presence could also solve the puzzle of Australia-India relations. For 50 years, Australian policy-makers struggled to understand why Australia-India relations were not as rich as it seemed they ought to be. Trade, marriage, travel links and a presence in the Australian population made China an object of curiosity and study .This was different from India, where the presence of Indian-origins people in the population was considerably smaller. Yet India and Australia seemed to have much more in common – language, government, law and of course the C-word – cricket. What was missing – and again in contrast to China – were people. But the influx of Indian students, most of them seeking permanent residency, should change this.
The turmoil of the past year emphasizes how enmeshed Australia has become with Asia. For Australia, this has been a very good thing. Supplying the natural resources for expanding Chinese and Indian economies, Australia came through the 2008 recession much better than most places.
One problem, however, for Australia’s engagement with Asia lies in the fact that under- investment in education has depleted its capacity to understand its neighbours. Fewer than 5 percent of Australian university students study Asian countries; Asian language study is rarer still. The scholars who taught the current prime minister and his generation about China are nearly all retired, and the shifts in educational funding have meant that they have often been replaced by scholars who teach computer science, accounting or health sciences. Teaching about Asia has shrunk. This innocence showed up during the Indian-student distress. Few Australian officials had much knowledge of Indian society, history or current politics. The awkwardness was apparent.
One view of Australia’s future is as a calm centre for Asia. The large presence of students from Asia for the past 15 years provides substance for such a picture, especially now that the missing Indian link has arrived. And the fact that now about 250,000 young Indians and Chinese meet each year in Australia offers potential – though no guarantee – for ties and understanding that will drive the region’s interactive future.
Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
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