Over the past 20 years, Australia has proved itself as a very clever player when it comes to exporting its higher education services. It is the envy of many other countries that would like to crack into the lucrative Asian market. However, the violent outburst of student protests on the streets of Melbourne points to the fact that Australia has been too clever for its own good and has been overplaying the immigration card.

While their concerns for personal safety on the streets may be one very good reason why Indian students have suddenly becoming mobilised, there are other factors operating behind the scenes. And, for anyone wondering why it was Indian students, rather than international students generally, who took up the protest, this may help to explain why.

The number of Indian students coming to Australia rose dramatically from 2007, from less than 35,000, to more than 75,000 in 2009, even though the number from other countries, such as China, showed some declines. At the time Australia was facing increasing competition in the international market and made a decisive marketing push into the Indian subcontinent. However, it now seems that the industry has got more than it bargained for. One of the keys to the commercialisation of Australian higher education is that is has been underwritten by the offer of permanent migration, even though this is not always made explicit.

This held great appeal for many prospective students on the subcontinent whose former destinations for overseas study were the US and Britain. Many students took out hefty loans in order to go to Australia to study, buoyed by the prospects of permanent migration. At that time the government offered a long list of “Migration Occupations on Demand List” with literally scores professions and trades, qualifications for which brought points towards qualifying for permanent residency.

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Before long the VET sector was expanding and international enrolments were growing at universities. Australia’s higher education export industry was saved from a serious downturn. By 2009 international exports had continued to grow, thanks to the Indian market, and the industry was valued at $15.5 billion.

However, over the course of the last two years the list of skills in demand has been progressively narrowed down to a “Critical List” of professions. Also, the requirements to qualify have become much more stringent, including tighter language testing and more tough conditions for internships.

This has left many students from the subcontinent feeling as if they are out on a limb. Many are saddled by large debts and their expectations of working permanently in Australia have suddenly collapsed.

No doubt the recent spate of attacks on international students has caused many to feel a little insecure about their personal safety, but this also provided a very good trigger to release some of the pent up anger about their treatment by the policy louts in Canberra.

Dr Peter Quiddington is Politics and International Studies Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New England