Almost 60% of India’s 1.15 billion people are under the age of 25 yet there are only places for 7% of college-age students in post-secondary school institutions.

That is one reason why students from India now comprise the second largest number of foreigners in Australian colleges and universities.

Another could explain why more than 75,000 Indian students were undertaking courses here last year — the majority in private vocational education colleges where the main aim on completion appears to be permanent residency.

Although they were still trailing those from China, who comprised nearly 100,000 of the 435,000 total enrolled in all institutions, students from India have been in the headlines since attacks on them began to be reported earlier this year.

This probably arose from the increasing number of students moving into low-cost housing areas in the western and northern suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney’s south-western suburbs.

There, as Monash University sociologist Dr Bob Birrell points out, they have been competing for accommodation and living space with mostly low socio-economic communities from other non-English speaking backgrounds.

“This has created a powder keg situation as the newcomers find themselves soft targets for youth gangs with well-established reputations for nastiness,” Birrell says.

“The Indian students, quite rightly, are standing up for their rights. They are now arguing they have been exploited by the Australian education industry, which they say, is happy to take their money but, in the students’ view, has shown little interest in their welfare while in Australia.”

He blames the federal government for creating this situation by allowing large numbers of students enrolled in vocational colleges to enter the country with the sole aim of becoming permanent residents.

Rather belatedly, and only after continuing evidence was presented to it, did the government accept that the skills foreign students possessed on completing their courses were not those required by the skilled migration program.

Even students graduating with degrees in accounting from university appear to have little success obtaining work in the field because of their relative poor standard of English.

This led the government to announce last December that from 1 January, the Immigration Department would only process applications for permanent residency visas from foreigners with occupations on a new “critical skills list”.

Cooking and hairdressing — the two fields that had attracted large numbers of foreign students intent on becoming permanent residents — were not on the list. In March, nearly all other remaining trade occupations were also removed from the list.

Despite the changes, the news appeared not to have reached foreign students overseas and more enrolled in hospitality courses in the first three months of the year than had in the same period in 2008.

Birrell estimates more than 40,000 former overseas students obtained temporary visas in 2008-09 and have full work rights for 18 months.

But they are concentrated in low to semi-skilled jobs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and are competing with young Australians entering a market that is experiencing a serious employment downturn.

To place the education export industry on a sustainable basis, Birrell says the government must provide a consistent message that the institutions, migration agents, international recruiters and prospective students can understand.

A key element in that message should be that undertaking an education course in Australia does not automatically lead to permanent residence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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