(IMAGE: SUPPLIED BY SANDEEP KAUSHIK)

On an overcast morning in March, about 100 Indian students gathered at Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory in the centre of New Delhi to send a message to Scott Morrison: let us back into Australia.

Sandeep Kaushik, one of the organisers, travelled nearly five hours from the northern city of Chandigarh to be there. He’d spent the last five years studying accounting at Universal Business School Sydney and driving taxis on the side before an accident forced him back home to recover.

Then the pandemic hit and Kaushik was stuck in India. Now he wakes up at 3am each morning and climbs up to the roof of his building to attend zoom classes without waking his family.

“I didn’t expect this kind of behaviour from the Australian government. Australia has totally ignored us.”

There’s a sense of rage among students like Kaushik. In WhatsApp groups and on social media, they fume at the border closures that have left them unable to complete promised degrees, struggling with financial stress and the psychological toll of seeing their futures slowly unravel.

They watch Morrison’s press conferences eagerly, desperate for some certainty about when they might come back to Australia. And when the certainty doesn’t come, they’ve held rallies across India and Pakistan, and lobbied embassies. But as Australia grapples with a slow vaccine rollout, a low public appetite for pandemic-related risk, and thousands of its own citizens still trapped overseas, the pleas of foreign students have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Killing the cash cow

Once upon a time, the Australian government would do anything they could to get Indian students into the country. It’s a market that was worth $6.6 billion in the pre-pandemic financial year, second only to China.

India has been the place to watch amid fears the Chinese international student market could soon dry up. Morrison cultivates a very online bromance with India’s far-right prime minister Narendra Modi, in part because such images play well on Indian television and make Australia seem like a friendly, attractive destination for students.

But there’s a disconnect between attempts to grow that market and the treatment of students. The number of Indian students in Australia fell more than 80% in the second half of 2020 compared with the same period a year previously. At the start of the pandemic, Morrison urged foreign students to go home. Now, despite an economic drain in the billions, there is no real plan to get them back.

“We’re treated like cash cows,” Nabjot Singh, a student in Delhi who has deferred his MBA, told Crikey.

Singh, like many other students interviewed for this article, is now looking at completing his studies in Canada or the UK.

What Australia lacks is a clear timeline for when students can return. After sending a letter to the embassy, Kaushik said he was given a soft promise they would be able to return by the end of the year. But Health Minister Greg Hunt’s claim this week that full international travel might not return even after Australia is fully vaccinated (which could itself be years away) threw cold water on that.

The problem for students is they are very far down the pecking order of people who can get through Australia’s borders.

“The biosecurity measures that are in place give them zero priority,” immigration lawyer Jackson Taylor told Crikey.

“Essentially anyone getting in at this point are essential workers, citizens and families. Students seem to be caught in this quandary.”

At a state level, there’s little public appetite to tinker with hotel quarantine arrangements in a manner that might allow more students into the country.

There have been a handful of piecemeal attempts to bring in students — a charter flight to Darwin, and a handful of similar schemes that haven’t got off the ground. But we’re talking dozens here, while more than 164,000 of Australia’s 500,000-plus international student visa holders are stuck outside the country.

Depression, financial stress, suicide attempts

To students stuck overseas, Australia’s domestic tolerance for risk matters little. India is going through a horrific second COVID-19 wave, and there’s a sense of shock that a country as “back to normal” as Australia won’t accommodate more people.

Instead, many students have been forced to study online indefinitely, despite spending thousands on course fees and education loans for face-to-face classes.

Vasudha Chauhan, from the northern state of Haryana, told Crikey she’s been sleeping three hours a night for the past two months in order to study her biomedical science course remotely.

“I wake up at 3.30am and after that I can’t even sleep properly. And I have to do a practical degree. How am I supposed to do all that online?”

Akshit Bhasain, who was studying automotive mechanics at a TAFE in Sydney for years before getting locked out of the country, said trying to study online was absurd.

“I can’t complete it online because nobody can repair a car online.”

Bhasain paid nearly $50,000 in course fees upfront to study. Being stuck for months in Haryana with mounting financial stress and little certainty about his future has taken a real toll on him.

“We’ve lost our jobs, our car is damaged and we had to sell our furniture,” he said.

“What am I doing in India? If I’m just sitting here idle, wasting my parents’ money, I’m totally negative.”

Several students told Crikey at least one other international student had attempted suicide after their mental health deteriorated because of the border closures.

And even if the borders do open, many students who had long dreamed of studying in Australia no longer want anything to do with the country.

“I’m really regretting choosing Australia,” Chauhan said.

“It feels that they’re really racist and don’t want us here.”

Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.

Peter Fray

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