Dissatisfaction in Melbourne’s Indian community over what it sees as a decline in public safety and support from international education campuses may damage Australia’s $15 billion education export industry, according to an international student group.

Amit Menghani, President of the Federation of Indian Students Association (FISA), said that university students from India may abandon universities, technical colleges and private tertiary institutions in Australia, after a series of late night assaults and robberies against Indian students in Melbourne. He says that that the Victorian Police need to closely examine why Indian students are the subject of a growing number of attacks.

“Students are telling us that they are experiencing severe psychological and mental problems,” Mr. Menghani said. “They are losing faith in a system that is supposed to help them. They feel victimised and plan to return to India soon.”

More than a dozen attacks on students of Indian origin have taken place in Melbourne throughout 2009. Around 45,000 students from India reside in Melbourne to study at higher education level, the largest population in all Australian capital cities.

Police have previously said that the attacks on Indian students are based on opportunity and not racially motivated. But Mr. Menghani disputes this, saying “Ten to twenty attacks on Indian students is not a random occurrence.”

Coverage of the attacks have gained a high profile in the Indian media, provoking outrage and prompting concerns of a possible strain in relations between Canberra and New Delhi.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has called all attacks on Indian students “regrettable”. The Victorian Premier John Brumby, recently travelled to India to reassure government officials in Delhi and Bangalore that Melbourne is a safe place for Indian students to study. But Mr. Menghani believes that such a mission could be counterproductive.

“He (Premier Brumby) can say and sell all that he wants, but zero tolerance on (any) attacks against students must lead to stronger sentences because only this will truly reflect the community’s disgust,” said Mr. Menghani.

In a statement delivered by its media unit in May 2009, the Victoria Police have denied claims of slow response times and bias in following up report, declaring on their website that it was concerned by a rise in assaults and robberies on Indian students and that “Victoria Police is involved in crime prevention education with international students, developing strong relationships with universities in Melbourne’s west.”[1]

Efforts to improve relations between the Victoria Police and the Indian community have included playing street cricket. But Mr. Menghani said that such publicity stunts would achieve little while the number of attacks continued to occur and perpetrators went unpunished. He warned that enrolments would be affected should a boycott of Australian universities be recommended.

FISA has so far refused to endorse such action.

Mr. Menghani has also highlighted concerns over declining education standards, an issue he says will have a negative affect upon Australia’s reputation as a destination for prospective students.

The Vice-President of the Australian Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, Bubbly Johar, said that inquiries for Australian education placements are down 80 per cent compared to 12 months, a consequence of safety and security concerns.[2] But IDP Education Chief executive Tony Pollock has told ABC Online that while enrolments from India are expected to drop by 50 per cent in 2010, this is predominately due to the impact of the global financial crisis, which he says is affecting parents’ ability to send their children to study in Australia[3].

A policy brief released by Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy in August 2009, Australia’s Poisoned Alumni, warns that failure to address issues of safety concerning international education “would most likely worsen, with serious negative consequences for this country.”[4]

Figures released by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) reveal that in the twelve months to August 2009, students from India accounted for 19.3% of all enrolments and 18.8% of commencements. New enrolments in higher education institutions have increased by over 37 per cent compared to August 2008.[5]

Mr. Menghani says that a failure to act decisively may jeopardise Australia’s international education market in India, the country’s third largest export income generator.

“We want a timetable for improvements and greater accountability, not ‘we’re working on it’” Mr. Menghani said. The situation, he said, was critical and not far off from being at breaking point. “(The situation is) like a volcano ready to erupt,” he said.

[1] “Police concerned by rise of assaults on Indian students”, Wednesday May 13 2009, http://www.vicpolicenews.com.au/our-say/347-police-concerned-by-rise-of-assaults-on-indian-students.html

[2] Calls for retaliation over Indian bashing, ABC Online, September 17, 2009 http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/09/17/2688266.htm

[3] Ibid

[4]Australia’s Poisoned Alumni, Lowy Institute for International Policy, August 2009, pp. 3-4

[5] http://www.aei.gov.au/AEI/MIP/Statistics/StudentEnrolmentAndVisaStatistics/2009/MonthlySummary_Aug09_pdf.pdf, August 2009