In recent months there has been much news about a spate of brutal attacks on Indian overseas students in Australia. These have especially occurred in Melbourne, although there have been cases in other cities. Many of the attacks have been vicious. One student lost an eye, another was stabbed with a screwdriver. Location of attacks has been mostly on evening trains and in station surounds, often as students are returning home from their campus.

The Indian Students’ Federation in Australia have been very active in organising protests about lack of action by the Australian authorities to better protect the students. They have been supported by the National Union of Students. The bashings have become a very lively issue in the Indian media and the Indian government has made direct protests to the Australian government. There has been dismay amongst the Indian students and many others about the slow and half-hearted response of the police and and governments.

The Victorian Police Commissioner, Simon Overland, at first responded to the attacks by claming that there was nothing to suggest that Indians were being singled out or targeted for the crimes. Unfortunately there were many such attacks on people of all backgrounds, he said. It was just that the Indian student victims were getting all the publicity. The attacks were ‘opportunist’ robbery, not racist assault. The only factor that could make an Indian student a little more of a target was that they tended to carry ‘items of attraction’, such as ipods, laptops and mobile phones. His key point was that the attacks on the Indian students were not out of proportion to the students’ share of the general population.

Only as the attacks worsened and the Indian students came out to stage demonstrations in Melbourne and Sydney did the Police Commissioner admit that the attacks were racially motivated. Victorian Premier John Brumby has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and taken a very positive initiative to lead a Harmony Walk on Sunday 12 July at 1pm, from the Carlton Gardens to Federation Square.

It should also be noted that Universities Australia (the umbrella body of the senior leaderships in all Australian universities) promptly has taken a range of initiatives to help tackle the problem. These include convening a meeting in Canberra of all Deputy Vice-Chancellors (International) to initiate action, providing detailed submissions to two official Task Forces and Inquiries, discussing the management of these issues with their counterparts in India and China and releasing a detailed set of proposals on how to improve safety practices on and off campus. It is important that at the campus level itself every effort is made to actively follow through on such proposals for the protection and enhancement of overseas student safety and welfare.

At the national level, it was really only when the Indian government protested strongly and the matter got extensive coverage in the Indian media that the Australian government started to take notice. Calls in the Indian media for families to start bringing their young people home from Australia – and perhaps re-locate them in other countries where they would be better protected – helped focus Australian attention on the problem!

The whole thing has become a challenge to Australia’s foreign relations. Education exports (selling of school and tertiary places at very high prices to overseas students) is now the third largest Australian export earner after minerals and agricultural products. It is no sideline business. Earnings to Australia from education exports now total about $16 billion each year. In Victoria it provides more than $3 billion. Australian foreign policy simply cannot go on in such a cynical and self-serving way. It cannot say to Asian countries and peoples send us your young people for secondary and tertiary education, fund a large proportion of our total education bill, but don’t expect us to offer them protection when they come under physical attack.

The attacks on the Indian students has further opened up a range of other fundamental issues about Australian tertiary education. As Australian governments – Labor and Liberal – have increasingly shifted the cost of tertiary education away from government budgets and on to earnings from overseas student fees, all sorts of negative outcomes have emerged.

There is the emergence of some very questionable private providers, the selling of fake ‘Australian tertiary qualifications’ in some overseas markets, the rise of conmen and fraudsters in and around the tertiary institutions collecting phoney ‘fees’ and charges from the overseas students, that go straight into their own crooked pockets. The Federal government has yet to publicly acknowledge the existence of such malpractices. The Department of Immigration may have conducted some investigations on its own immediate matters (visas, residency, and so on) but not on the eradication of the fraudulent practices themselves. The federal and state governments have a clear duty to clean up these criminal elements. To let it all go on means that the quality and integrity of the overseas student programme will just slip away.

Above all, it is this drop in the standard of many first degree and postgraduate courses that makes up the most serious outcome of the current entrepreneurial culture in tertiary education. The cause of this quality loss probably has much to do with declining employment conditions for university teachers. There is less permanent academic employment, heavier workloads and very stretched budgets. There has been a general unpreparedness for the huge influx of overseas students into the total campus population. This overall entrepreneurial culture of the modern Australian university seems to have weakened its teaching quality and perhaps even its research. The milk from the education export cow is being taken on a grand scale, but the milk has turned sour.

The attacks on the Indian students have slowed a bit over recent weeks. Let’s hope governments and police don’t drop their guard, until one day the attacks break out even more violently than before. All the issues of the oveaseas student programme (‘education exports’) need to be reviewed comprehensively – looking after the safety of the 400,000 overseas student residents in Australia, better meeting their housing needs and providing adequate services, reducing the ridiculously high fees for overseas students, reviewing the accreditation processes for all ‘educational’ institutions and facing up to the declining quality in many of the academic courses and research programmes offered. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has undertaken to have a review done. It must be comprehensive and show commitment to promoting a fair and genuine relationship, based on mutual benefit, with the neighbouring countries and peoples. The review needs to get moving without delay.

Richard Wong has been involved in the Chinese Professional & Business Association (CPBA) of Victoria for many years. He is currently an Executive Member of CPBA. He is also a Council Member of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Victoria and a Trustee of The Sir Edward Dunlop International Students Emergency Fund (SEDISEF).