Time to Get Closer

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New government must act to revive education for international students from India

By Siddharth Suresh

Where do we stand in the coming federal elections? What are the main concerns facing Indians as a group. Undoubtedly, small businesses in the community are facing one of the most challenging times. Cash flow has almost dried up for many businesses forcing them to shut shop or slow down dramatically. We have witnessed hundreds of business closures around us. The property market has slumped. The education sector is struggling, dragging down other industries Indians work and do business in. This is a reality. But is this reality linked to the Labour government’s policies?

The view that in a bleak global economic environment government spending helped us steer clear of a recession is a fair argument. Rudd’s stimulus plans during the global downturn did help families. There are thousands who are grateful to Julia Gillard for the National Disability Services. And Rudd’s tokenism towards the Aboriginal people was well received in general.

Despite all these great gestures, business sentiment in Australia is at an all-time low. Although one should be cautious with generalisations, it’s still fair to assume that the former Gillard government or the Rudd government did not work hard enough to help the education industry recover. Too many in the government believed it was the high dollar that brought the education industry down. But it’s well-known that the Indian middle classes still lack the confidence in Australia when it comes to sending their sons and daughters overseas for education.

One positive to come out of the Labour government’s time is the creation of the Australia India Institute. An institute like the AII not only increased academic interest in India, but it also heightened track-two diplomacy between the two countries. But apart from the creation of AII, the trade delegations to India and the decision to sell uranium, nothing substantial has happened to promote bilateral business or cultural understanding between India, an emerging Asian giant, and Australia.

Australia clearly endorses a view that this century is the Asian century. With such an official viewpoint, it goes without saying that there hasn’t been much concrete work done to bridge ties with ‘the giant’.

Somewhere along the line, after the dust settled following the attacks on Indian students, brand Australia suffered a setback in promoting quality education to India’s youth. This opportunity lost is an immense loss for the economy, especially to businesses in the community. It is also an opportunity lost to bridge a cultural divide between Australian and India. With impressive numbers of Indians still coming into the country — and the pace at which most of them integrate into Australian society, in the process contributing immensely to the local economy with their skills, entrepreneurship and consumption — building the education sector is an urgent necessity that will pay off immensely in the years to come. This vibrant industry was poised to become a key player in the Australian economy. Unfortunately the challenges and crises the industry went through recently derailed much of the good work that was underway in building up the necessary infrastructure as well as the links this industry had to the wider economy. Faced with this institutionalized as well as political neglect, the sector catering to international students is now struggling in the margins.

It is imperative that government takes the initiative to revive this powerful industry. Regardless of who comes to power, easing the entry of young highly skilled Indians into the economy through migration and various education channels is fundamental and urgent.

If we look beyond the clichéd arguments of the bleak world economic scenario, and the rising dollar, it’s safe to conclude that we need a pro-active India policy. With more Indian leaders and lobby groups emerging in the coming years, this is surely going to be a reality.

So once Australia votes in a new government, it should be a priority for the Federal government to fix the education industry and stimulate business activity in the SME sector.