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© Neena Bhandari, Indo Asian News Service

ImageSYDNEY, July 19 (IANS): Immigration Minister Chris Evans arrived in New Delhi Sunday night to reinforce that Australia is a “welcoming and safe destination for Indian students and migrants” even as he concedes there are problems, especially in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, that need to be jointly tackled.

The Immigration Minister’s three-day visit is the latest in a series of Australian government efforts to assure India that “the Government takes very seriously Australia’s reputation as a safe destination for international students seeking high-quality education”.

The recent spate of attacks on Indian overseas students and the media furore that ensued are threatening the country’s second largest lucrative education market. In 2008, there were 435,263 international students from 200 countries enrolled in Australian educational institutes, led by China and India.

The Minister acknowledges that the VET sector has been fraught with problems and Australia hasn’t kept pace with the growth and the needs of students enrolled in this sector.Since 2005 the number of overseas students in vocational training has leapt from 65,000 to almost 174,000, with vocational private colleges soaring from 664 to 4892.

“It is fair to say that the growth in the VET sector has seen some of the problems develop because some providers have not provided as good a quality education as we were hopeful. Secondly, we have had more Indian students with less financial resources (enrol in this sector), who have been forced to work more hours than they should be and perhaps live in inappropriate suburbs”, Evans told IANS.

Many international students have been duped by immigration agents making false promises. So what measures are being taken to regulate the agents? “We have some problems at both ends. We have some providers here who have not provided good quality education and enough support for their students. We are going to tackle that and the prime minister’s taskforce has been in part focusing on it”, Evans said.

Would there be a list of regulated immigration agents for students and parents to ensure that they are dealing with genuine agents? Evans said, “We have registration of migration agents in Australia and that is regulated. There is an onus upon education institutions to use only agents with integrity, but there is also a responsibility upon governments to provide better protection. It is important we tackle the problem from both ends”.

In recent years there has been a focus on people doing short courses on skills they don’t tend to use once they become permanent residents like hairdressing and cooking. “We need to make some policy adjustments in this country to make sure we are not providing perverse incentives. We want the best Indian students coming for top quality educational outcomes in both higher education and the VET sectors,” emphasised Evans.

On September 1, 2008, India’s assessment level was increased to level 4 on a scale of 1 to 5 because the results from tests used to measure immigration risk increased over a three year period. These tests include the fraudulent documentation rate, the visa cancellation rate, the unlawful rate, applications for residence (excluding residence on the basis of skill), the refusal rate and applications for protection visas.

The outcomes of the 2008 review revealed that the immigration compliance of India students studying in English language (ELICOS), higher education and postgraduate research sectors had declined.

“We have heard stories of students borrowing being in debt and that put a whole lot of other pressures on them and that doesn’t allow them to focus on their studies. On July 1, I increased the English language threshold levels for students applying onshore as we have found that those with relevant skills and education and good English make successful migrants. If their English is insufficient, they don’t necessarily get jobs in their profession and are assigned to unskilled jobs”, Evans told IANS.

While some students want the number of hours increased, the Australian Government has no move to review the 20 hours work per week regulation on the student visa. “Increasing working hours would undermine the core reason for which the visa was granted and that is to study. We don’t want to have a situation where the primary purpose is work and education is secondary consideration. We have very generous work rights to work 20 hours a week limit during the term and full time during holidays”. 

But the woes of overseas students have been compounded by businesses not paying and some paying only a fraction of the minimum wage. The Minister is absolutely resolute that “In an employment situation, people working ought to be paid according to Australian wages and conditions”.

Australia will introduce a job-ready test and competency-based assessment for some trades and occupations in January 2010. “This would be a means of ensuring students have the skills they claim to have and we get people in those skills. The education institutions will also have to deliver the quality of education that will allow the students to pass the tests”.

During 2007-08, there were 87,145 active student visa holders from India, a substantial increase from 58,268 in 2006-07. As many as 502 Indian students had their visas cancelled in 2007-08.

On recent reports in the Australian media on Indians entering into `sham marriages’ to migrate to Australia, Evans said, “It is not as large a problem as it was portrayed in the media. We have a large spouse immigration program generally, about 45,000 a year.  If students are young you see a higher proportion of spouse applications overtime”.

While “not foolproof”, the minister said there were adequate tests to test the genuineness and authenticity of relationships for people applying for visas and there hadn’t been “any serious concerns raised with me about spouse caseload from India”.

Australia has seen a spiraling growth in the number of Indians coming to Australia to settle, to study, for business as well as for tourism. India is the largest source of general skilled migrants to Australia, the second-largest source, after China, of overseas students and the second-largest source, after the United Kingdom, of temporary business visa grants.

The Australian government is focusing on necessary reforms in both immigration and education to ensure integrity of the education system and appropriate regulations.

While VET qualifications have been of concern, the minister said, “This is recent and relatively small problem. In the past, if it wasn’t for Indian doctors who have migrated here, Australian health system would collapse. We have brought in large number of Indian professionals that are central to number of major industries in this country.”

Reiterating that “the overwhelming story of Indian migration is a success story”, the minister said, “We see India as a long-term source of skilled labour and migrants to this country”.

“In the past we have seen lot of Health and Information Technology professionals, but in the future I see the range of skills will spread to meet Australia’s skilled shortages. India has a lot of highly trained, highly skilled young people. Australia’s is an ageing society and we will have skilled shortages for a long period of time and so we will continue to need to recruit professionals in health, IT and increasingly engineering and other trades”, Evan told IANS.

However, the AU$ 15.5 billion education export industry is under threat. Over 50 Indian students have been injured, some seriously, in attacks in Australian cities, most of them in and around Melbourne.

So were the spate of attacks on Indian students “racist”? Evans said, “No, I don’t think so. We are welcoming of all nationalities and races. I have been told by the police that in a couple of cases there was clearly some racial abuse, but most of them have been opportunistic crimes and were criminally motivated.”

“I think there are issues about social support for the students which have put them at risk. The police are looking to better address these issues and universities have to look at better orientation and student support and safety issues”, he added.

However, the Minister concedes, “We have our share of the blame in terms of those who have had bad experience, but many Indian students have had very good experiences and good education here…..We’ll address that inside Australia and the Indian government has expressed its willingness to address it at their end by dealing with concerns about the activities of education agents and the promises that are made and the practices they have been following”.

Senator Evans will meet a number of his Indian Government counterparts, including the Overseas Indian Affairs Minister, Vayalar Ravi.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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