Expressing concern over the decline in the number of Indian and other international students arriving in Victoria in the past year, its premier, Ted Baillieu, has said the Australian state was taking several steps to attract overseas students and he was hopeful the trend would reverse soon. “We are certainly concerned because the education industry is significant for the Victorian economy,” Baillieu said. He stressed that safety and security issues, which Indian students have faced in recent years and which are being touted as an important reason for fewer Indian youngsters going to Australia to study, were being addressed.
“Community safety is much improved. We are hopeful that the new visa arrangements will be positive,” the Victorian premier said in an interview. “We trust that the new regulation of providers will ensure that individual students are fully protected by the system, and we look forward to an improvement in the enrolment figures soon.” He said his government has “dedicated a couple of million dollars to attracting international students”, adding that Victoria’s largest ever trade mission will visit India early next year, with education the major focus of discussions.
Education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Australia, and nearly 30% of all international students coming to Australia, study in Victoria. With the education sector contributing nearly $6 billion to the Victorian economy in 2009-10 alone, it is regarded as the state’s largest export. From 2005 till 2009, international student enrolments grew by 100% every year, until last year, when the sector experienced a severe downturn. The Victorian government has previously stated that “commencing student enrolments declined by 14% in 2010”, with the trend expected to continue till 2014. Although Baillieu didn’t quantify the extent of the loss to the Victorian exchequer, he cited several reasons for this trend.
“Obviously, some time ago there were issues of violence against international students; we were concerned when the Commonwealth intervened to change visa arrangements, and those changed visa arrangements probably exacerbated the problem,” he said. “Obviously, the higher Australian dollar has had an adverse impact as well.” He said unscrupulous operators running private colleges was also a factor.
Baillieu, who led the opposition at the time when cases of violence against Indians in Melbourne hit the headlines, said: “I don’t think in the early stages, the then government responded in an appropriate way.” Talking about his government’s initiatives, Baillieu said, “I think we’ve made significant inroads in regard to changing the community culture about safety. We will roll out additional police; we will roll out protective services officers on railway stations after dark.” He said many international students, particularly with the smaller education providers, were training at night, “which meant they travelled at night, and that needed to be addressed”.
He admitted that 4-5 years ago, students were apprehensive of using public transport system after dark and “that’s why we want to create a culture of safety on our public transport system rather than a culture of fear”. Baillieu agreed that the federal government in Canberra had made changes to visa arrangements all too frequently and often “unilaterally”. “Visa changes have impacted international students adversely and inequitably,” he said. “It’s extremely important to address the issues of those students whose visa arrangements were changed midstream or mid-course.” When asked why unscrupulous colleges, some of which were later shut down, were allowed to operate in the first place, he said, “When we came to office, we voiced our concern that there wasn’t sufficient regulation of these providers under the previous government.” He said he had visited Delhi a couple of years ago and talked to students there. “I know they were concerned about safety issues; they were concerned about visa issues; and their concerns were legitimate,” Baillieu said.
“But they still had the highest respect for Victoria’s education system.” He said the state’s education system needed to be marketed for its fundamental values. “Our universities and TAFE colleges have a great reputation; we have a mature and maturing private education market,” he said. “We have to ensure that the courses that are offered are legitimate courses and they provide skills for industries that have job prospects for the students.” Presenting Melbourne as a destination of choice for international students and migrants alike, Baillieu said Melbourne has recently been voted as the most liveable city in the world. “We have a huge multicultural base and that’s what makes this city and this state so good,” he said.