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Helpline for students abroad on the anvil

From racism in Australia to fraud schools like Tri Valley, India’s growing student population abroad has faced multiple threats in recent years; the helpline will forward complaints to embassy officials for quick response. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.

delhi Updated: May 30, 2013 01:59 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times

For the 300,000 Indian students and researchers at universities abroad, quick help from their government against crimes and threats may soon be a mouse click away.

India is ready to launch an online helpline to get prompt help across to its steadily growing population of students at foreign universities, who in recent years have fallen victim to a spate of crimes ranging from racist attacks to fraud by dubious universities.

The ministries of external affairs (MEA) and human resource development (HRD) will jointly run the helpline that will allow students to register and track complaints, which will be immediately forwarded to a designated officer at India’s mission in that country. The government has faced criticism in the past for its apparent failure to help students promptly enough.

“The portal is ready and we are just waiting for details of the designated officers at missions,” SS Mantha, chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) told HT. The HRD ministry has asked the AICTE, India’s apex technical education regulator, to run the portal and to follow up complaints with the MEA.

Initially, Indian students in 22 countries will be able to register complaints online. These countries – the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, China, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain and Trinidad and Tobago – together host over 95% of all Indian students abroad, according to government statistics.

As the numbers of Indian students pursuing higher education and research abroad has risen over the past decade, from about 53,000 in 2000 to over 300,000 now, this segment of the country’s youth has also increasingly found itself a victim of crimes and fraud in foreign lands.

Relations between India and Australia took a blow in 2009 after a series of race attacks on Indian students, mostly in and
around Melbourne.

Early in 2011, American immigration authorities raided and then shut down Tri Valley University in California on charges of fraudulently obtaining student visas for international students, including over 1000 Indians. Many of the Indian students were radio-tagged, triggering a roar of protests here. Over 400 Indian students were eventually deported, while some were allowed to transfer to other, accredited universities.

A near-repeat followed in 2012, when US officials suspended the license of Herguan University, another California institution with a disproportionately high number of Indian students, for forging immigration documents. Across the Atlantic Ocean, British border authorities withdrew the license of London Metropolitan University, also that year, leaving over 400 Indian students facing the threat of deportation.

In each of those cases, Indian students either had to go to the nearest Indian consulate to complain, or had to wait for Indian authorities of hear of their plight from officials investigating fraud. That initial delay – and a lack of clarity from the students on who to contact at the Indian missions – led to traumatic experiences for some.

Satish Reddy, one of the students at Tri Valley, still shudders when he thinks of the radio tag he had to wear on his ankle.
“We were made to feel like criminals, when in fact we were the victims,” Reddy said. Now working with his father at a small export surplus showroom in Vishakhapatnam, Reddy said the online portal would have helped the students reach out to Indian consulate officials faster. “The Indian consulate at San Francisco helped us a lot, but the absence of a prompt complaint system left us alone, to fend for ourselves, right at the start.”

For the government, the helpline is also an opportunity to correct perceptions that it has not been proactive enough in safeguarding the interests of Indian students abroad. Parents of students duped by institutions like Tri Valley and Herguan have questioned why the government doesn’t insist on accreditation for agents, the middlemen who persuade vulnerable students to join dubious institutions in exchange for a fee.

“We’ve tried our best but yes, we’ve had to face criticism,” a senior official said. “Let’s just say, this helpline is our way of setting the record straight. We do care.”

First Published: May 29, 2013 23:33 IST