Nick Bryant

When Indian students arrive in Australia, probably the last thing they think they will end up doing is taking to the streets in a series of boisterous protests.

First, they were voicing anger over a spate of muggings and attacks in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Police confirm there have been 97 attacks since late-May, although the true figure is probably much higher since many assaults go unreported.

Now, the ranks of disgruntled Indian students have been swelled by those who believe they are being ripped off by a private system keen to take their money, but unable to offer value for money or even a proper education.

Twin demands of protection from attacks, and safeguards from unscrupulous private education providers are now motivating what has fast become a student movement.

And it has drawn multiracial support not only from Australian students but also from Chinese and other nationalities too.

For the Australian government it is a particularly sensitive issue.

Australia is an educational powerhouse, with 70,000 Indian students alone.

After coal and iron ore, it is the country’s third most lucrative industry, worth around 7.5 billion pounds ($14.35 billion AUD).

It was the beauty of Sydney that drew Sumit Purdani from Delhi to study for an MBA, but he will remember his time here for the ugliness of the welcome.

Less than a month after arriving Sumit was set upon by a gang of three youths of Middle Eastern descent while he was on his way to a Hindu temple in broad daylight.

He was punched and kicked in an attack that lasted 10-15 minutes. His attackers only ran off when a local football team, who had just finished a match, came into view.

I asked him how he could be sure he was attacked because of his nationality.

There was no doubt, he said, “because of the comments they made, because I was carrying a bag with an Indian logo and because of the comments they made of my country and background.”

‘Curry diplomacy’

Back in India — a country determined to assert itself much more forcefully on the international stage, and unwilling to sit back while its citizens experience trouble abroad — the Indian student attacks have received extensive coverage on both cable news channels and special programmes devoted to the issue.

“So what will it take to get Mr Kevin Rudd to finally wake up?” asked one commentator, reproachfully.

Alert to the diplomatic, as well as the economic, fall-out from the controversy, Prime Minister Rudd spoke to Indian reporters, and tried to convey his respect and admiration for a country which Australia has traditionally tended to ignore.

“Our Indian community has been such a vital contributor to our culture, to our life, to our food, to our music,” he said. He even opted for some curry diplomacy:

Since Mr. Rudd made those comments, in the midst of the southern winter, the debate has moved on.

Lack of equipment

The assaults against Indian students have received less attention than concerns over the quality of education being offered.

These concerns were crystallised following the closure of Sterling College in Sydney, a private education college offering vocational qualifications which went into administration in late July.

Sterling College shut its door on 500 mainly overseas students, all of whom had spent thousands of dollars in tuition fees. The controversy brought to the fore the issue of financial mismanagement in this lucrative sector, and substandard courses.

I spoke to former lecturers at Sterling College who complained about not being given even the most rudimentary teaching tools, like overhead projectors, hand-outs and textbooks.

Global ambitions

With student interest from India already showing signs of trailing off, it has also mounted a diplomatic offensive.

The Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, visited India this month. Mr. Rudd plans to make his own visit before Christmas.

At a protest march in Sydney this month, the Australian authorities might have been unnerved by the presence of so many camera crews from China, another lucrative market in the overseas student industry.

Australia is often stereotyped as an unusually racist country, partly because its White Australia immigration policy lasted until the early 1970s. But perhaps the bigger story of the post-war years is how a mono-cultural society became a successfully multi-cultural society, without much of a backlash.

Geographically and diplomatically, it is well placed to have an enhanced international role in what is likely to be an Asia-dominated century. But alienating students from the emerging giants of India and China could impede its global ambitions. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate