The understated “external factors” in the just released Australian India strategy are the deciders… and without post-study-settle pathway “quality education” is not attractive for Indian students… 2035 is too far… we need a 2020 and 2025 strategy!

Just released Australian government commissioned report recommends prioritising certain chosen sectors.

This report identifies 10 sectors in an evolving Indian market where Australia has competitive advantages. These in turn are divided into a flagship sector (education), three lead sectors (agribusiness, resources and tourism) and six promising sectors (energy, health, financial services, infrastructure, sport, science and innovation).

It goes on to give reasons for identifying “education” as the flagship sector…

“There is no sector with greater promise for Australia in India than education,” says the report, An India Economic Strategy to 2035, Navigating from Potential to Delivery. “Australia’s future growth and prosperity will be driven by our ability to generate and attract the best and brightest.”

The report can be found here: dfat-an-india-economic-strategy-to-2035.

Prioritising “education” is very welcome indeed. However I have failed to find adequate emphasis on ways in dealing with the external risks in the report. “Education” along with resources and tourism have long been focus areas.

The report, by former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and one-time high commissioner to India Peter Varghese, looks broadly at how Australia can capitalise on economic growth in India and states that a strong and productive Australia-India education relationship should be seen as the flagship of the bilateral relationship.

Before I go on, I do need to re-emphasise my credential on this topic.

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I have known and worked with Peter during his term in India and have admiration for his contribution in restoring Australia-India relationship at a time when circumstances were adverse. If I recall right, Peter commenced in 2010 and the biggest diplomatic threat to the relationship stemmed from the media hype around the attacks on Indian students. The largely opportunistic “mugging type” instances had taken a racial tone in the Indian media and student interest for Australia had fallen by 90%. Peter had possibly been identified for the role in India in this backdrop primarily because of his Indian heritage and proven diplomatic skills.

This diplomatic skill came handy in repairing the relationship and student numbers began to rise. Towards the end of his tenure, I had shared with Peter that I saw the Aussie potential in this new phase to be driven by the Universities but at the same time, considering that Australia has only about 40 Universities, we need to be realistic in terms of student numbers that can justifiably reach Australia. I had put the upper limit to quality Indian numbers to Australian Universities to be about 15000 per year.

There are several “external risks” that need to be acknowledged and addressed if we genuinely want the strategy to work…

FIRST

It is still debatable if the opportunistic student attacks that brought Peter to India had a racial undertone but the very fact that the stray and motivated media reports were not challenged adequately and the Australian response/rebuttals took too long for the Indian 24×7 TV is the first area of concern and risk. THE RISK IS NOT THE HYPED MEDIA REPORTING BUT THE FACT THAT AUSTRALIA IS NOT GEARED TO QUICKLY PROVIDE A COUNTER-ARGUMENT AND THE LIMITED APPRECIATION OF INDIAN MEDIA FOR WHAT AUSTRALIA CAN OFFER.

It would be a useful recommendation to work on how the reach of the Indian media in Australia and of Australian media in India can improve for any bilateral relationship to go beyond the ordinary. In 2009, Australia suddenly discovered that none of the Indian media organisations had a full time reporter in Australia. PTI relied on a freelance contributor and so did the other outlets. The only time we saw Indian journalists was when India toured Australia in cricket.

We need more Australian graduates in key positions of influence in India. Sometimes they are there but we have not engaged with them adequately. Not many are aware that India has already seen an Australia educated chief minister who is likely to play a key political role in the coming decade and the current State Minister of HRD(Education) too is an Australian alumni. In the industry The report only superficially touches on the strategy to nurture this soft power.

Media requires continuing and increased attention. Indian mind-space is significantly influenced by media especially TV.

SECOND

While identifying “education” as the flagship sector because of the quantum of trade, it is now time to be reminded on WHY Indian students go overseas to study. Close to 80% of all students choosing to study in any country around the world use education as a means to work or settle overseas. This is likely to continue to be a driving factor as Indian population eclipses that of China by 2035. The Indian student interest in Australia is no different and I can say this with confidence as am very much part of the system.

While the report mentions India as the prime source of skilled migrants, it fails to mention that majority of these migrants entered Australia as international students. IN RECENT YEARS IT HAS BECOME DIFFICULT FOR INDIAN STUDENTS TO BE ABLE TO USE THEIR LEARNT SKILLS IN AUSTRALIAN EMPLOYMENT BEYOND THE POST STUDY WORK VISA PERIOD.

AUSTRALIA is likely to continue having a migration program and there can never be better migrants than those who have attained their education in Australia and have invested in the economy already. EDUCATION – PSW – SKILLED MIGRATION pathway needs to be acknowledged and developed further. THIS IS CRITICAL TO THE SUCCESS OF THE STRATEGY. There is a clear fear that political parties often aided by half baked immigration experts come up with conclusions that are baffling and have a potential for misreporting. In this week itself, the opposition Labour party has rallied the Immigration minister by indicating that the post study work rights for International students are taking away jobs. On one hand Australia wants International students who bring in excess of $50000 per annum and on the other hand, the political parties find them as scapegoats. Any tampering with the POST STUDY WORK settings will significantly risk the student interest from India and derail the strategy from working. One can take a look at what has happened with the Indian interest for British education despite Britain being perceived as a quality destination within India.

THIRD

I have been blogging and lobbying for the recognition of International qualifications in India for years. It is heartening to see that the report too identifies this as an area of concern.

However I must point out one inaccuracy in the report on page 88.

The AIU does not recognise the standard three-year Australian undergraduate degree because Indian degrees are four years in length 

This is inaccurate. Indian Bachelors degrees are of 3 year duration except for Engineering degrees. Exactly as in Australia. AIU has not had issues with this recognition. (They may not have accepted British 3 year engineering degrees since Indian engineering degrees are of 4 year duration.) The issue with Australian degrees is  with pathway packaged degrees and with Master degrees that are not of 2 year duration. The above inaccuracy from the report needs correction or else it has potential by way of further misreporting. Take a look at how inaccurately The Australian newspaper reported this day… following the release of the strategy…

Another difficulty is lack of recognition in India of Australian qualifications, such as three-year bachelor degrees and two-year masters degrees. The report says increased recognition would boost the education relationship significantly and should be a priority for the Australian government.

Now that we know that pathway led Bachelor degrees and shorter Master degrees are not recognised in India, the right recommendation should be to advise the recruiting Universities to adhere to the intent of the ESOS Act. They need to pre-warn students especially those doing the packaged Bachelor degrees in advance that their qualification will not lead to recognition in India and that they will not be able to undertake further studies in India on return or take up certain types of employment. I am aware that each year there are hundreds of returning students who are facing this developing concern. If Australian immigration is likely to be sticky with study-settle pathway, there is even greater need to pre-warn students or even dissuading education providers from such recruitment altogether. This has a potential of damaging Australian education export and could lead to generalised comment that all Australian degrees are not recognised which is simply not true. THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT RISK WHERE AUSTRALIAN EDUCATION RECRUITERS FOR THEIR SHORT TERM GAIN FAIL TO DISCLOSE THE REALITY TO THE STUDENTS.

Australian government has made efforts over the years to seek equivalence from Indian Government without success. However, this year France was able to sign a pact with India for mutual recognition of qualifications and I hear that the hindrance from the Indian end is because Australia has not been willing to enter into a bilateral recognition of  Indian qualifications. This is one of the biggest impediments with any real strategy.

FOURTH:

The report makes some immediate-term recommendations and some long-term recommendations. It would have been ideal for the report to point out that 2035 is too much in future for the education sector that is difficult to plan beyond a few years. Demand for Australian education has seen a cyclical pattern over the last 20 years with two phases (1999-2002 and 2009-2012) as periods of sudden dip in demand. The instruments employed to turn around the student numbers after these periods of dip were linked to immigration settings around access to post study work or settlement. The introduction of PSW was what led to the increase in student interest post 2012. I feel that apart from Australian immigration settings, the policies of Australia’s competitors is also of direct relevance. Britain abolished PSW around the same time as Australia introducing it. This drew students who were considering Britain to Australia. In recent years Australia has not really made very welcoming noises but with US being Trumped and NZ tightening its policies, numbers to Australia has continued to hold. Thus THIS ASPECT too should have been highlighted in the report. The RISK being that we can’t control this much but we do need to remain favourable as compared to our immediate competitors. Aping policies won’t help.

LASTLY:

With strategy to deal with the external factors and developing the competitive advantage, Australia can maintain its position amongst the top three destination choice for Indian students. However my criticism of any aspect of the report should not mean that I don’t welcome the report. I find the document an excellent starting point towards further capitalising on economic growth in India and furthering towards a productive Australia-India education relationship. I am tempted to also point out that while US and UK build the education links with India through non-Trade bodies such as American Centre/USEFI and British Council, Australia has been relying more on AUSTRADE. This just seems a little odd. Education is an export but in India, Education like Health, are often dealt a little differently. I just wish that the report had recommended moving all aspects pertaining to education back to Department of Education and Training as it used to be when Peter had arrived in India in 2010.

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