Friday, June 19, 2009

Indian students – at risk in Australia? by Peter Spolc

It is certainly true that a number of Indian students have been the subject of unprovoked attacks in Australia in recent times. It seems that the world’s media have made sure that this is global news. I’ve even had a British student (with a very Anglo name I might add) write to me with concerns for his safety during his study, scheduled to commence in Sydney in July.

What is not true is that we can determine, with any authority, the real risk to other Indian students, or any other students for that matter, as a result of these tragic events. We can begin to look at this issue from the perspective of personal safety research data for the world’s countries and cities.

But the media generally likes to make sure that the facts don’t get in the way of a good story, and sometimes the public are very happy to lend a hand. Take these comments from bloggers to the Times of India, for instance, “Even Before the advent of immigrants to that country, Australia was notorious for crimes, the reason remains very simple, poor economy, falling literacy rate, unemployment and racism, like many other countries” and “[the] youth of that country are left with very little choice but to target rich Indian students” while another preferred to entertain more of a regional conspiracy, “Maybe the ISI or other Pakistanis are paying white Australians to bash up Indians.”1

Presenting this issue as a cause for alarm, in whatever form that takes, makes eye-catching news. It is the very real uncertainties about international student safety that are overlooked in favour of that ‘good story’.

Almost one year ago exactly, the US company Mercer published the 2008 results of its annual survey of quality of living rankings for 215 of the world’s cities, including rankings of personal safety2

It identified five Australian cities in the world’s top 50 cities in terms of personal safety, with Melbourne, Perth and Sydney equal 29th on the list. Brisbane and Adelaide came in at equal 49th place. It is perhaps worth noting that while no US city made the top 50, five Canadian cities came in at equal 22nd. Only one UK city made the cut – Glasgow at no. 43.

So. if it was strictly a numbers game, you as a prospective international student in 2008 might choose to study in Luxembourg; no. 1 for personal safety. Or, if you prefer a more national approach, why not choose Germany with seven cities in the top 50?

Do these attacks really signal that the safety status enjoyed by Australia’s five safest cities has dramatically changed in the intervening year? I think not. If we were to treat the Dalai Lama as a somewhat unexpected authority on the issue of personal safety in Australia, we might even say that it has improved: “it would be wrong to blame the entire nation for the acts of a few people” ... “The behaviour of the native Australians is fast turning positive towards people of other cultures who have settled there”3 Or maybe this only applies to the permanent residents?

There is no doubt that the Indian students affected by these attacks suffered as victims of crime; but it would be premature to conclude that Indian students were a premeditated target. Had these victims been, say, Korean immigrants, would we automatically conclude that Australians had it in for Koreans? Again, I think not. Had they been white Anglo Australian students, what conclusion would we have made then? It is important to note that Australia’s ethnic and cultural diversity is generally higher than other nations in our region –the source countries of the majority of our international student population.4 This makes claims about racially-based crime an easy target, when the reality might be much more complex than first imagined.

What this story should focus on is the real risk to residents of Australia – permanent and temporary – of becoming victims of crime. And the prevailing statistics would suggest that the ‘risk’ of being safe is very high by global standards.

But this does not mean that there is not work for us to do. Australia’s High Commissioner to India is quoted as saying "there is no question that all these are criminal acts. For some of the acts the motivation might have a racist element. I will not rule out that some of the attacks were racist"5 Racism and crime are familiar bedfellows, and a careful examination of racist elements in these crimes should be considered, along with all of the other criminological elements we might expect to apply.

Should international students be afraid to come to Australia to study? On the contrary. In the Anglophonic world, Australia and Canada stand out as shining examples of safe living, with the UK and the US some distance behind.

And should our international student population choose to study at home, they might face quite different prospects. Singaporean students, for example, would enjoy living in the world’s 9th safest city, while students from Karachi would face life in the 213th ‘safest’ city.

Let’s all maintain a vigilance in caring for our students; be they domestic or international; temporary or permanent.




4 p. 190 of Levinson, D. (1998) ‘Ethnic Groups Worldwide’ Oryx Press



  1. My concern is that there seems to be a culture in Australian education of not evaluating the whole education experience of international or domestic students.

    It is an invaluable marketing and feedback tool that allows issues to be foreseen before they conflagarate into bigger issues e.g. Indian students' recent experience.

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  3. Being a teacher i know how to trained students,its duty to their teachers to teach them and maintain their life style, and i think that was the wrong attitude as we are going to improve our life style in many fields of our life so there is some changes too in teaching, but the first step will always old and that is understanding.

  4. Needless to say, Andrew, I agree. The challenge of comprehensively evaluating the international and/or domestic student experience has not to my knowledge been done. It would be a massive undertaking - but it could reveal just how well our current strategies match the real needs of our students. The Indian student experience shows us that the management of public perceptions can easily eclipse the facts, and at worst, fuel the flames. Addressing this issue for international students only would limit the quality and usefulness of this data.

  5. Indian students have told AM attacks on them are widespread and they are fearful to travel.It is very shyness and shows Australian's low mentality.

  6. Whether the crimes against Indaian students are racially motivated or not, the lack of immediate action, is only going to fuel more speculation. I believe that the Australian government has to step up their efforts to the same degree they would expect from the Indian government if thre situation was reversed.