How the Australian overseas student industry rips off the developing world
6 February 2010
Let’s face it: there’s bound to be a racist element behind many of the attacks on Indian students in Australia. I mean you can see it: Here’s some resentful half-arsed kid who had a lousy upbringing and has no prospects of a brilliant career, prosperity and the rest. He hangs out with his mates and they bitch to each other about anybody identifiably different: Lebs, abos, gays, Muslims, Asians … whatever. And then they suddenly see lots of Indians turning up in the places they hang out, and even getting jobs, and they decide they’re going to bash the diligent little wog to teach him a lesson. Nothing fundamentally to do with being Indian, as such, just to do with being different: not an Aussie, not like us.
You can’t discount, either, a certain structural factor: leaving aside any racist motivation, a big increase in Indian students will be followed, inevitably, by a big statistical increase in violence against Indian students. (How big? Read on).
But focus too much on the is it or isn’t it racism? debate and you’ll miss the Big Drift of History: the Australian ruling class’s quiet development of a new way of ripping off the developing world and providing itself with a cheap labour source.
Educating people to be productive workers is expensive. Not only do you have to guarantee a certain level of resources and social stability so that people can have kids, raise them and socialise them, but you then have to pay for their primary, secondary and, if necessary, tertiary education.
Instinctively, any ruling economic elite is going to try to avoid all these burdens. In the ancient Greco-Roman world they did this by relying on slaves captured in military conquest. Rome started declining when this source of young adult labour dried up and they had to start breeding and educating slaves.
We started off in Australia with the actual slave labour of convicts. But that stopped in the early 1840s, partly because of popular opposition in the colonies and partly because the supply of criminals bred by the social chaos of England’s breakneck industrialisation dried up. Next came heavy levels of immigration. That, so far, has been the story of Australia’s economic development. Still, immigrants became citizens in short order, and their young offspring had to be accommodated within the education system from the day they set foot on Australian soil, and, after it developed, the social security system. Fair enough, too.
The post WWII skills demand led to the Menzies Government instituting Commonwealth university scholarships, a generous system that extended into the Whitlam and Frazer years.
Parallel with that, after 1950, Australia was giving aid to developing countries in the form of the Columbo Plan, under which thousands of Asian students were sponsored to study or train in Australian institutions. The plan was largely motivated by the belief that improved living standards would counter the appeal of radical nationalist movements in the region. But the motivating threat lifted with the decline of the left-wing threat in south-east Asia, the market Stalinist conversion of China, and the increasingly conservative drift of Indian politics. It was time to exchange aid for exploitation.
Step 1: The Howard Government decides to make tertiary education pay for itself by selling education to overseas students and sponsors the creation of a vast and increasingly shonky private industry selling degrees to the sons and daughters of relatively well-off folk from countries like China and India who couldn’t get into a university in those countries. Cunning stuff. Get the upwardly mobile in poorer countries to subsidise the tertiary education of Australian citizens. Standards decline and crap “vocational” courses proliferate.
Step 2: A policy favouring, for residency, those students whose families have paid for their education here. As word spreads, more and more Asian parents hand over good money for essentially fraudulent degrees and diplomas that are little more than the price of residency. A wonderful side benefit for Australian employers is that a great deal of very cheap or entirely free labour can be extracted from the hapless students and passed off as course work. Officially, overseas students are allowed to work 20 hours a week (and a further 20 for any dependents they might bring) but policing of this limit is no doubt laughable.
Last year there were 320,000 overseas students in Australia, an increase of 15 per cent on 2007-8. Of these, 65,000 were from India, an increase of 27 per cent. There is now nearly one overseas student for every 70 Australian citizens and probably one worker in every 35 in the labour force (as counted very generously by the ABS) is an overseas student. That’s an awful lot of cheap labour. These workers live an atomised existence like the slaves of old. They have few rights and every reason to avoid complaining about their lot.
Facts like these don’t get much exposure in the yellow press, which prefers to encourage moral panic about a few Australian Muslims and dog whistle about a tiny handful of asylum seekers arriving by boat.