Home/ Politics / Policy/  Peter Varghese | We want more Indian students in universities

New Delhi: To get highly skilled Indian workers, Australia is planning to encourage postgraduate and doctoral students. The focus is on what it needs to do to boost labour gaps, especially in medicine, engineering and accountancy, and cut down its focus on vocation education, a favourite with the majority of Indians.

Australian High Commissioner Peter Varghese said in an interview that his nation has no problem in giving residency to highly skilled workers. Edited excerpts:

Australia has emerged as one of the top education destinations for Indian students. How has this happened?

Of the top 100 universities in the world, we have four in Australia. And of the top 500 universities in the world, we have 19. Across the board our university sector is a high-quality sector. The internationalization of education in Australia is also very strong. We have on an average 25% of our university students international students.

Is there a particular category of students that you are looking to attract to Australia?

We would like to focus the education relationship to Indians coming to Australia much more on the university and higher education sector. If you look at the profile of the Indian students in Australia at the moment, it’s dominated by vocational education.

I am not in any way suggesting that is inappropriate. But what we would like to see is broadly a strategy, Indian students coming to Australia to focus on the university sector and that the vocational skills’ training is done more and more in India.

And I think that makes sense for both countries. We want to see more collaborative research work done between Australian and Indian universities; we would like to see more Indian students come to Australia for postgraduate work. We want to get away from the language of numbers and more talk about an education partnership. On the vocational side, I think it’s really finding the right model that works for India. In Australia we have a high-expense, low-volume model. India needs the opposite—high-volume, low-cost model.

Why are you not focusing on numbers when your country gets sizeable revenue from education?

What I am talking about is finding a model that better meets India’s requirements. India wants to upscale 500 million people. You are not going to upscale 500 million people by sending them off to Australia. The best way of doing that is to do more vocational training in India. I am not saying that education as a services export is not important to Australia. Clearly, it is. It is the third-largest source of export revenue. But my view is you cannot treat education simply as a commodity. It is more than a trade in services.

You need to design a strategy that meets the needs of the country that you are focusing on. And that is why the vocational training focus in India and the higher education focus in Australia make better sense.

Is the change in strategy in the vocational training sector due to the attacks on Indian students in 2009-10?

I wouldn’t see the changes as being driven by the unfortunate events in 2009-10. What’s happening here is a much bigger story. We are shifting the migration programme from a supply driven model to a demand-driven model and that means what we are going to do is we are going to identify what our skills gap in Australia are and then go after people who have those skills rather than people self nominating on the basis of list that maybe out of date very soon.

So there is a bigger shift in our policy settings here, which is then reflected in the way in it translated to how an education pathway and a labour market pathway come together. Partly what we saw in 2009 and in 2010 was a complete fusion of an education and labour market pathway. What we want to do is to separate the two more clearly not to hermetically seal them.

We want to make it clear that you choose to come to Australia to study then that is your primary objective and that your primary objective isn’t a backdoor means to the labour market.

Which are the areas where you would like to see Indian students come to study?

The areas where we will need are healthcare, age care, accountancy, information technology, medical sciences, engineering. Bear in mind, we are going through an infrastructure mining project boom so all of the skills that you need to bring that half trillion dollars of pipeline investment in the resources and mining sector to fruition are the skills that we are going to have a shortfall.

Do you think Australian institutes are capable of providing the skills to Indians knowing that the focus of both the countries is different?

I don’t think it will be problem in terms of the skills that are required because the skills you would require are the skills of the modern economy. The issue is how you scale up… the issue is how do you deliver the skills in such a large scale. And it’s going to require a very different model than what we do in Australia.

Just to take the Australian model and transplant, in my view is unrealistic. I don’t think we are going to set up bricks and mortar, 100% Australian-owned and operated vocational education system in India. What we will probably do is to have joint venture between Australia and India with the Indian vocational training institutions would draw on Australian course, quality control, train the trainer programs…there are many permutation and combinations.

Indian has started opening up its higher education space. If not in skill education, can we see some Australian university setting up a campus here?

Some of our universities have campuses in other countries—in Southeast Asia and Africa. They have a mixed experience. They have to make a judgment on whether they want to come to India. I don’t get a sense from talking to our university chancellors that they are going to rush into anything. My feeling is that they are watching the development of the Indian policy carefully.

When you came to India, it was a difficult time following attack on Indian students. Do you think Australia has been able to leave behind that image of unsafe student destination for India?

It was a very intense period of negative publicity. That’s going to leave a certain legacy. I don’t see it as an insurmountable legacy. I see it as a diminishing legacy. That’s going to be reflected what I see as a rebuild in applications from India. On the tourist side there is very strong growth.

In 2012—two years or so after the peak of this very bad publicity for us—India has been the No. 1 in terms of permanent migrants, No. 2 in temporary skill market, India coming in No. 2 in terms of international students.

I think what we went through is a very unfortunate phase in relationship. What I am keen to do is to convey a better sense of contemporary Australia… particularly on issues of race and multiculturalism.


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Updated: 06 Aug 2012, 12:42 AM IST
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