Back to the future for international students

Colombo PlanThere was a time in our history when Australia kept immigrants and visitors with dark skin at arm's length. Indian students and others from the Subcontinent and South East Asia were also a rare species. This was the era of the White Australia Policy, which remained on the statute books until 1972 when it was repealed by an act of parliament.

But in 1950 a new educational scheme, called the Colombo Plan, became a centrepiece of Australian Foreign Policy. It marked the beginning of the end of the White Australia Policy and played a significant role in the thawing of old entrenched attitudes.

The Colombo Plan affected my teenage years on a very personal level. As a Muslim teenager of Pakistani ancestry growing up in Perth in the late '50s, I was miserable and given to rehearsing rebellious speeches in front of the mirror, speeches that went no further than my bedroom. I envied the freedom enjoyed by my Anglo-Australian friends and spent a lot of time daydreaming about taboo pastimes, like dancing the twist and 'going out'.

There were no other Muslim families in Perth. My grandfathers had ventured to Australia in the 1890s, years before 1901 and the slamming of doors in the faces of people who looked like 'us'. On weekends I entered a twilight zone. I knew there had to be more to life than taking my baby brother to the cinema. This was decades before mobiles and the internet linked you up with like-minded strangers.

But one sunny day a normal teenage life became my lot, and my father's hair did not turn grey overnight. Suddenly I had friends who looked like me and we could go out together as a group. I owed it all to an Australian initiative for students from the Asia-Pacific region, an educational scheme light years ahead of the times.

Under the plan the first students to enrol in our tertiary institutions came from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India and Pakistan. In the early phase of the plan many students happened to be Muslims. Nursing, engineering, business studies and economics were popular choices.

Certainly the students were carefully selected: intelligent, proficient in English, friendly, charming and good looking young people. Friendships were forged and many Anglo-Celtic homes 'adopted' the newcomers. So did service clubs and sporting and church organisations. Universities treated them as special guests.

The students were happy to show off their respective cultures and went to barbecues and dances, although Muslim students avoided drinking alcohol. Many were keen soccer players who formed their own teams and joined a local soccer league. Badminton and table tennis were other sports boys excelled at and they cha-cha-cha-ed and jived much better than most of the locals.

Students also attended local mosques, fasted during Ramadan and celebrated Eid days. The female students I knew trained as nurses and wore the modest Malay dress of sarong and kebaya with a thin scarf over one shoulder. They influenced me so much that I even enrolled as a trainee-nurse for three months until I came to understand that a nurse's life was not for me, even though it offered the added incentive of living away from home!

Most Colombo Plan students returned to their homelands after completing their studies. They continued to visit Australia and even sent their children to Australia for schooling. Some male students married Australian women and settled here. Those who returned home formed a new generation of leadership: senior public servants, politicians, leading economic planners, businessmen and educators who helped significantly to develop trade and diplomatic links.

Their fondness for Australia and the families who'd 'adopted' them served our national interests well. It tempered the view, widely held by newly independent nations in the region, that Australia was a racist country.

I'm sure I'm not the only baby-boomer who remembers the years when we showed concern over the wellbeing of international students, when we treated them as people rather than statistics in an export industry worth about $15.5 billion.

If the singling out of Indian students had ever reared its ugly head back then, we'd have hung our heads in shame and not buried them in the sand. We'd have reacted immediately if news had leaked out about rogue educational providers and the exploitation of casual workers.

The attention that we are currently receiving from the Indian media is not undeserved. Visits to India by our senior politicians offering glib reassurances will not halt the turndown in Indian student enrolments at our tertiary institutions. We need to revisit the days when we understood what duty of care meant.

State governments, colleges and universities should start listening to international students and their representative bodies and stop fobbing them off with platitudes. Students' concerns about their physical wellbeing, accommodation needs and quality of education need to be addressed. This is what was proposed for the International Students Round Table discussions, which were held earlier this week.

If Australian students were being exploited or 'singled out' in New York or Mumbai or London, we'd demand answers. Mums and dads in India are no different to us.

Hanifa DeenHanifa Deen is a Melbourne-based award-winning author whose book The Jihad Seminar was released in 2008. Her other publications include Caravanserai: Journey Among Australian Muslims, Broken Bangles and The Crescent and the Pen: the Strange Journey of Taslima Nasreen.

Topic tags: hanifa deen, white australia policy, colombo plan, violence, international students



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Existing comments

It is inconceivable that any of the universities would discriminate against overseas students. In fact, I seem to recall a situation from the University of Wollongong some years ago where an academic got in trouble for suggesting that his university was being too lenient on the work presented by overseas students.

However, my point is that if we leave the universities out of the equation, that leaves these phony colleges and "the physical wellbeing, accommodation needs" of the students. The Four Corners program suggested without saying it in so many words that the greatest exploitation was coming from Australians of the same ethnic background as the students. This way easily leads to charges of racism, but if there is some truth in it, then it at least adds an element of difficulty to the situation.

Frank | 17 September 2009  

Emphatically agreed. Treating international students as commodities is unjust and bad policy.

It seems not enough of us have learned the lessons of the Colombo plan era.

RFI Smith | 17 September 2009  

Can anyone explain this to me?

Australia's assault rate works out to about 60 assaults per 100, 000 people per month.

That would imply that the 30 or so assaults reported so hysterically over the last three months can basically just be put down to routine crime.

Or am I burying my head 'in the sand'?

Flavian Hardcastle | 17 September 2009  

You'd think that with a GFC ripping into economies across the world, we'd treat such a precious market as higher education export with more care.

Irfan | 17 September 2009  

Great to see a word from Hanifa. May I relate as small incident from today:
I walked home in the rain this afternoon behind two Indian women with a pusher and two umbrella's. They stopped at the lights completely blocking the way ahead and I wanted to proceed with the green light, so I said 'excuse me' and they literally flinched and shrank back.

As passed I saw that their faces looked alarmed and said 'Thanks, nice rain isn't it.' and passed them relieved to have thought of something positive. Clearly we have a very frightened Indian community and I feel the shame of that. I am also appalled at the media that promotes fear shamelessly.

Patricia Bouma | 17 September 2009  

Very evocative of good times past. But from the late 70s mainstream education became a commodity until now in some hands it has morphed into out and out exploitation of overseas students.

Bebe Ward | 18 September 2009  

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