During the inaugural India-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue held on Sept. 11, 2021 in New Delhi, both sides discussed a host of strategic issues; ways for enhancing defence cooperation, maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from this, possible cooperation between India and Australia in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as trade issues were also discussed during the dialogue.
One of the important issues which was taken up by the Indian side during the 2+2 dialogue was the return of Indian students to Australian universities for continuing their higher studies. As a result of the travel restrictions imposed after the outbreak of coronavirus in 2020, Indian students, already enrolled in Australia, and those who have secured admissions, for terms beginning in 2020 and 2021, have been unable to make it to Australia ( it would be pertinent to point out that during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, Australia had suspended all passenger flights from India). While since 2020, Indian students have been taking classes in the online mode, they have rightly made the point that virtual classes are very different from being on campus. Student groups have put forward their concerns to both the Central Government as well as various state governments.
While talking to reporters after the 2+2 meeting, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said, “I specifically took up with Minister Payne the problems faced by Indian students in Australia and those wishing to go to Australia as well as the Indian origin community that is resident there.”
The Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on her part said that once Australia is able to vaccinate a certain percentage of its population, it would allow international students. The Australian Minister while commenting specifically on Indian students said: “There is shared desire on both sides to see that travel resume between our countries as soon as it is safe to do so. I look forward to being one of the people at the airport to welcome the first arrivals of Indian students coming back to Australia.”
It would be pertinent to point out that many Indian students are eagerly awaiting for Australia to open up its borders and return by February 2022 (in 2020, Australian states had proposed to begin pilot programs in 2021, under which 800 students a month would be allowed to enter Australia, this plan had been shelved however after the rise of Covid-19 cases and the imposition of a lockdown). If they are unable to make it in 2022, many Indian students are already thinking of pulling out and seeking admission in universities in other countries, such as Canada. Significantly, in 2020-2021 a little over 11,000 students from India were issued visas as opposed to 21,000 in 2019-2020.
Soft Power – cricket, diaspora and most importantly higher education has played an important role in strengthening ties between India and Australia. A report titled, “An India Economic Strategy to 2035: Navigating from Potential to Delivery,” submitted to the Australian government by Peter Varghese Chancellor of the University of Queensland, and a former Australian diplomat underscores the importance of education as being an important link in the bilateral relationship between Australia and India.
Indian students account for the second largest group within the international student community in Australia after Chinese students, and according to estimates contribute well over AU$ 6 billion in 2019-2020. As a result of the Trump administration’s changes to the US student visa regime, Australia along with Canada was amongst the biggest beneficiaries.
Australia should take a leaf out of the book of other countries like UK, US and Canada, which in spite of keeping Covid-19 restrictions intact, have allowed Indian students to enter their respective countries. Apart from this, it is important for Australia make it clear whether once they do open their borders to international students, the vaccine doses administered in India to a large percentage of the population – covishield and covaxin will be accepted in Australia.
As a result of tensions with China, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia could witness a significant drop in Chinese students enrolling at Australia’s higher education institutions, and there is a realization in Australia that attracting more Indian students is all the more important in such a situation. “An India Economic Strategy to 2035: Navigating from Potential to delivery” makes an important point: “Boosting our education links with India is also a hedging strategy against an over reliance on the Chinese market, which accounts for roughly 30 per cent of our education exports.”
For this to happen, it is important that Australia prioritizes the return of international students, including those stranded in India. If borders do not open soon, many Indian students enrolled in Australian universities may look to other countries for higher education, as has been mentioned earlier. It is not just the short run, but many policymakers, educational consultants and academics in Australia have expressed concern that even in the longer term, Indian students may give greater preference to other countries for higher education. While Australia-India bilateral ties have strengthened in recent years and cooperation in the strategic sphere has strengthened under the umbrella of the Quad, as discussed earlier, education is a strong link between both countries, Australia should thus exhibit flexibility and sensitivity toward Indian students.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.