Rise in Indian students brings increasing challenges

Students from India continue to flood into Australian universities at a greater rate than from any other nation, but their presence is creating growing problems.

Among the major issues confronting academics with Indian students in their classes are a too-frequent inadequate command of English and academic misconduct.

The extent of ill-preparedness to cope with Australian standards is shown by the higher proportion of visa rejections by Australian officials over the past year: one in 10 visa applications from Indian students already in Australia were refused compared with an average refusal figure for students from other countries of one in 20. Among the 15 main source countries, only students from Pakistan and Malaysia had a higher refusal rate.

Even so, the numbers of Indian students on Australian campuses continue to rise more rapidly than from any other nation.

In the 2018-19 financial year enrolments by Indian students increased by an astonishing 34% and, their numbers may already have passed 100,000.

That puts their enrolments not far behind those from China, although the number of Chinese students has begun to fall as other nations become more attractive to the upwardly mobile Chinese.

Explosive revelations

The problems foreign students, including those from India, are causing Australian university officials gained wide publicity in November, when Murdoch University in Western Australia took legal action against a senior academic who complained on television that the university was enrolling international students whose English was inadequate.

The issue clearly touched a sensitive nerve among academics across the nation who strongly objected to the university taking legal action against the academic, Dr Gerd Schröder-Turk, an associate professor in mathematics and statistics.

The fact that Schröder-Turk was only expressing views held by perhaps a majority of academics involved with international students did not affect the university’s attempts to silence him.

The Australian online publication Macrobusiness in a report in September described how “low-grade Indian international students were flooding universities”.

The report quoted one Murdoch University academic, Benjamin Reilly, as saying: “In semester one in 2018 we experienced a surge in new international students into some postgraduate courses... with several hundred new students, mostly from the Punjab region of India, enrolling...

“While some were OK, many do not have the language skills to study at a postgraduate level and have thus been unable to participate in class or complete assessments for the units legitimately.

“Hence we now have a much larger number of academic misconduct issues, supplementary assessments and outright failures than we have previously experienced in the units in which this cohort has enrolled.

“Perhaps the most telling statistic of them all,” according to Duncan Farrow, senior lecturer in mathematics at Murdoch University, “was that 48 of the 80 students... had at least one academic misconduct finding against them. Not only was there a huge increase in numbers of misconduct cases but, additionally, the investigations were more difficult due to the poor language capabilities of many of the students involved.”

India increasingly attractive

But while its students may be causing problems for Australian academics on campus, India as a nation is becoming increasingly attractive to other academics and business leaders.

During November, a senior delegation of Australian university leaders joined federal Education Minister Dan Tehan on an official visit to India “to reinforce strong bilateral higher education and research links”.

Tehan, along with Australian vice-chancellors and senior university leaders, including Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson, met with Indian government officials and members of the Indian research sector.

Indian Minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal hosted a number of events with Tehan, including visits to institutions, workshops and a bilateral roundtable.

Jackson said there were many fields of collaborative research “of great importance to both Australia and India – including agriculture and water security”.

“By working together on these types of research, we can help local communities in Australia and India to tackle challenges with water supply and usage, and food and farm production,” she said.

“As India reshapes its strategic priorities with a draft new National Education Policy, Australian universities want to work with Indian institutions to see what further opportunities we can explore.”

Mutual interest

So, while back home academics continued to struggle to support Indian students, Jackson was explaining how many research areas were “of great mutual interest to both Australia and India”.

“And they have potential to change the lives of everyday people in both of our countries in profoundly important ways,” she said.

“Australia has a strong contingent of Indian students studying in our universities, with India the second largest source country among our diverse international student population. These students make a valuable contribution to our universities and broader communities.”

That may well be true except that to many of Australia’s academics, their presence on campus also poses significant challenges.