Last year, when the coronavirus reared its ugly head, Anagha Ganore, an Indian student studying at Griffith University, literally boarded the last flight out of Australia’s Gold Coast to Nasik, her hometown in western India. It was March 21 and on March 20, Australia had announced the closure of its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents.
Ganore, a student of Master’s in Business majoring in Human Resource Management, said she left on the general advice by the Australian government that it would be better for international students to go back home. “We did not have an option and I thought it was better to go back,” she said over the phone from India.
By April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, after meeting with the National Cabinet, made it public that those who were in Australia under various visa arrangements and who cannot support themselves had the “alternative to return to their home countries”.
For Jyotsnaa Ramasubramaniam, a student at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, the decision to fly back to India in December 2020, just nine months after arrival, was prompted by few unfortunate deaths in the family. But once she was ready to fly back, Australia had introduced a travel exemption policy and not many students, who are temporary visa holders, were given inward travel permissions.
The Department of Home Affairs made it clear that “Temporary visa holders in Australia can depart Australia at any time, however, they will generally not be permitted to return to Australia.”
But among the many stranded students in India are also ones like *Anurag from Kerala, who despite having paid the fees and enrolled are still unable to join the university. Anurag had enrolled for a Master’s in Professional Accounting and Business for August 2020 but because of Covid-19 and its spread deferred it to February in the hope he would be able to travel. Of course, he is still in India and “already two semesters down” pursuing his studies online.
Like him, Delhi-based Deepesh Batra deferred his enrolment in Master of Information Technology to February 2022 but feels unsure about the prospect of travelling even by then. “I have got the Certificate of Enrolment and paid the fees. And like everyone I would like to get on with my career, the sooner the better,” he rued.
*Arun, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne currently working on a project jointly developed and funded by the University of Melbourne and Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur under the Melbourne India Postgraduate Academy program, has completed his one-year tenure in India and accomplished his project works dedicated to ocean colour remote sensing. Now he is unable to return to Melbourne to complete the remaining part of his project. He says he may not be able to complete his PhD on time if the current situation persists.
There are more than 13,000 students enrolled in Australian universities and stranded in India, according to Stranded Indian Students of Australia, a group that is currently trying to mobilise the Indian government to address their grievance to the Australian government.
“That is the most conservative number we have arrived at, that too from Australian media houses,” said Anurag.
On July 28, student representatives of Stranded Indian Students of Australia in Delhi had a “very encouraging dialogue with External Affairs minister V Muraleedharan, with the possibility of building an effective plan of action agreeable to India and Australia at the earliest”.
Anurag, who does not want to use his real name, says a petition was submitted to the minister explaining the issues and proposals of the students. “The minister assured that he will look into this and contact his counterpart in Australia,” said Anurag. “He also assured that students well-being is of highest importance. This is a good development albeit no desired results have been seen yet.”
On July 29, responding to the questions raised in the Upper House of Parliament of India, the minister, in a written reply said, “Our missions abroad have been actively taking up these issues with the respective governments and have been impressing upon those governments to ease the travel restrictions. Also, the issue of travel restrictions has been taken up at the ministerial level with several countries.”
Earlier, student representatives in states such as Kerala, Punjab and Haryana had also approached their respective chief ministers highlighting their plight.
Many of these students spoken to say their universities have been giving them a standard response saying they are working with the Federal Government and doing whatever they can.
Asked how its university is working towards bringing offshore Indian students to Australia, the University of Wollongong in an email response said, “NSW Universities have been working with the Federal and State governments and Study NSW since the start of the pandemic on plans to return and welcome international students.”
“We understand that the pilot program arrangement to allow international students to come to Australia will not suit all students,” it said. “Many may choose to remain overseas for a while longer. UOW will continue to provide online classes and support for those who cannot return or come to Australia to commence or continue their studies.”
The University of Melbourne on its website notes, “If you are waiting to travel to Australia to commence or resume your studies on-campus, please note that Australian Government restrictions prohibit non-Australian citizens travelling to Australia at this time. We continue to follow the advice of the Victorian and Australian Governments regarding travel restrictions into and out of Australia.”
“We will contact you as soon as we know more about the possibility of travel to Australia to commence or resume your studies on-campus,” it said.
A spokesperson from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment in an email to The Indian Sun said, “The Australian Government is working closely with the states and territories, in partnership with educational institutions, on planning for the return of international students to Australia. State and territory governments are responsible for developing International Student Arrival Plans, consistent with the Australian Government Protocols and Preconditions for International Student Arrivals.”
Australian universities and other education providers are offering a range of support to students including students who remain offshore. International students are encouraged to contact their education provider in the first instance to express interest in participating in any program that the relevant state or territory may choose to bring forward to return international students to Australia.
Interestingly, Anurag also addressed the issue of India being labelled as a high-risk nation (unofficially) and, how is it fair to reason the exclusion of these more than 13,000 Indian students citing the public health condition of a country with approximately 130 crore population. He also expresses disbelief on the non-recognition of Covishield (Indian version of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine) in Australia.
Anurag, who has a WhatsApp group of over 170-plus students with whom he regularly exchanges information, has observed that almost all the students in the sample size have completed their vaccination (both doses as prescribed by WHO). He further asked, “How is a student who has been fully vaccinated with Covishield be different from any student on-shore who has taken the same.”
Online classes frustration
Most discussion of these students stranded in India have revolved around the disadvantages around online classes. These classes have exacerbated disparities between online and in-campus students, one where the same equal environment is not there.
This arrangement of online study, the students note, was extended with negligible support on fee, technology and laboratory infrastructure that is required to cater to the successful completion of the various courses such as research in science and technology, healthcare work, business, arts and the like, that each student has been promised and asked to pay for.
Unfortunately, this temporary arrangement has stayed in force till date with very little improvement in support, they aver.
“Firstly, the time difference means I have to get up by at least 3 am [Indian Standard Time] to attend classes),” said Jyotsnaa, who has spent only 10 months on campus so far. “I am not satisfied with the master’s degree, I do not think I am getting any benefit after spending lakhs of rupees.”
Anurag said, “The whole idea of having a campus experience, of inclusion and diversity among other things, is gone.”
“The university is trying its best to accommodate studies online but it’s like comparing apples and oranges. You pay for one gram of gold and you get one gram of silver,” Anurag said. “There is this very important factor of serendipity that happens in campuses when you are there, you talk to people, discuss ideas, etc., all these things can make a lot of difference.”
*Sarita, an under-grad student of Arts, Law and Advanced Studies at the University of Sydney, was in campus for only two months before she returned to India last year. She has spent a year studying online and says for assignments there are certain resources that are only available at the university’s in-person library and not online, which means only domestic persons get to access them.
“We get scored on the same curve as them,” Sarita said. “It adds to the general paranoia that if I am not scoring well, these are the same people I have to compete against when I am doing my internship or looking for work.”
Sarita cannot even mull going to another university because her law credits will not count in any other country. “If I have to start again, it is a year and a half of my degree or time gone to waste.”
On another note, Anurag says his University of Wollongong is at least trying to give them some online study discounts albeit a lower discount scheme compared to onshore student hardships, but he believes there is no flexibility in other universities.
Apart from the time difference, students also cite the lack of communication or contribution when it comes to group projects. They believe the teachers are trying their best but there are limitations. For instance, they cannot have drop-in sessions to clarify things with their professors. “It is a one-way communication right now, so the quality of education is getting compromised,” said Anurag.
Others also rue about average internet connectivity that leads to submissions being delayed, classes not being streamed properly and so on.
Majority of the stranded students are undergoing a post graduate course which usually is with the term period of two years only. If a student were to start the PG course in February 2020 intake, he would be in his final semester of the course which would have been completely online.
Therefore, the quality of education online while paying a full-time fee of an on- campus student is worrying many. What seems rife are unknowable risks. Will this quality affect the employability skill that they are supposed to have?
Does online education skill generate the required work and experience that these students seek eventually whether in India or in Australia? Moot questions that the students are grappling with.
Well being at stake
*Girish, who is studying Master’s in International Business and Human Resources from Griffith University (2019 intake), moved back to Dubai in September last year and is having mental health issues being away from campus and having to deal with studies online.
“I had a history of depression and anxiety and it got intensified with the lockdown,” he said. “I went to Australia to get new exposure, meet new people, learn cultures. For almost a year, it has been a huge burden for me and my family financially, plus the government was also not supportive. When they said go home, it was really bad for a lot of people. If it was for a short time we can cope, but it has been more than a year.”
Girish, 25, also said that the uncertainty, the lack of a specific timeline as to when he can return to university is adding to his frustration. “In the United Arab Emirates, we do not get residency or citizenship and are dependent on visas and contracts,” Girish said. “We are stuck because we cannot get into a job as we have to enter into at least a year’s contract. We cannot commit to anything here and we cannot wait forever. It is like being stuck in a loop right now. And we are in the most crucial time of our lives.”
Anurag said 95% of the students he has spoken to are in complete mental agony with many of them into “silent depression”. The choice of going to Australia, the huge financial burden combined with the uncertainty now Australia opening up its borders – it is almost as if their future is crumbing before their eyes. “People are flying out to the US or Canada in the neighbourhood and we get asked what are you still doing here.”
An informal survey conducted from 1,100 stranded Indian students showed that severe mental disorder, financial student debt crisis and unemployment would be the major outcomes that is visible from the past-outs if any between the year 2021-2024. The survey lacks scientific accuracy and hence is limited to the extent of this sample size.
“If Australia does not open up by February 2022, I can tell you that many of my friends are planning to go to Canada instead,” said Batra, who heads one of the WhatsApp groups with over 170 students in it.
Jyotsnaa finishes her degree in December. Her student visa (subclass 500) expires in March. “If I do not get there, the big question is what to do next,” she asks.
Most of these students under subclass 500 are waiting to transition to the temporary graduate visa (subclass 485) which allows one to remain in Australia to live, study or work after one has finished one’s studies. The visa has two streams: graduate work stream and post-study work stream, with the length of stay depending on which stream one applies for.
In the case of *Ajit, who completed his Masters of Accounting and Business from James Cook University, Brisbane, and stranded in Kerala since March last year, he has his 485 visa approved this April. But it came with the condition that he has to arrive in Australia by April next year.
He said he does not know what will happen as there is no information forthcoming from the Australian Immigration department as to when he can travel. “My family is worried because we have taken a huge loan to study,” he said. “When I tell the bank I am stuck here they say it is none of their concern. So, facing a bit of a pressure and hardship as I have to earn and pay back the loan that l have taken.”
Ganore, who is due to finish her master’s degree by December, half of which was done online, said her only plan is to get back to Australia as she has missed out on the exposure and opportunities that she paid for.
There is no definite timeline as to when Australia will welcome its offshore students. Clutching on to strands of optimism, these students are hoping universities and the governments will treat them with some care and responsibility and hasten their return.
*Names changed. The students have expressed for privacy given the slew of threats, shaming and anger over the internet media as a likely outcome from India being on their ‘high-risk nation’ list till date.
This article first appeared on The Indian Sun.
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