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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

The media, racism and university policies
towards overseas students in Australia

Anton Enus

SBS (Special Broadcasting Service)

‘You will never lose votes in Australia railing against refugees.’

I look to this quote because it taps into the heart of the debate – that awkward area between sensationalism and racism. In fact, it represents a trifecta of division: social attitudes, immigration policy and international education. I begin with several case studies.

Griffith is a small agricultural town in south-western New South Wales that dates back to the First World War and – like our national capital, Canberra – was designed by Walter Burley Griffin. It has a long multicultural history, with many Italian migrants settling there, especially after the Snowy River Scheme in the mid-1900s made Griffith an agricultural haven. Fruit picking provided lots of seasonal employment.

In recent years a growing Sikh community has emerged in Griffith, attracted by the seasonal work available on farms in the Riverina area. Ranjodh Singh was a 25-year-old Indian whose wife lived in Melbourne while he spent a year working in Griffith. He died a grisly death just two days before New Year’s Eve, 2009. Ranjodh was found burnt to death at the roadside, his body surrounded by singed grass.

Southern Region Commander Mark Murdoch of the New South Wales Police described the murder as ‘horrific’: it appeared that Ranjodh had had his throat slit and was then burnt alive (Minus 2010). So severe were his injuries that police resorted to releasing photographs of his jewellery to make a positive identification.

On 29 January 2010 Jodie Minus reported in the Australian that husband and wife Gurpreet Singh, aged 23, and Harpreet Bhullar, aged 20, as well as an unnamed 25-year-old man, had been arrested and faced charges in connection with the crime (Minus 2010). All three were Indian nationals.

Nitin Garg died a horrific death barely 24 hours after 2010 New Year’s Day celebrations in Melbourne. The 21-year-old accountancy student worked part time at a Hungry Jack’s fast food outlet in Footscray. On his way home he walked through Cruickshank Park at around 9.30 pm. There he was set upon and stabbed. Somehow, despite his injuries, he managed to return to his workplace to seek assistance. But despite being rushed to hospital, he died shortly after. A 15-year-old boy was arrested in connection with the incident. Detective Inspector Bernie Edwards of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad told reporters that police did not believe race was a factor in the murder (Lowe 2010).

The case of Jaspreet Singh was a little more complex. He suffered burns outside his home in Essendon about a week after the Nitin Garg attack. The 29-year-old, who ran a courier business and was in Australia on his wife’s student visa, told police that he had been confronted by two men on the street at 2 am on 8 January 2010. They allegedly doused him in fluid and set him alight. He suffered burns to 15 per cent of his body, including his face and arms.

However, in a twist to the case, the Sydney Morning Herald (2010) reported on 3 February that Mr Singh was arrested by police after surveillance footage apparently showed him purchasing a plastic container and 15 litres of petrol – evidence of which was recovered from his home. Police allege Mr Singh torched his Ford Futura for the insurance money.

Three unrelated cases – all tragic and dramatic – were almost guaranteed to generate significant headlines. Because they occurred within a few days of one another, there is a temptation to link them and to try to find some kind of trend. That, after all, is what many media outlets do. It is called ‘moving the story along’. If a story ‘has legs’ it will find its own momentum but, in some instances, the news media will try to keep the story alive by publishing incremental details.

I’m not arguing that the media should refrain from doing this, but that these issues have greater implications than newspaper sales or broadcast ratings. I have deliberately chosen these three case studies. They do not undermine the reporting of the spate of attacks on Indian students – nothing changes the completely unacceptable nature of these incidents – but they highlight the reality that often these cases are complex and point to underlying causes unrelated to the attacks on students.

Simplistic and attention-seeking reporting does no-one any favours. It cheapens the pain and suffering of those who genuinely have been targeted by opportunistic criminals. Jumping on the ‘racist Australia’ bandwagon is all too easy because it ramps up the story – horrific as it is – and stirs public emotion in the direction of sensationalism.

In the minds of certain news directors there is room for only one way of reporting an issue – and that is going for the jugular. I call it the ‘Mother of the Nation’ syndrome. During my years in South Africa I saw this at first hand. In reporting about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, international news organisations had room for only one slant: her role as the steadfast, long-suffering, heroic mother figure in the liberation struggle. Madikizela-Mandela absorbed all the pressure the apartheid state had to give and came through stronger, more defiant and always ready to face another day of activism.

All this is absolutely true. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a true pioneer of the emerging democracy in South Africa. But it is also important to think of the difficulties the media faced initially in going into the dark places of her psyche: the extramarital affairs, the football team, Stompie Seipei. These angles clashed with the ‘Mother of the Nation’ image and struggled to find traction. At least initially.

In the same way, there was a sense in the international media – and dare I say particularly in the robust Indian media landscape – that there was the scent of blood. So the temptation was to make any and every attack a manifestation of how racist Australia is.

Australians are not racist. But it would be naïve to suggest that there is no racism in Australia. Even in the twenty-first century. And nothing exemplifies this more than the debate swirling around boat people: ‘You will never lose votes in Australia railing against refugees’ (Richardson 2010). Graham Richardson was not advocating a policy platform here. He was simply stating the obvious: that in an election campaign the major parties tend to move to a more hardline position. There is a tendency to pander to individual conservative concerns while sticking to the middle ground overall.

This observation by Richardson was made in May 2010. Since that time Australia has had a bloodless party-room coup (when Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister on 24 June 2010) and an election campaign that produced a nail biter of a result. Which party would govern was ultimately down to one independent, Rob Oakeshott – a former member of the conservative, country-based National Party. In other words, at that point in history Australia was a country divided right down the middle, so it was no surprise that the major parties were falling over themselves, beating their chests and declaring they were tough on border security and tougher still on people smugglers. And this phenomenon was reflected in the media.

On Monday 5 July 2010 I was running on a treadmill in the gym when I had the rare experience of dipping into the world of Sydney commercial talkback radio. It was not a pleasant half-hour, but I was trapped on the treadmill without an iPod. The discussion on station 2GB followed a meeting on the previous day of a controversial Muslim group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. I can understand that some people get anxious and upset about fundamentalist politics at the best of times – I do as well – but the particular moment that caught my attention went beyond that. Underpinning the provocative tone of the presenter, Chris Smith, was a series of callers fearing that the Australian way of life was under attack.

Smith then took a call from a male Muslim, who was at pains to point out that this particular group did not represent the majority of Muslims in Australia. The caller emphasised that they were ordinary, law-abiding people. And then came this question from Smith: ‘Is there such a thing as a moderate Muslim?’ I nearly fell off the treadmill. Never mind the generally aggressive tone of his callers, it was Smith and this question that summed up the kind of ugliness that so often comes to the fore when debating race. It is a question so loaded with hostility and contempt that it would have been easy for the caller to have lost his temper, which, perhaps, was exactly the desired outcome. To his credit, the Muslim man stayed calm and did not rise to the bait.

In the election campaign that followed, the Liberal Party ran a TV ad showing asylum seekers approaching Australia as big red arrows, reminiscent of the perennial anti-communist sentiment, with a voice-over promising to ‘stop the boats’. Unfortunately, one of the images used in this ad was of the Malu Sara, an Immigration Department boat involved in a tragic sinking in the Torres Strait that claimed five lives. The Coalition’s immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, personally apologised for the gaffe.

At the same time, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen was telling her readers in the Australian: ‘the number of boat people rose from 161 in 2008 to 3000 in 2009 and almost 5000 by the time [Kevin] Rudd left office’ (Albrechtsen 2010), and earlier: ‘Ignoring those who wait in camps in favour of those within range of our nightly news bulletins, those backed by articulate advocates or those with the money to pay people-smugglers or lawyers, is immoral’ (Albrechtsen 2009).

As a matter of interest, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that less than one per cent of global refugees will be resettled. In 2008, for instance, only 65,548 people found new homes – in 26 countries (UNHCR 2010). To return to Albrechsten (2009):

More important, it drains the goodwill available in Australia for the benefit of all refugees. We are entitled to focus on helping the most deserving cases, not the queue jumpers or media manipulators.

We are entitled to ask why those asylum seekers who land safely in Indonesia, where they are free from the oppression and persecution in their home countries, do not apply for refugee status in Indonesia. We are entitled to prefer a refugee program that we control rather than one controlled by people-smugglers.

Another aside: onshore applicants (those arriving by boat or plane) account for less than 20 per cent of Australia’s refugee intake. And the vast majority – 19 out of 20 – arrive by air and statistically are not likely to be recognised as genuine asylum seekers (only around 21 per cent are successful). By contrast, those processed on Christmas Island have a 90 to 95 per cent acceptance rate. And what kind of reception do they get once they make it to the mainland? Anecdotally, most are treated well. But there are the exceptions.

In Western Australia, on 5 November 2010, Channel Seven TV news reported on a public meeting to protest against the establishment of a facility at Northam, about 80 kilometres north-east of Perth, that will house 1500 male asylum seekers. There were tee-shirts emblazoned with ‘SINK THEIR BOATS’ and references to the ‘dangers’ if asylum seekers were to ‘invade’ their town. Outside, a sign on a gate said: ‘KILL THEM ALL’.

Halfway across the continent, in South Australia the residents of Inverbrackie, near Adelaide, were up in arms over the imminent arrival of 400 asylum-seeker families, including children. Tempers ran high, but there were also more practical concerns as expressed by Bill Cooksley, the Mayor of the Adelaide Hills Council. He told SBS Radio’s World View program on 26 October 2010 that the community had expressed opposition to illegal queue jumpers, through to simply saying it needed more detail about what was going to happen and how it would affect property values. People also wanted to know how it would affect their kids’ education and what the health and security arrangements were: for instance, were these people going to wander into town?

But not all Hills residents were concerned about their new neighbours. Rody Emblem, coordinator of the Hills Circle of Friends, a refugee support group whose members live in the region, told Radio Adelaide 101.5’s Breakfast with Peter Godfrey on 5 November 2010 that there was a lot of hostility expressed at the first meeting held at the Woodside Institute, most of it directed largely at the government for inadequate planning and not being able to answer their questions. He said there was a lot of concern and fear. Emblem felt it was not so much hostility as a feeling of despair because their questions were not being answered.

This is what Fairfax newspapers reported:

[Federal Opposition Leader Tony] Abbott visited Woodside in the Adelaide Hills on Wednesday where residents are angry at the federal government’s decision to use empty defence force housing at nearby Inverbrackie for asylum seeker families. He says bringing asylum seekers to such an idyllic location will send the wrong message to people smugglers.

But Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, says Mr Abbott is just whipping up fear and playing on the genuine concerns of the local community: ‘Tony Abbott’s comments are rank political opportunism, scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to this issue’, Senator Hanson-Young said. ‘He has come to Adelaide, he is whipping up fear around a really sensitive issue’. (Age 2010)

Online, Lenore Taylor observed a lack of detailed policy from Tony Abbott:

Nor could he say how he would ‘turn back’ a boat that had been deliberately disabled and was sinking, nor where he would return it to.

And the Coalition hasn’t yet said to which country it would try to send the asylum seekers – only that it wouldn’t happen in Australia. And Abbott was tapping in to voters’ fears, too. The Coalition, he said, would do ‘whatever it takes to keep our borders secure and our country safe’. He didn’t explain how asylum seekers pose a threat to our safety. (Taylor 2010)

That is the environment in which the debate on Indian students had been cultivated. Firm political leadership was needed to shut down the more extreme elements of the asylum-seeker debate, which played into the kind of whipped-up xenophobia that was emerging or was feared to be emerging. Community leaders needed to take a stand and call for robust debate, not racism, not fear of ‘the other’, the outsider.

Some political leaders had spoken up, including the two prime ministers on whose watch these student attacks had taken place. Kevin Rudd had this to say: ‘Any decent human being just responds with horror at the sort of attack which occurred recently’ (Callinan 2009). While Julia Gillard, the incumbent, went to India (prior to taking over the top job) to reassure Indians personally that Australia was not a racist country. And John Brumby, Premier of Victoria, also made the trip to Delhi to smooth over the ill will.

At home Australian individuals and businesses rallied to show their concern and hospitality. On 24 February 2010 ‘Vindaloo Against Violence’ – a campaign to show that people cared about what was happening – saw thousands of people take part in the breaking of bread at hundreds of locations: restaurants and other businesses, schools and universities.

The Indian media was also not slow to exploit this issue. On 8 February 2010 the weekly news magazine Outlook screamed from its front page: ‘Why the Aussies hate us’ (Wade 2010). And on 5 January 2010 the New Delhi Mail Today ran a cartoon depicting Victorian police as members of the Ku Klux Klan, which Ms Gillard described as ‘deeply offensive’ (Wilson 2010). An effigy of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was burned in India and the All India Students Federation took to the streets, demanding ‘stringent action’. What was needed was clear bipartisan leadership to shut down the racist elements that seemed to come to the fore so easily in the public debate.

Unfortunately, in an election year, Australians got a lot of petty politicking and ruthless point scoring. It led veteran reporter Laurie Oakes, perhaps the most influential journalist working in Canberra, to declare: ‘The sad truth is we have a pair of political pygmies heading the two major parties in this election’ (Oakes 2010).

So how does SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster, address these issues? Our approach is to listen and to tell the stories of the people involved, especially those who often struggle to get heard in the debate: the individual; the smaller, under-resourced community groups; the protagonists. Of course, the bigger players – government, industry, lobby groups – are reported as a matter of course. But by its nature and the dictates of its charter, SBS also always seeks out the weaker voices that sometimes get drummed out in the heat of public debate.

We also make a concerted effort to provide depth in our coverage. In news we don’t shy away from running longer, more comprehensive reports on sensitive issues. In the period between May 2009 and October 2010, SBS’s World News Australia carried 81 reports relating to the attacks on Indian students. They covered protest meetings; a crisis summit involving community leaders; Indian students handing out lollies on Flinders Street after the safety on trains campaign; the Walk for Harmony event; the Australia Day address deploring racism by General Peter Cosgrove, former Chief of the Defence Force; the visit to Melbourne by Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna; and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser saying that the attacks point more to mismanagement of the education sector than to racism.

At SBS television news we also engage in longer format, one-on-one interviews (sometimes exclusively for our website when time constraints make this impractical for our nightly news). And we actively promote community participation in our town-hall-style discussion forums. Insight, a weekly TV program presented by Jenny Brockie, is our prime focus on in-depth debate. The basis of the program is its wide-ranging research. A team of journalists and producers seek out a range of viewpoints, pre-interview them extensively and come up with a format that teases out the ambiguities and subtleties of the subject. In addition, Insight runs an online discussion forum off the back of the TV broadcast each week.

During the week when SBS aired the segment covering attacks on Indian students, the chat room and YourSay segments were ablaze with comments, some focused on terminology, such as how to define ‘racism’. It also elicited the greatest number (204 to be exact) of examples of people disagreeing with other posts. That number would no doubt be a lot higher but for our policy of not publishing comments bordering on defamation or contempt of court.

But another important aspect was how the original question – whether the attacks on Indian students were racist or opportunistic – morphed into new areas. These included conspiracy theory about government involvement (Australian and Indian), allegations of corruption, cost-benefit analysis, population size and exploitation of developing nations by Australia.

Interestingly, a significant number of contributors saw the program as providing ‘evidence’ of their positions, even when these were widely divergent. Some acknowledged how taking part in the online debate and reading the points raised by others made them feel.1

In the case of SBS Radio, it was much the same approach: an attempt to hear the voices from within the debate. I asked SBS Radio’s Punjabi service how it covered the attack in Footscray. This is what the Executive Producer, Manpreet Singh, told me:

With Nitin Garg’s issue, I interviewed Garg’s uncle in India and asked him if Nitin had ever complained about his Australian experience, if he’d ever spoken about any ugly incidents from here when he called home, and had Nitin ever contemplated coming back to India, with constant reports of attacks against Indian students in Melbourne. The uncle said Nitin had a largely positive Australian experience, and even reassured them that there was too much media hype in India. In fact, even the uncle agreed that Nitin was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Of course, many of the cases I’ve described are before the courts and the point of these comments is to describe the reporting process, not to draw any legal conclusions.

So to the crux of the debate: How many Indian students have recently fallen victim to attack in Australia? A determined effort under FOI legislation has revealed the number.2 A total of 183 international students died in Australia between the years 2003 and 2009. That is roughly 26 a year, or one every two weeks.

Of those, 32 were Indian students – statistically, four and a half a year. I should underscore that these numbers represent all deaths. They vary from road accidents to suicides, to house fires, drownings and so on. In other words, break down that number 32 into its constituent parts and the corresponding figure for fatal victims of personal violence, which is not available, has to be very small.

Are Indians over-represented as victims of violent crime and, indeed, in the reporting of personal attacks? The answer is no, according to Victoria Police. In the Herald Sun on 2 June 2009, under the headline, ‘We are fighting a rising tide of assaults on our streets’, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Simon Overland said: ‘Unfortunately, this issue is symptomatic of what we are seeing across the community as a whole’ (Overland 2009).

Although the figures are not up to the minute, according to the commissioner the latest annual numbers showed that 1447 people of Indian descent (not necessarily students) had been victims of robbery and assault, a rise of around 350 on the previous year – out of a total of 160,000 international students in Victoria in 2008. I will leave readers to do the maths and form their own conclusions. is a website devoted to promoting awareness about Sikhs. In an article on the site Manpreet Kaur Singh (a colleague of mine from SBS Radio) says, ‘Yes, there have been “racist” attacks against Indians in Australia, but it is wrong to automatically infer that they were all carried out by white Caucasians’. And later, ‘Just like Australians are wondering why so many of their teenagers and youngsters are behind a majority of the so-called racist attacks, Indians should be questioning why so many of their own are perpetrators too’.

Many of the violent attacks pointed to domestic issues, which in turn raised concerns about infrastructure, welfare and support services for international students. As an interesting aside, SBS Radio ran a report on how female Punjabi students have somehow managed to stay safe, while males were prominent in attack scenarios, which leads us to the current state of the international student industry. Others more learned than I tease out this aspect more expertly in this book, but headlines in the Age newspaper speak for themselves: ‘Foreign students in retreat’ (Collins 2010) and, in the same edition, ‘Australia world’s “dumb blond”: attractive, but shallow and unintelligent’ (Harrison 2010), threatening to entrench a one-dimensional image, even though Australia is the ninth most admired country out of the more than 40 in this survey by a British branding expert.

Whatever the international view of Australia, there is no denying our dependence on foreign students to help balance the books in the tertiary sector. Roughly one in six dollars of all university revenue comes from migrant students, according to an excellent article in The Monthly in November 2010 by journalist, academic and commentator Margaret Simons of Swinburne University (Simons 2010). Student numbers are down – 22 per cent in the first half of this year – with a commensurate shutting down of private vocational training colleges.

Some of that, no doubt, can be attributed to perceptions about Australia as a desirable and safe place to study, and to the GFC. But it also points towards migration policy. As Simons reports, under the Howard Government there was a push towards expanding opportunities for students, leading to a rush in foreign nationals wanting to become hairdressers, cooks and hotel workers. Student visas led to permanent residency – in other words, they were central to immigration policy. The downside was that prospective students were exploited and abused, by shonky operators in fly-by-night colleges and brutal landlords forcing multiple students to share rooms and even beds.

Under the Rudd Labor Government the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) was severely curtailed, with devastating results in the sector. The then immigration minister, Senator Chris Evans, was quoted as saying, ‘A student visa is just that: a visa to study. It does not give someone an automatic entitlement to permanent residence’. So whether or not we accept the general tag of ‘racist’ in respect to the attacks on Indian students, it is clear that the social and economic environment and the general political climate on asylum seekers arriving by boat are intricately interwoven in the way we perceive racism.

A final thought: SBS has been at the forefront of testing what Australians think about multiculturalism. Two commissioned reports, Living Diversity (Ang et al. 2002) and Connecting Diversity (Ang et al. 2006), tapped into the heart of the debate. At the time of publication, a new report is about to hit the news stands, claiming that there is a significant proportion of the population ambivalent about immigration and a smaller, but still significant, group not convinced of the benefits of diversity.

This is a major problem in a diverse society like Australia’s, with an ongoing immigration program. It illustrates that a tolerant, inclusive society requires constant work and that multiculturalism is not a fait accompli. On the other hand, the group most supportive of diversity and immigration tends to be younger and to have the highest CALD (Cultural and Linguistic Diversity) representation. Something to get us talking further about these issues.


Age. 2010. ‘Greens say Abbott wrong on asylum seekers’. Age, 3 November. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Albrechtsen, J. 2009. ‘No right to silence refugee debate’. Australian, 22 April. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Albrechtsen, J. 2010. ‘Tough talk Julia, now walk the walk’. Australian, 7 July. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Ang, I; Brand, J; Noble, G; Wilding, D. 2002. Living Diversity: Australia’s Multicultural Future. SBS. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Ang, I; Brand, J; Noble, G; Sternberg, J. 2006. Connecting Diversity: Paradoxes of Multicultural Australia. SBS. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Callinan, R. 2009. ‘Racial attacks trouble Indian students in Australia’. Time, 6 June. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:,8599,1903038,00.html.

Collins, S J. 2010. ‘Foreign students in retreat’. Age, 14 October. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Harrison, D. 2010. ‘Australia world’s “dumb blonde”‘. Age, 14 October. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Lowe, A. 2010. ‘Teen in court over stabbing murder of Nitin Garg’. Age, 17 June. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Minus, J. 2010. ‘Fellow Indians held over murder of Ranjodh Singh’. Australian, 29 January. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Oakes, L. 2010. ‘Columnist Laurie Oakes says Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are political pygmies without courage to lead’. Courier Mail, 24 July. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Overland, S. 2009. ‘We are fighting a rising tide of assaults on our streets’. Herald Sun, 2 June. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Richardson, G. 2010. Comment on Twitter, 26 May. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from: 2011. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Simons, M. 2010. ‘Exodus: The international student sector’. The Monthly, November. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Sydney Morning Herald. 2010. ‘Burned Indian “faked attack to claim insurance”‘. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Taylor, L. 2010. ‘Tough on boat people’. Age, 7 July. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

UNHCR. 2010. ‘Resettlement’. United Nations Refugee Agency. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Wade, M. 2010. ‘Indian journal focuses on hate’. Age, 1 February. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

Wilson, L. 2010. ‘Julia Gillard slams Ku Klux Klan cartoon’. Australian, 9 January. Accessed 5 April 2011. Available from:

1 My thanks to SBS colleague Georgie McClean, Manager, Policy and Research, who gave me access to a paper she wrote on the value of online discussion.

2 I thank my colleague Manpreet Singh of SBS Radio in Melbourne for her persistence in tracking down the information.

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen