The Convenient Education: A Relevant Story

It was in the last year of university, that three friends David Elliot-Jones, Louis Dai and Lachlan McLeod started meeting a lot of international students in Australia working as kitchen hands in various outlets. The stories of the Indian and Nepali students touched the trio and they realised that they had just scratched the surface of an issue that was deep. That was three years back.

It was also a time when violence against Indian students was making headlines. Many of the students, sold to the permanent residency (PR) dream, had enrolled in vocational courses such as hospitality, hair dressing, etc. Melbourne was witnessing an upsurge of international students, many of them coming from India too. With education linked to migration-oriented programmes, private colleges mushroomed, dodgy education service providers flourished in India and everywhere and Australia’s economy in 2010-11 had touched $16.3 billion in export income from international education activity. But with very few students were working or employed in the fields they were studying. Soon the government brought some changes in student visa norms. Many lives were affected.

The three friends were impelled to investigate further. For over a year, they interviewed students, education providers and bureaucrats. They also travelled to Jalandhar in India, which they call ‘the study abroad hub’. Three years later, they have come out with a web documentary titled The Convenient Education launched by SBS last month on the occasion of the International Students Day. Produced by Chocolate Liberation Front, and co-directed by David, Louis and Lachlan, it is a powerful story on the on the plight of international students many of whom enrolled in dodgy institutions to fulfil the PR dream.

There is no central character but we get to meet two characters Mohammad and Prakash, the former a success story and the latter whose fate hangs in limbo because of the changes in immigration rules despite studying and working in his desired field of community service. “The minimum salary threshold is $480,000 dollars for immigration in Prakash’s case,” says David. “If you look at the basic truths: the fact that you have someone qualified, the fact that the school wants him and yet he has to do exactly what our migration system wants him to do. Why is he not allowed to stay in Australia?” asks David.

“We wanted to raise awareness on the unjust experience of international students due to the fact that the international education sector uses it as a way of making money regardless of the humanist focus. That a lot of polices were about making money rather than providing services for human beings,” says David, adding, “We also wanted show what was going wrong in Australia. That polices are always about what is best for the tax payer for Australia’s industry. We don’t think about how many lives our policy change is affecting. In retrospect, the way the international education crisis was handled was: too much too late. They damaged a pretty successful industry.”

Travelling to India in Jalandhar the team came face to face with a business that was thriving in the name of Australian PR. They saw offices big and small in the name of education and PR operating along streets, lanes and bylanes. They got a sense of how gullible people were because they were desperate to go abroad and they could see how easy it was for agents to take advantage of the situation. “The PR dream is a strategy for those who came to Australia on the assumption that their investments would pay off,” says David. Sadly, today many are stuck in a perpetual state of not knowing. “That is a pretty scary thing for someone our age,” says David. With the documentary, they are confident they have revealed that a lot of people were selling migration to India rather than looking after the well-being of the student.

But aren’t students perhaps guilty of knowing and still falling prey to a scrupulous system? “Yes,” agrees David, “but at the end we are all human, we want better opportunities for ourselves. But having said that, the government who set the rules didn’t set an alarm when the rules were manipulated. It’s only when it reached the threshold of disaster did they change the rules.”
A small budget film funded by SBS, Film Victoria and Screen Australia, the 38- minute documentary is full of nuances and manages to capture snap shots of tragedies faced by some students. Louis Dai’s born to Vietnamese refugee parents lends his voice giving it a personal touch. With its commenting feature, it is hoped that the documentary will reach to a wider audience and perhaps, invite more stories from viewers.

Our aim was to show the hopes and dreams versus the reality, say the trio. It is a brave attempt at that.

By Indira Laisram