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India’s Education Market: The Next Neo-Colonial Frontier

Over the last week or so, Australian politicians and representatives of the university sector got busy pressing flesh in India, hoping to open avenues that have largely remained aspirational. It was timed to coincide with G20 talks in New Delhi, which has seen a flurry of contentious meetings traversing security, economics and education, all taking place in the shadow of the Ukraine War.

A starring outcome of the various discussions was an agreement between Canberra and New Delhi to ensure the mutual recognition of qualifications. On March 3, the Australian Minister for Education, Jason Clare, stated in a media release that the Mechanism for the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications was “India’s most comprehensive education agreement of its type with another country.”

Such a mechanism would ensure that Indian students attaining a degree from an Australian university would have it recognised should they wish to continue higher education in India. The release continues to optimistically extol the merits of the mechanism, which would open “a world of possibilities to develop flexible and innovative partnerships between the two countries.” Minister Clare and his counterpart Shri Dharmendra Pradhan also reaffirmed their wish to establish an Australia India Working Group on Transnational Partnerships.

A number of memoranda of understanding, totalling 11 in all, were also signed, stressing bilateral cooperation between India and Australia in a number of fields, including law and bio-innovation. “The developments today,” announced the Indian Ministry of Education with certain effusion, “will create more opportunities for two-way mobility of students and professionals for the purpose of education and employment, and pave the way for making education the biggest enabler in taking India-Australia bilateral relationship to greater heights and shared aspirations.”

The public relations front was also busy with fanfare. Brian Schmidt, Nobel laureate and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, met students and officials at Sri Venkateswara College of the University of Delhi. His polite welcome was shaded by the more raucous one given to former Australian test cricketer Adam Gilchrist, who acts as the University of Wollongong’s global brand ambassador. For such institutions, brands come before brains.

Gilchrist’s presence was unsurprising, given the zeal with which the university he represents is pursuing a base in India. (The added point here is that Indians are utterly bonkers for cricket.) The soft power of cricketing appeal has been twinned with the hard corporate agenda. In July 2022, a Letter of Intent was signed between the University of Wollongong and the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City). According to the university, the intention is “to establish a location for teaching, research and industry engagement in GIFT City within a partnership or a stand-alone basis.” This will further supplement pre-existing research collaborations in a number of fields, including 3D bioprinting, transportation and advanced medicine.

These events have served to show how starry-eyed education apparatchiks in Australia are increasingly looking to India as an alternative to China. Earlier this year, applications for student visas from India exceeded those from China.

What will eventuate from this round robin chat fest is hard to tell. The modern university behaves much as a colonial enterprise, with all its failings and brute drawbacks. In certain practices, they resemble the VOC or British East India Company. The guns and ammunition might have been abandoned but the residual ruthless mercantilism remains.

This takes the form of International Branch Campuses (IBCs), a booming neo-colonial favourite of universities from the United States, UK, Australia and a number of EU member states. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of IBCs grew from 18 to 82. By 2009, that number had swollen to 162. In some part, the move into the global education market, with its emphasis on academic capitalism, was encouraged by declines in domestic government funding. But it also betrayed a lazy myopia on the part of university managers.

Vice-chancellors, equipped with the powers of petty despotism, resemble functionaries in the service of capital, and not always good capital at that. They continue to embrace the plundering model of the rich student market, hoping to reap the rewards of the developing world spouting cliches about mutual advantage and “world class” education. If China falls out of favour, another market will take its place.

Deakin University’s vice-chancellor, Iain Martin, gives us a sense of this attitude. India had “250 million people between the ages of 18 and 26 and an overcrowded, overly stressed domestic education system.” Alas, standalone institutions from the outside were hard to establish as things stood. Thankfully, “the government has realised it needs to work with others outside India to open up educational opportunities.”

As the Australian Financial Review reports, “the sound of billions of dollars in tuition fees from a new generation of Indian students who are not just keen to study here, but to stay on to work and gain permanent residency, is pure happiness to the ears of vice-chancellors.”

The welfare of such students, however, is quite a different thing. Those who tend to represent cash cows are rarely taken seriously, except for their cash. The quality of what they receive is less significant than what they provide to university coffers. This works both ways, whether through the IBCs, or in the metropole where the main university campus is located. The treatment meted out to international students by Australian universities during the pandemic was nothing short of atrocious, characterised by callousness regarding the delivery of courses and uneven support schemes.

Another area of educational importance is also being neglected in these latest negotiations. India’s officials and policy makers have expressed considerable interest in the role of vocational education. (This was touched on in the Australia India Future Skills initiative announced in March 2022 by the previous government.) A number of Australian universities are what are termed “dual sector” entities, straddling both tertiary and vocational. But its conspicuous absence on this occasion suggests that Australian universities, and some of their counterparts, are hoping for the easy cash-filled options.


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  1. Kerri

    The only way to get a modicum of decency back into Australian Universities is to return them to the public.
    Make tertiary education free on qualification and stop paying exorbitant salaries to vice chancellors.
    Our precious university’s places should go to our most intelligent not our most wealthy.
    The Australian complains about education being used as an entry point for migrants with brown skin but it was their favourites who made it necessary to profit from imported students.

  2. Regional Elder

    A perceptive and accurate article on the university sector.

    I gained an ongoing academic position just after John Howard came to power in 1996, and I offer a few thoughts about the time period following.

    For the next decade at least, universities were increasingly subjected to the forces of neo-liberalism, where the primary growth areas were in international marketing and in an increase in middle and senior management positions. The increased casualisation of academic staff and the reduced funding for research were concomitant developments in these years. But the managerialist revolution of the late 20th century, driven by private sector business values, ensued obscene salary packages for senior administrators in universities. .

    Meanwhile, Howard and Costello were happy for universities to be increasingly funded not by Australian taxpayers, but by international student fees. The well-being of these students was largely ignored by governments, and the shameful end point of this was Morrison’s callous neglect and despicable treatment of international students, during the COVID years.

    Yes, the Australian university sector could do with a thorough systemic inquiry, following its induced corruption by, for the most part, LNP governments.

  3. Andrew Smith

    Whole generation of baby boomers who set up &/or run universities, and other education sectors, for financial gain personal &/or corporate, to rape and pillage easier big markets, but fly under the radar?

    It has bred factory type higher education teaching, learning and assessment, but little quality control starting with lax admission standards & study ‘hurdles’ (to weed out bad students), plus multiple cohorts of travelling grifters under the guise of ‘international marketing’ and spending generous budgets to promote themselves (all levels, avoiding informed and onshore digital marketing and communications strategies based around students, till Covid….); strong whiff of these types representing an Oz form of ‘collective narcissism’?.

    Early century India and their market had high positive awareness of Australia, especially Melbourne, not because of any effective marketing from the OZ end, but due to a Bollywood film Salaam Namaste (2005) which put us on the map filmed in Victoria; most effective marketing for popularisation in India of study, travel, work and migration to Australia.

    What happened?

    Refugees, immigrants and (UNPD inflated) population growth were dog whistled in media, politics and word of mouth using ‘research’ of ‘Australia’s best demographer’ allegedly a willing participant in nativist US fossil fueled ‘Tanton Network’, that informs legacy media in the US esp. FoxNews etc., ditto UK UKIP/Tories, tabloids, (K)GB News and especially Brexit, plus much nativist agitprop a la ‘Great Replacement’ in Hungary.

    Immigration &/or population headlines ‘noise’ not only deflected from fossil fuels/carbon pricing to promote ‘sustainable population’ and ‘carrying capacity’ for environmental ‘hygiene solutions’ (to wedge Labor, thanks Greens), but also with media demonising & dog whistling all things related to become a source of ‘stochastic terrorism’ playing up to the white Australia policy (described as ‘post 1970s immigrants’ wink wink).

    From around the time of the ‘tasty’ Australia India test series in 2007-08, Indian students were being publicly targeted, denigrated, personally abused, beaten up and murdered, then being blamed for inflicting this on themselves (surely this is facet of fascism?).

    The response of educated (white) Australian elites inc. those running universities, media, politics etc. was nothing, or at best private complaints, calls for population control &/or immigration restrictions (eugenics) or victim blaming a la ‘mini skirt’ defence… pathetic and we wonder why we are accused (especially by Germans) of being conservative, shallow and racist?

  4. Stephen S

    It’s not an education market, it’s a residence market. Albanese and Chalmers have bid net migration up to 300,000. Half or more of these will be cash-cow students, and many of them (especially those from India) will be seeking permanent residence.

    The “Labor” Party has declared open war on Australian voters and their living standards, and they have 100% support from Liberal, Green and Teal. And the 39 vice-chancellors. Poll after poll shows that voters don’t want mass migration, but they have no voice.

  5. Canguro

    One of the consequences of the wholesale marketing of Australian academic studies to overseas students has been the stratospheric increase in the incidents of plagiarism and the usage of businesses offering essay & assignment writing, physical substitution of students during examinations by people more capable of passing tests, along with the use of AI to do the work formerly required of an active and engaged actual human brain.

    The cynical replacement of the blood sweat & tears required of an overseas student who struggles to comprehend a tertiary course in an unfamiliar language by others’ brains for hire, or accessing artificial intelligence machines, is a marker along the path of the decline in standards, ethics, integrity as the eternal debasement of individuals and corporations in search of a larger slice of Mammon’s gift continues to contribute to the general decline in standards once accepted as inviolable within this civilization.

    I’m certain that anyone who has had exposure to tertiary environments within the last three or four decades can attest to the witnessing of myriads of OS students who have the constant look of bafflement about them as they struggle, uncomprehendingly, with what is placed in front of them. I clearly recall a student studying for a Ph.D in a deeply technical field of science who struggled to put together simple sentences in English. How she hoped to complete an advanced several years of study and write a compelling thesis was a mystery beyond comprehension, and yet there are thousands of students in this country in similar circumstances.

    That the tertiary sector has endorsed this cash-cow phenomenon with its utter abandonment of standards is abysmal and beyond belief.

  6. Clakka

    I experienced it first hand doing a Masters 2018-2020. I had no prior degree, but 30+ years of experience in the field via the ‘school of knocks and bumps’ reaching the upper echelons of skill in my industry.

    Initially my application was rejected, and I complained, as the criteria changed (without notice to me (or the public)) during the period of my application (which I was continually encouraged to make). The Dean intervened, and I was in within a week.

    Whilst on the surface, the course appeared to comprehensively cover subject matter relevant to the degree, however, the majority of the course material, lectures and tutorials were limited in scope, and simplistic.

    I did my entire degree on-line, and in that regard, it was generally well structured and accessible. Throughout the course there were about a dozen ‘group assignments’. With the course student make-up being about 70% ‘international’ students, each ‘group’ would invariably include at least 2 ‘international’ participants.

    Other than the Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean students, the other ‘internationals’ hugely struggled. Their lack of comprehension and literacy appeared to drive lack of participation and motivation, and in turn, not infrequently lead them to minimal input, cheating and bribery. They of course were under enormous pressure to succeed from their families and funders (of at least triple what it cost me).

    In ‘groups’, this ‘international’ affect on me was significant, as for me to succeed, I had to herd the ‘international’ cats, and sometimes enter into less than desirable exchanges seeking to elicit their proper participation, and in many cases provide significantly more input to obtain suitable grades. For the purpose of protecting my integrity, on each and every occasion, I informed the Unit Chair and Tutor of the details in these matters.

    It was to little discernible effect in the churn of the factory that is the university.

  7. wam

    once the rapacious vice chancellors got their snouts into the HECS and HEES troughs the bums on begining seats blossomed and the slurping is still raukus. The lack of evaluation of who where and how much leaves enormous sums of government cash disappearing from the people whom incur the debt. TAFE, without constant public service monitoring, cannot be handled by universities.

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