To boldly go… to study abroad?

June 6, 2009

Attacks on Indian students in Australia have outraged the Indian public.


True confessions first: I am very much a product and advocate of international education.

But in recent weeks, several brutal attacks on Indian students have been reported in Australia’s main cities. And these follow on the heels of attacks that Indian students (especially from Andhra Pradesh) have faced in the US. These have left a bitter taste in Indian mouths, with attack survivors in Australia advising other students against coming to that country. Study abroad, rather than enhancing closeness and understanding, has created animosity and suspicion. It would seem that Indians are uniquely subject to racist attacks everywhere in the world. In the panel discussions and op-eds about why Indians choose to study abroad, the phrase ‘in spite of racism’ seems to lurk somewhere.

Ironically, while India is a great exporter of international students, we do not host a great many ourselves relative to our size and the quality of our better institutions. And we have a great deal of soul-searching to do about how warmly we welcome them into our society.

In the last two weeks, I have been reflecting uncomfortably on what these Australian incidents and other realities say about international education. Or even the broader premise that when people get a chance to live and study abroad or interact with others, their mutual understanding improves. In South Asia, for instance, there has been generous funding in the last two decades of track-two initiatives, initiatives that have created shared learning environments for young professionals, conference travel and collaborative research funding and all of this assumes that relations improve as interactions increase. Some amount of time and energy have also been invested in trying to imagine and chart a South Asian university.

What would it take to make those initiatives achieve their intended purpose? What makes a society welcome its foreign students—and even students from other parts of the country—as opposed to politely segregating, ignoring or worst of all, treating them as natural objects of aggression and animosity? Something for all of us to think about in this age of globalization.

Postscript, June 8, 2009

A really good article on this issue by Ashok Malik in the Hindustan Times. “No longer out of focus,” June 7, 2009.

Also a discussion that exemplifies the state of the debate on this in India at this moment: NDTV, We the People: Racism: Indians as Targets, June 7, 2009.

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