From where I sit: Lost boys need direction

January 21, 2010

Australia is desperate to protect its tertiary education market and reaffirm the country's position as a safe place for international students after a growing number of attacks on Indian students since 2008.

These include the murder on 2 January of 21-year-old Indian national Nitin Garg, slain in a park in Melbourne's western suburbs as he walked to work. He had recently graduated with an accounting degree.

My colleagues were shocked by Mr Garg's murder, in particular one who had taught him when he first came to Australia. She remembered a most pleasant, mild-mannered person eager to do well here.

There are several other instances of Indians being attacked, abused and killed here recently, with widespread public and media speculation that the violence is racially motivated. Although the authorities have discouraged that view, Australia's High Commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, has admitted that race may have played a role in the attacks.

Certainly the view in India is that students studying in Australia are being targeted. The Indian Government has issued an eight-point warning to students to take extra security precautions.

Even before Garg's murder, The Age newspaper reported a 46 per cent drop in Indian student visa applications from July to October 2009, compared with the same period in 2008 - the first time numbers had fallen since 2000, according to the news.com.au website.

The Hindustan Times newspaper reported that Indian students accounted for 19 per cent of Australia's international enrolments, taking 117,000 places in 2009. But these statistics are likely to change: "Education consultants in India say they anticipate a sharp drop in the numbers of Indian students enrolling in Australian universities," the newspaper reported.

Whether or not the attacks are racially motivated - and it does seem likely that many of them are - it is pointless to debate whether Australia is a racist nation. More useful would be to look at the perpetrators of these crimes. They are mostly young men - the same demographic responsible for much of Australia's drunken street violence and other crimes.

Let's put this in perspective: it is a small minority. I have taught hundreds of young men over the past two years and the vast majority of them are tolerant, open-minded, intelligent people who would never resort to violence.

But on the other side is a group that Australian society has failed: underprivileged, poorly educated, abused men who see crime, drugs and thuggery as their only path through life. It's complicated when they see their sporting idols' exploits constantly reported in the media: drug busts, domestic disputes, ugly scenes outside nightclubs, liaisons with underworld crime figures, followed by the inevitable five-star rehab as a reward.

Here are some thoughts on the problem: primary education should put more emphasis on basic living skills, secondary on citizenship skills and tertiary (not necessarily universities) on vocational skills. We need more male primary schoolteachers to be role models for boys. We need sporting stars to be better educated, to spend their money more wisely and not be drunk, drugged or violent in public.

Let's look at the roots of the problem, not merely debate the causes of tragic events after they have happened.

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