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When international student Tarang Hirani came across a viral Instagram post of his university library lit up in the Indian tricolor, a show of solidarity with India’s fight against the coronavirus, he wasn’t particularly impressed.
In fact, like many of his UNSW classmates stuck in India, he saw it as nothing more than an empty gesture.
“There’s been very little offered to international students in terms of resources and assistance. What does lighting up a building do for us?” he wonders.
For more than 14 months, international students stranded overseas have been fighting for the chance to return to Australia, pleading with authorities through Twitter storms and lobbies outside embassies.
However, the shocking announcement of a temporary travel ban on Australians stranded in India, coupled with the federal budget’s suggestion that borders won’t open till 2022, has left them with a sinking feeling they are far down the rung on the government’s list of priorities.
28-year-old Tarang is nearing the end of his master’s degree in information systems and admits that he’s stayed the course studying online from Pune because he’s “so close to being done with it.”
“I had considered dropping out or deferring. If I was earlier in my degree in such circumstances, I would have probably done it by now,” he elaborates.
For Simar Arora, an international student at Western Sydney University, enough is enough.
“I regret choosing Australia when there are options like Canada and the United States who actually care about their students,” she tells Indian Link.
“We can’t just sit around and waste our careers; we want a clear timeline on our return. It’s very depressing what we go through every day. Now I’m planning to transfer to a Canadian university for my studies.”
In February 2020, much before concerns of a pandemic hit Australian shores, she had returned home to meet her family and attend her sister’s wedding.
Over a year later, Simar is still stuck there.
“I miss my friends in Sydney, my job, the life that I had built for myself in Australia. Border closures took everything away. I’m still paying rent in a place I’m not even staying in!” she says, visibly agitated.
She’s among thousands of students who have stayed glued to press conferences and announcements, ready to book a ticket at the first sign of open borders.
Unfortunately, the regular will-they, won’t-they dance by authorities has meant many of these students miss important dates to transfer out to other universities as well.
“I’m keen to transfer to universities in the United States, but I’ve missed the deadlines to begin this year while waiting for an update from the government. Now I can only apply for the spring semester that begins in January 2022,” explains Shaina Reuben, an architecture student at the University of Sydney.
She’s also been informed that some of her credits can’t be transferred between the two university systems. This means re-taking classes and shelling out money for courses she’s already done.
“I really don’t feel like I’m making the most of my degree online,” she admits with a sigh.
The 25-year-old had initially received offers from the likes of Pratt Institute and Columbia University in the US and turned them down to study at USYD. Today, she’s not so sure it was the right call.
With a resigned chuckle, Shaina shares: “My father has travelled a fair bit to both countries, and he felt more at ease knowing I’d be in Australia. Now… well, we just don’t talk about that decision.”
Riding out the semester in Pune, she has managed to get her first dose of the COVID vaccine, and shares that plenty of international students are rushing to get the jab too, hoping Australia might be more welcoming to vaccinated candidates.
It’s a long shot, but it’s all that fuels the flickering hopes of students who take out loans and rely on part-time jobs to build their future. In the process, they contribute to the country’s $31 billion education sector.
In a new appeal, international students have now turned to the diaspora for support. An open letter circulating on Twitter urges the Indian-Australian community to raise border concerns with the government and demand meaningful action.
“They continue to make false claims and raise false expectations,” the letter reads. “We did everything we could on our end to lift our voices… We are in desperate need of your help.”
*Kailash Bhat, enrolled at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and studying from his home in Mumbai, is scathing in his criticism of the situation.
“Canada, USA, and the UK are and always will be a better choice than Australia for international students,” he tells Indian Link vehemently. “I regret choosing Australia. My mental health has deteriorated due to the lack of communication from the government and false hopes every month for the last 15 months.”
Recent studies into the mental health of international students supports his claim. A survey by the Council of International Students Australia has indicated that over two-thirds of students have reported self-diagnosed anxiety and/ or depression.
In even more grim news, nearly 30 per cent of students have reported thoughts of self-harm.
*Kailash elaborates, “I am pretty much depressed after paying nearly $17,000 per semester just to study online. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to arrange these kinds of fees. Scott Morrison does not care about anything but the upcoming elections.”
With no end to border closures in sight, it doesn’t come as a surprise that international students are looking elsewhere for their higher education. In fact, new federal government data has indicated that enrolments from India have dropped more than 52 per cent compared to the previous year. If these trends are anything to go by, this is going to continue to plunge in the coming year.
Of course, slipping in reputation as a study destination with each month of closed borders, it seems Australia simply does not care about this fall from grace – or the international students who had placed all their bets on them.
*Name changed upon request
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