Indian Students’ Association of Victoria: giving Indian international students a voice

Karan Mehta, Chairperson of ISA, describes achievements as well as challenges in representing international students. BHAVYA PANDEY reports.

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With thousands of international students still recovering from post-pandemic financial and mental strain, the Indian Students’ Association of Victoria (ISA) has been a ray of hope.

It was their ground-breaking work which contributed to the Federal Government announcement in November 2021 to extend the stay of Temporary Graduate visas from two to three years for master’s coursework, along with amendments to facilitate Vocational Education Training sector graduates to receive a two-year temporary graduate visa. A replacement visa was also announced for students who were unable to return to Australia due to border restrictions.

According to ISA President Karan Mehta, this was a “massive win” for the ISA.

“Throughout last year, we were receiving high volumes of calls from students, stuck offshore as well as those onshore, who were reaching out for help,” he told Indian Link. “We conducted an online survey, and the findings were then sent to the High Commission of India. Conclusions from the same study were drafted in the form of recommendations and passed to the Federal Government.”

That the Government based its new announcements on the ISA’s initial spadework, is a “definite gamechanger”, Karan added.

The ISA’s work in this area, however, began much earlier. Another success was ISA Care, which provided international students with an opportunity to avail mental health services by professional counsellors, free of cost.

It came about after the ISA’s yearly conference in the presence of Mr Raj Kumar Consul General of India (Melbourne) along with VicVise President, Manorani Guy and IndianCare Coordinator, Jyothsna Rao. The aim of the conference was to facilitate dialogue towards supporting international students post COVID-19 through various programs.

“We were able to jointly identify that along with homesickness, academic pressure, unemployment and financial limitations, what students feared the most was instability and uncertainty,” Karan noted.

“It was disheartening to see that students had been suffering for so long with no place to vent out their issues. We were glad that with ISA Care, they finally had a positive and confidential forum to open up and seek assistance.”

The response has been overwhelming and ISA Care has now extended the program by another year.

“The journey as an international student was never easy in Australia. The pandemic just made it even worse,” Karan observed. “Some of the measures we have helped put in place will provide some degree of relief to thousands of international students questioning the worth of their psychological strain, struggling to find jobs, and facing massive financial investments towards their studies.”

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The Indian Students' Association of Victoria
The Indian Students’ Association of Victoria

The idea of Indian Students’ Association Victoria was first mooted in 2019 when various international student leaders from universities across Victoria met at the governor’s house.

“We realised that there existed a huge gap in the representation and advocacy for our Indian student community,” Karan recalled.

The non-profit organisation now registered under Consumer Affairs Victoria collaborates periodically with nine major Indian Clubs from Australian Universities including Monash, RMIT, Deakin – Geelong and Burwood, Melbourne University, Victoria University Swinburne and Latrobe.

The key players involved in ISA are past or present international students, who have foundational knowledge and first-hand experiences in the aspects of employment, permanent migration, and student rights. Support from community platforms and from Indian government bodies are also doing their bit.

“We believe that cross-unit collaborations, the executives and individual support from our affiliated members are the driving force behind ISA,” Karan added.

With the Indian student numbers growing so strongly, it was a matter of time before they organised into a forum like the ISA.

“It would not be completely wrong to say that Indian international students today are fighting a battle to revive their identity as a community,” Karan noted. “Right from retail and hospitality to white-collar jobs, we contribute our best to run the economy.”

The international education sector contributes more than $40 billion to Australia’s economy. Recent figures show that India remains the second largest source of international students, with nearly 70,000 enrolled in Australian universities as of 2022.

Upcoming challenges

Karan sees the role of the ISA extending beyond university.

“Thousands of Indian students come to Australia every year, a large chunk of who aspires to settle here permanently. However, the road to permanent residency is not that easy,” he explained.

“If we look at the concept of ‘skill assessment’ for instance, they are directed to take the assessment to prove that they possess the required skill for the occupation one applies for. Why do I have to give another exam to prove the legitimacy of my learning, after graduating from a certified Australian University despite my professional experience? Why is there a cost associated with it? These are some of the questions we are yet to seek a response for.”

It seems the Indian Students’ Association of Victoria is quickly headed towards becoming a one-stop platform for all Indian students, giving them their ‘home away from home’.

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