Students of migration: Indian overseas students and the question of permanent residency.

Author:Baas, Michiel

This article explores the motives of students from India who have enrolled in Australian universities as overseas students. It shows that their main objective is to obtain a permanent residence visa in Australia and that they tailor their choice of course and university with this end in mind. As a consequence most have chosen to study at the relatively low cost metropolitan campuses of Australia's regional universities. The article also explores the difficulties Indian students are encountering in obtaining a permanent residence visa.


Recent studies of the propensity of overseas students to seek permanent residence (PR) in Australia after completing their studies show that this propensity is now very high. Of those international students who completed their course in 2003, 33 per cent obtained a permanent residence visa under the onshore overseas student visa subclasses. The countries of origin with the highest PR rates were all South Asian: Pakistan (67 per cent), Bangladesh (71 per cent), India (73 per cent) and Nepal (77 per cent). (1) This means that in the case of, for example, international students from India, nearly three quarters of those who finished their course in 2003 obtained a PR visa under the overseas student visa subclasses during 2003-04.

These findings are important in the light of my own research on Indian overseas students, a project which found its origins in earlier research, which I conducted among Indian information technology (IT) professionals in India itself. During the first half of 2003 I did anthropological fieldwork among IT professionals of the South Indian city of Bangalore, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of the East. It was a good time to be in Bangalore. Most IT companies were busy climbing out of the slump they had been in after the IT bubble had burst in the US, and the city was buzzing with stories of well-known Indian IT companies such as Wipro and Infosys hiring again, and of other (often foreign) multinationals setting up shop in the city or increasing the massive investments that they already had there.

While talking to IT professionals in Bangalore and discussing the universities they had been to, and the choices they made in that regard, I would often also hear stories about younger cousins and friends who were planning to study abroad. I would hear about how fathers and mothers had studied abroad in the past, and how younger brothers or sisters were now applying for student visas. My respondents would tell me how they had had plans to do their MBAs abroad themselves at some point or how friends were looking into these options now. Often these plans and stories were about the US and the UK, long time favourites among Indian students. But I also heard about another destination, one which was new and thus did not have a long history of hosting Indian students to go there: Australia. (2) Initially I assumed that doing a degree in Australia was just another 'study abroad' option, an alternative to longer established destinations such as the US or the UK. (3) But the more I heard about it, the more it seemed that, in the case of Australia, it was about something else as well. While talking to Indians interested in studying in Australia it soon became clear that they were actually interested in something else, namely migration. Online discussion groups and other information sources only confirmed this: studying in Australia was seen as a way to migrate there.


From January till December 2005 I conducted anthropological fieldwork among Indian overseas students in Melbourne. The research was based on three central questions: why do Indian students come to Australia, what are the practicalities of their lives when they are there, and what plans do they have for their future? Although I had already learned the short answer to the first question while doing research in India, I wanted to gain deeper knowledge of the reasons these students have for wanting to migrate to Australia. The case of Indian students is particularly interesting, as they have no clear economic or social reasons for coming to Australia. The Indian economy is growing rapidly, many jobs are actually being outsourced to India (including Australian jobs), and the country is generally considered to be one of the next big global players. (4) While many multinationals are in the process of moving parts of their businesses to India, these students are exploring ways to migrate out of India: why is that?

For the fieldwork I conducted in 2005 I gathered data on 230 people; 130 of them were Indian overseas students in Australia, the others were in one way or another involved in, or connected to, these students' lives. This second group includes ex-overseas students, education and migration agents, directors of programs, CEOs of certain educational institutions, tutors, lecturers, professors, social workers, student advisors, counsellors, student union members and leaders, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) and IDP (5) personnel, psychologists, marketing personnel, market analysts, international student recruiters, and Indian community members and leaders. The students I interviewed were all enrolled in Melbourne-based universities and other institutions, ranging from the University of Melbourne to the University of Ballarat, and from William Angliss Institute of TAFE (Technical and Further Education) to the Brighton Institute of Technology.

On average interviews lasted at least two hours. Many students were met more than once, and I often stayed in touch with them afterwards. This provided the opportunity to follow things over a longer period of time. In many cases this approach led to a sort of life-story, which gave a fuller view of all sorts of factors which had played a part in their decision to study in, and eventually migrate to, Australia. The non-students who participated in the research complemented these stories and eventually provided a detailed picture of how the Australian education industry works.

As I am an anthropologist I prefer spending time with my research population in an informal way. This meant taking part in activities organised by Indian student organisations, visiting them at home, hanging out with them or even just going for a drink with them. This way I got to see all sorts of aspects of an international (Indian) student's life in Melbourne, which would have other-wise remained hidden.

Those interviewed do not constitute a systematic sample of overseas students from India who are studying in Melbourne. However, the combination of the over 200 interviews, as well as the examination of other sources of data (online discussion platforms, newspaper articles and information from student advisors and others involved in the overseas education industry) makes me confident that this study provides an accurate account of the Indian student situation.

This article is about Indian overseas students and their interests in obtaining PR after graduation. I will argue that the most important reason why they come to Australia is not because they rank Australian universities very highly but much more because they are attracted by the option of applying for PR after graduation. If they are under thirty years of age, complete two years of higher education in Australia, and graduate in a field leading to what DIMA defines as a sixty-point occupation, or especially if it is designated as a 'Migrant Occupation in Demand' (MODL), overseas students stand a fair chance of gaining residency status when they have finished their studies. For Indian students this is often the plan from the start; even before coming to Australia they will have figured out which courses will provide the easiest way to PR and will base the course they enrol in on this. Although these people are students in name, in practice such behaviour actually makes them migrants.


In 2004 a record number of 164,535 international students were enrolled in Australian educational institutions, studying onshore in Australia. The vast majority were enrolled in courses in the higher education sector: at the undergraduate and Masters level. By far the biggest group of international students was Chinese (68,857), originally from the People's Republic of China. Indian students with a presence of 20,749 in Australia, however, came in at fourth place, closely after number two South Korea (23,810) and Hong Kong (22,970). (6)

The growth figures of 2003-04 tell a slightly different tale. While the Chinese market still witnessed a healthy growth of 17.6 per cent, and the Korean market 7.5 per cent. There was a decline of 3.8 per cent in students coming to Australia from Hong Kong. Other traditional markets such as Singapore and Malaysia all saw stabilising or declining numbers. These figures were, however, in stark contrast to the number of Indian students in Australia, as their numbers increased by 44.6 per cent compared to 2003. (7)

In general, Indian overseas students were enrolled in masters by coursework programs. (8) Most popular were Information Technology courses, followed by Management and Commerce (in particular Accounting), and Engineering and Related Technologies courses.

By far the highest number of students was studying at the Central Queensland University (1914 in total, among whom 461 were enrolled in the Melbourne-based campus) and the University of Ballarat (1513 in total, of whom 412 were enrolled in the Melbourne-based campus called 'Melbourne Institute of Technology'). Other universities with a high number of Indian students were University of Southern Queensland (675), Victoria University (663) and RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) (584).


When it comes to finding answers to question such as 'why do Indian students come to Australia' and 'why are they so interested in PR' the answers are...

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