Thursday, January 07, 2010

Moree's gain, Indian students and social change in Australia, changes in Australian higher education

This post is a rather random collection of bits and pieces, just snippets that have attracted my attention in passing.

Moree hospital has welcomed a new specialist surgeon Dr Irene Kaiboni to the medical team. For those who don't know Moree, it is a town in north-western New England with an urban population of a bit over 8,000, 22.2% of whom are of Aboriginal descent.

Like many similar towns across Australia, Moree has faced the challenge of recruiting and retaining skilled health staff to work and live in rural communities.

The reason I mention Dr Kaiboni's appointment is that it appears that she was the first black woman surgeon in Zimbabwe. She and her husband relocated to Australia in 2004 because of Zimbabwe's economic and political troubles.  It leaves me wondering just how long it is going to take Zimbabwe to recover from President Mugabe. It takes a long time to train a surgeon like Dr Kaiboni.

The fall-out from the troubles experienced by Indian students in Australia continues, with Immigration Department figures for the period from July to October 31 2009 showing a 46 per cent drop in student visa applications from India compared with the same period in 2008. It is hard to see numbers not falling further.

One of the difficulties I find in commenting on the detail of things such as the sad death of Nitin Garge lies in my lack of understanding of situations in particular local areas. Australia is a very diverse country and is becoming more so, making generalisations increasingly hard and misleading. In the Harris Park case, for example, a suburb I went through every working day on the train, I had to dig down into the changing demographics before I could understand.

One of the threads in the blog comments on Mr Garge's death dealt with particular problems in Melbourne. It is hard for me to make a judgement here because I simply don't know the areas. However, I received a very thoughtful email from Paul Barrett that I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:   

I am afraid that there is a racial element in some of these attacks.

It varies from case to case of course – when former AMA President Mukesh Haikerwal was bashed and left for dead in a park in Williamstown he was one of about seven victims of the same gang of thugs that night, so we can assume that they were just having an amusing time bashing up anyone they came across that night.

On the other hand there was an explicitly racist element to the bashing to death of the Somali teenager Liep Gony – the ringleader of that exercise had had some sort of brush with a group of Somalis, grabbed a lump of wood and went to “take his country back”.

As for the attacks on Indians, we need to explain why so many Indians are being attacked (the murder victim had been attacked before – how many people are victims of two serious assaults in a twelve month period?), and why the attacks are concentrated in Melbourne. My speculative hypothesis is that it has become a fashionable activity for a certain subset of Melbourne’s low-life. It is not that they are wandering around with a deep-seated hatred of Indians, but the attacks on Indians get so much lurid publicity that it becomes a sort of copy-cat crime, so that an Indian travelling home alone late at night is probably in more danger than the rest of us – his presence will inspire the crime.

An interesting aspect of the murder of the young Indian was the comment on the front page of The Age (by  a medico, I think) to the effect that whoever killed him really knew what they were doing, they really knew how to kill someone with a knife.

Which brings me to the fact that knifing people is a remarkably popular pastime in Melbourne, The early Sunday morning Radio National News bulletins always include a resume of the previous night’s stabbings, often enough being perpetrated at a private party by an invited guest or a family member. We seem to have some sub-cultures in which you are not a real man if you don’t carry a knife (it starts at about age 15) and I guess sooner or later these people start to wonder about their manhood if they have never actually used it.

So I think there are a lot of cross-currents, but certainly race is a factor

Both the sub-culture thing and the copy-cat reaction are very difficult to deal with because they rest not on racism as a label, but on human nature and the changing structure and culture of various social groups.

At Parramatta where I was working in Sydney's north-west, the local Westfield shopping centre just down the road has been somewhat plagued by clashes between different groups of young people, as well as ordinary crime. This doesn't mean the centre is unsafe for normal shoppers, I was there every day. Rather, the clashes are symptoms of broader change.

As someone interested in social change and who is also critical of standard responses, I have been meaning to write something in this area, if only to outline the things that I do not know. For the moment, I simply note that Australia will just have to live with the fall-out from the latest troubles.

Back in 2006, one of my Ndarala colleagues, Sandra Welsman, wrote a provocative thought piece Australian Education 2016 - Looking Back on the future of Australian higher education. All such pieces risk quick invalidation, but her point about the speed of change remains.

In this context she wrote:

Asian student flows into Australia, shaky since 2005, slumped from 2008. Relief among academics about course standards and pressures was offset by widespread financial restructuring.

As it happened, overseas student numbers continued to grow. Now universities and colleges are going to have to deal with the practical results of their previous dependence on Indian students.

This, however, is only a subset of a broader change process affecting Australian higher education.

As another symptom of the change process, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up the US jet, was studying for a master's degree in international business at the University of Wollongong's campus in Dubai.

The University of Wollongong in Dubai was established in 1993 and now has 3500 students representing 108 nationalities. It offers specialist undergraduate and postgraduate programs in the areas of business and information technology.

I think that it's time for me to revisit some of these change processes. 

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