Indian student concerns about violence: exploring student perceptions.
Abstract: While considerable attention has been given to the spate of attacks on Indian students in Australia in 2009 and 2010, less attention has been paid to how the students who were at the centre of the furore perceived the violence. In this paper we explore the perceptions of Indian postgraduate and undergraduate male students studying in Melbourne, Australia, based on data gathered in focus groups. Analysis revealed four broad themes in students' explanations for the attacks: race hate versus opportunism, intercultural issues, systemic ineffectiveness, and media reporting. Students' perceptions of the reasons for the attacks were divided in some areas and aligned in others. There was divergence among students about whether the attacks were race hate crime or opportunistic, and about intercultural issues. Students' perceptions were aligned on issues of systemic ineffectiveness and media reporting. In the current context of decreased international enrolments from Indian students, in which we seek to better understand them, the findings provide implications for international student policy and planning priorities.

Key words: Indian international students, violence, intercultural awareness, racism
Article Type: Report
Subject: Students, Foreign (Crimes against)
Hate crimes
School enrollment
Authors: Azmat, Fara
Osborne, Angela
Rentschler, Ruth
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Australian Journal of Social Issues Publisher: Australian Council of Social Service Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Council of Social Service ISSN: 0157-6321
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 46 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 980 Legal issues & crime; 950 International economic relations
Accession Number: 288627442
Full Text: Introduction

Traditionally, Australia was perceived as safe for international higher education students (Davidson & Wang 2008). However, attacks on Indian students in Melbourne as well as in other states in 2009-10 have caused a major reassessment of Australia as a safe study destination for international students. The attacks brought the safety of international students to the attention of the media, student organisations, education providers, academics, governments in India and Australia, and, of course, potential students themselves (Marginson et al. 2010). This study explores male Indian student perceptions of these attacks in Australia.

Several issues have been cited as underlying the attacks: marginal financial resources that force Indian students to live in low-cost suburbs and work in low-paid jobs late at night, making them a 'soft target' (Karvelas & Rintoul 2009); as well as 'the very rapid expansion of numbers of Indian students in Australia, many of whom are seeking permanent residency, rather than education, as their primary goal' (Strategy Policy and Research in Education Limited 2009: 63). Although considerable attention has been given to the attacks and their ramifications, the ways in which the students--who were at the centre of the furore--perceive the violence has received less attention. How do male Indian students themselves perceive the attacks? The students' perceptions of the attacks are important as they have implications for the future selection of Australia as a destination for international education. As most of the attack victims were male students from Melbourne and Sydney (Mason 2011), in this paper, we focus on young male students studying in different higher educational institutions across Melbourne to listen to their experiences and perceptions of these attacks.

Our study builds on the research produced by Babacan and colleagues (2010) in Melbourne, Australia by the Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives (ICEPA). Research for the ICEPA report was undertaken in June 2009, in response to the increasing incidence of violence against international students, particularly those of Indian background, and the public debate that ensued about whether or not the violence was racially or opportunistically motivated (Babacan et al. 2010). The report drew on the findings using a combination of research methods which included media analysis, an on-line student survey of 1,013 students (515 international students and 498 domestic students), in-depth, and face-to-face interviews with 35 international students and in-depth interviews with 29 key stakeholders which included representatives of government, education and training associations, community service providers, the Consul Generals in Victoria of India and China, members of the Victoria Police and student associations (Babacan et al. 2010). The three largest groups of international student respondents studied in this report were from South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) (25 per cent) followed by students from South East Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia) and the Pacific (12 per cent) and North Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan) (10 per cent) (Babacan et al. 2010). Against this backdrop, our current study adds to the growing body of knowledge by listening to young Indian students' perceptions of the attacks. Their voices tell us about their experiences from a personal perspective, creating a posteriori knowledge about this much-debated topic.

We begin by providing the context in which the attacks have occurred, reviewing the literature and then discussing the methodology adopted for this research. The dominant themes that emerge from the analysis of the data are presented, then discussed. Our aim is to draw out the implications for the tertiary sector in the light of government and tertiary sector responses to the violence.

Context: Indian students in Australian higher education

Australia's higher education sector has been the third largest export industry, generating $18 billion in exports in 2009 (Phillimore & Koshy 2010). Over the ten years between 1997 and 2007 the education and tourism segments combined increased at an average annual rate of 15.2 per cent, making international education Australia's third largest export industry following coal and iron ore (Access Economics 2009). The growth of this industry, however, raises the challenge of maintaining this market while dealing with developments such as the global financial crisis, a strong Australian dollar, increased competition from other countries and the perceived safety of international students in Australia (Phillimore & Koshy 2010).

As a result of the rapid expansion of Australia's higher education sector, by 2009 international students 'constituted around 2.64 per cent of the Australian population, more than the estimated number (2.57 per cent) of Aboriginal Australians for 2009' (Spolc & Lee 2010: 1). Australia has been a popular choice for higher education due to the quality and reputation of its education system, its lifestyle, the environment, and the affordability of its programs compared to the United States and the United Kingdom (Davidson & Wang 2008). Among the source countries of international students, India is a significant market for Australian higher education. Higher education (HE) is held in high esteem in India and is seen as a vehicle for students to achieve their aspirations and expectations towards a safe and stable future (Dhesi 2001). The HE system in India, once thought of as developed and comprehensive, is now viewed as inadequate (Debroy 2008). Despite India's growing middle class, there has not been a corresponding growth in higher education institutions (Feith 2008). The characteristics of the HE sector in India explain the steady increase in the proportion of overseas enrolments from India which tripled from 11,370 in 2002 to 39,166 in 2006, and continued to grow in 2007 (ABS 2007), making Indian students the second largest cohort after the Chinese in Australia. However, Phillimore and Koshy (2010) report that higher education visa grants declined in 2009-10 by 11.5 per cent, most of which was attributable to a fall in visa applications from India, while offshore higher education visa grants fell by 24.9 per cent over this period. Nonetheless, within Victoria until 2010, India has been the most common country of origin of international students, accounting for 42,573 enrolments until 2010, while 34,357 enrolments are of students from China (Babacan et al. 2010: 17).

Violence against Indian students: what is known?

Indian student safety was the subject of intense media interest following the first reported attacks in 2009. Although the attacks on Indian students in 2009 and 2010 have been commented on widely by both the Australian and the Indian media there has been a lack of empirical studies and available data to understand the extent to which international students are victims of crime (Babacan et al. 2010). The exception is a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), which details the nature and extent of the attacks on Indian students and how they compare with attacks on international students from other countries such as China, Korea, Malaysia and the US (Larsen et al. 2011). In response to the increasing incidence of attacks on Indian international students in 2009 and 2010, the AIC report sought to 'determine whether international students are more or less likely than an Australian comparison population to have experienced crime' (Larsen et al. 2011: 14). The detailed findings of the AIC report are based on administrative and pre-existing survey data sources such as Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Crime Victimisation Survey and the ABS General Social Survey. The report also used the analysis of Department of Immigration and Citizenship international student visa records for more than 400,000 students matched with police crime victimisation records as well as supplementary analysis of the AIC's National Homicide Monitoring Program database, and the Australian component of the 2004 International Crime Victimisation Survey, to provide detailed findings on student victimisation. We use the AIC report to provide an account of the attacks on Indian students. However, research suggests that some crimes may go unreported by students who either fear adverse effects on their application for immigration, or feel that nothing is likely to come of reporting it (Babacan et al. 2010). This means that the incidence of crime may be higher than documented in the AIC report. Our study accessed the data from the AIC report on male students only, as that is the focus of our research.

Crime against Indian international students, as described in the AIC report (Larsen et al. 2011), falls into three categories: assault (physical attacks on an individual); robbery (the theft of property by force or intimidation); and other theft (intentionally taking another person's property illegally, but without force). As can be seen in Table 1, the estimated rate of assault Indian male international students was significantly higher than for their peers from other international countries (Larsen et al. 2011). Most assaults occurred in public places, such as the street, in hospitality and retail outlets, and on public transport (Larsen et al. 2011). Of these locations, public transport seems to be where the highest number of assaults occurred. The majority of the assaults occurred between 8.00 pm and 4.00 am (Larsen et al. 2011). Table 2 shows that rates of robbery experienced by Indian male students were statistically higher than for Victorian males in all years surveyed; they were also statistically higher for Indian males than for their peers from other international countries such as China, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea (with the exception of 2005) (Larsen et al. 2011). Public and open spaces were, again, the most common locations for these crimes for all international students (Larsen et al. 2011). The hours between 8.00 pm and 4.00 am saw the most robberies, with all international students being significantly more likely to experience robbery during that time (Larsen et al. 2011). Rates of other theft were higher in the Victorian population than in the international student population, as is shown in Table 3; however, among international students, Indian students were statistically more likely to suffer other theft (Larsen et al. 2011).

Various reasons have been proffered for the attacks, including racial hatred, opportunistic behaviour, or a combination of both (Karvelas & Rintoul 2009; Marginson et al. 2010; Mason 2010). The Australian Institute of Criminology found that, despite Indian students experiencing significantly more robberies than similar groups in the broader population, the locations in which the attacks occurred pointed to opportunism as the primary underpinning reason for their occurrence (Larsen et al. 2011). This finding is qualified by the following statement: 'the issue of whether the offences against international students, Indian students in particular, were racially motivated cannot be addressed based on analysis of the current dataset' (Larsen et al. 2011: 168). A number of organisations, for example the Australian Human Rights Commission (Australian Human Rights Commission 2011) and the International Education Association of Australia (Trounson 2011) have criticised the report, calling for further action to determine the extent to which racism is implicated in the attacks. International students themselves have reported feeling less safe than their domestic counterparts, citing a range of factors: including a higher risk of violence at night; using public transport or being in public spaces; being in certain suburbs or localities that are perceived to be unsafe; and the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs in the society (Babacan et al. 2010).

In addition, media attention--particularly sections of Indian media--fuelled the attacks to some extent. Analysing the content of the major print media dailies in India and Australia, Rentschler and colleagues (2010) highlight the power of the media to sensationalise events. In particular, there are reports of the Indian media's coverage being inaccurate and misleading (Mason 2010). For example, among other cases of media exaggeration, the burning to death of Indian student Ranjodh Singh was initially reported as one of the apparent rash of crimes against young Indians in Australia. However, this was later dismissed as media sensationalism when three fellow Indians were found to be responsible for Ranjodh Singh's death (Tyson 2011). The focus and thrust of media attention during 2009 and 2010 have caused indignation both in Australia and India, and reputational damage to Australia as a destination for Indian students (Rentschler et al. 2010).

Working while studying

Culturally, international students come predominantly from developing countries with different practices in family and work life that impinge on their ability to adapt and succeed in the host country. Socially, international students are subject to outsider status in legal rights and workplace opportunities (Marginson et al. 2010). For example, international students are restricted in the number of hours that they are permitted to work and also face restrictions in terms of length of stay. These restrictions affect their ability to support themselves while studying, limit their spending power as well as their ability to be employed. However, others, on the contrary suggest that removing restrictions would jeopardise students' educational commitments as well as their academic results (Raggatt 2011).

A recent study shows that international and domestic students share similar experiences in terms of the vulnerability of their employment: 24 per cent of domestic students and 17 per cent of international students are employed in the hospitality sector (ABS 2007; Robbins 2010). Additionally, two thirds of all students are employed on a casual basis, making their employment status precarious. However, there are some differences between the two cohorts, with international students twice as likely as their domestic peers to feel unsafe in the workplace (Babacan et al. 2010). It has been reported that international students (including Indian students) experience disadvantages relative to their domestic peers for two main reasons, namely: employer willingness to profit from their vulnerability; and the failure of the government to protect their rights as workers (Nyland et al. 2009. They are often paid well below the legal minimum and, in some cases, work for unscrupulous employers, receiving cash in hand payments (Nyland et al. 2009). These factors, along with living in a country whose language is not their own, and whose policies and practices require considerable adaptation, can leave international students vulnerable and disadvantaged. Research in the area has led to a call for international students to be recognised as stakeholders in the vulnerable workforce debate from which they have been excluded (Nyland et al. 2009).

Living in a new culture

Students settling in Australia experience an entirely new culture, leading to the potential for intercultural misunderstandings (Hammer 2005). Culture is a critical determinant of misunderstandings and conflict (Marsella 2005); perceptions of justice are culturally informed (Leung & Stephan 1998), and there is potential for tension resulting from divergences in ontological and epistemological foundations (Marsella 2005). Although international education has been cited as a potential locus for intercultural learning (Volet & Ang 1998), cultural differences make international students vulnerable (Marginson et al. 2010) while they develop cultural literacy (Heyward 2002). Despite a professed desire to do so (Volet & Ang 1998), international students do not typically socialise with their domestic peers (Rosenthal et al. 2007), further limiting their capacity to gain intercultural experiences.


Working within a qualitative paradigm, we conducted a total of five focus groups, each consisting of 7-15 male Indian international students studying in various universities in Melbourne. Fifty-three male Indian international students, from postgraduate and undergraduate courses in the arts, humanities and business took part in the study. The data collection occurred during October-November 2009. Our sample consisted of Indian males between the ages of 20 and 25 from various parts of India, paralleling the demographics of the attacked students.

Our sample is purposive. Participants were recruited using snowball sampling, which is considered an effective method when populations are rare or are difficult to reach, as were our students (Noy 2008). The focus groups were based on a 'schedule' or question guide derived from the literature. The questions asked were open-ended allowing the respondents to express their views and enabling further clarification by the interviewers. Specifically, four key questions covered the students' personal experiences of living in Australia, what awareness they had of the attacks on Indian students, their perceived reasons for these attacks and the probable solutions (if any) for these attacks.

In order to minimise the limitations of a focus group such as individuals dominating within the groups, tendencies towards normative discourses, and conflicts and arguments within focus groups (Smithson 2000), we adopted a number of strategies. For example, to deal with the problem of dominant voice overriding other voices we made the focus groups homogenous in terms of age, experience, education and sex (Smithson 2000). We also encouraged the quiet members of the group to participate in the discussion and finally the moderator/ researcher bias was minimised as one of the researchers in our team was from South Asian background--a similar background to the participants--which helped to facilitate the discussion.

The focus groups were transcribed and the data were analysed using NVivo, the qualitative software analysis tool, to identify dominant themes. We used content analysis on the verbatim responses, developing codes to establish the themes emerging from the discussion (Miles & Huberman 1994). We took notes at each step of the analysis, ensuring that our analysis was consistent across researchers and that the main themes were agreed. The focus was on deep and rich analysis of the data noting manifest content in responses as well as latent content, less clearly manifested. In cases of disagreement, the authors discussed the response until common agreement was reached. As a result of our thematic analysis the dominant themes and sub themes were established.

Dominant themes emerging from student perceptions

The purpose of the focus groups was to analyse and interpret the views of the Indian international students from their perspectives, in their words and using real life examples. Four key themes emerged from the analysis of the focus groups: racism versus opportunism; intercultural issues; systemic ineffectiveness; and the media (Figure 1). For example, in response to the questions, 'What is it like being in Australia? What has your experience been like?', participants' responses reflected the varying views, based on their experiences of racism and opportunism. Similarly, when asked about their perceived reasons for the attacks, participants' opinions varied depending on their experiences. In addition to racism and opportunism, students raised other factors, such as cultural issues, systemic ineffectiveness, and the role of the media as perceived reasons for the attacks.

The themes, along with their various subcategories, are described below. In the following section, we present the cumulative findings of all the groups together rather than reporting the findings of each group separately.


Racism vs opportunism

Participants' perceptions were divided regarding whether the attacks on Indian students were racist or opportunistic crimes. Coded data records 29 instances of perceptions of racist motivations, compared with 24 instances of perceptions of opportunism.

About half the participants perceived the attacks to be racist. The following comments illustrate this perspective:

I think there is some racism around. I would say there is some kind of racism in Australia. (Respondent 3, Focus Group, 3) It is an underlying feeling that it is possible that most of these attacks are racially motivated. (Respondent 1, Focus Group, 2)

In instances where racial taunting had accompanied the incidents, participants were likely to view the attacks as 'partly' racially motivated. One student noted that:

I don't think they are racist. Maybe you can say it is racist as well, but they think the people from our community are taking their opportunities, taking their jobs and everything. That's why they're doing these sort of things. (Respondent 3, Focus Group 2)

This view was echoed by other participants. Still others considered that racism is present in all countries to a smaller or larger extent. Whether it is viewed as racism depends on the individual's attitudes or the way the individual perceives the comment. For example, some argued that racism was also present in India as it is such a diverse country. They stated that, in India, they had faced discrimination based on regionality, language, and socio-economic status but had not perceived it as racism; rather they attributed it to other factors such as personality. This can be seen in the following comment:

Yeah, if I say about my experience with India and every place I have travelled, I have never felt racially discriminated against. I've never thought that if somebody has done something to me, that it is connected to racism. I have taken it as something with the personality or individual; nothing to do with racism. (Respondent 3, Focus Group 1)

Evidence from the data suggests that international students perceived personal circumstances and societal issues as the two factors that made students vulnerable to attack. The majority of participants who perceived the attacks to be opportunistic viewed the attacks as a result of Indian students being 'an easy target', their physical vulnerability and broader societal issues. When asked why Indians were vulnerable, participants cited the nature and type of the jobs in which they were employed, as well as their personal circumstances. Examples provided included living in unsafe, low-cost suburbs, and their need for money which forced them to accept unsatisfactory employment, requiring long-distance travel on public transport which left them physically vulnerable. In addition, they also cited broader societal issues such as a depressed economy and drug and alcohol abuse as influential. This can be seen in the following representative examples:

That's the only reason: we're easy targets for them to get money off them, get drugs or whatever they want. (Respondent 6, Focus Group 4)

It's just being the differentiated person. Of course, we work really hard, we are doing a lot of jobs, we do late nights that usually Australians do not like to do. (Respondent 4, Focus Group 3)

Students' responses were found to align with the reasons provided in the media. Media reports suggest that Indian students are more vulnerable as a result of living in lower-cost neighbourhoods, needing to work often at late hours, and their heavy use of public transport, often at times when few other passengers are travelling (Karvelas & Rintoul 2009).

In summary, around half perceived a racial element in the attacks, while the remainder perceived the attacks as opportunistic, resulting from a combination of their own situational factors and societal issues. The responses of the participants are consistent with comments provided by the media, Australian politicians and police. It may be that the students' perceptions were influenced by media reports.

Intercultural issues

The idea that cultural differences can lead to adjustment problems for students and the potential for misunderstandings as a result of those cultural differences emerged in the comments of a majority of the participants. All the students held the view that their different cultural background was one of the reasons that they were attacked. Some students further suggested that, for Indians, culture is of particular significance and they did not want to lose their identity. This view made it difficult for them to adapt to the host country culture, leading to misunderstandings. The following quote provides a representative comment:

Indians are the target because they hold their culture very strongly and are self-confident which might be the reason. (Respondent, Focus Group 5)

Because of culture--I mean Indian students are very possessive of their culture--they don't want to lose their identity and Australians maybe don't like it. (Respondent 7, Focus Group 3)

Some further commented that as part of their culture, they didn't like to speak up when endangered or insulted:

More to do with the culture we're brought up [in], we don't actually speak up and get into trouble. (Respondent 5, Focus Group 2)

When asked to further elaborate on culture as one of the underlying reasons for the attacks, most participants cited intercultural behavioural differences as problematic and as causing some of the tension between Indian international students and the broader Australian population. More specifically, they cited behaviours informed by their cultural background as the reason for the attacks occurring. For example, one stated

Indians, I talk about Indians especially. I was travelling to Dandenong and I heard some loudness of Indians. They were using their phones for listening to music too loudly. (Respondent 6, Focus Group 4)

While all participants stated that cultural issues played a role in the attacks, students' opinions were divided on the issue of their own cultural adjustment and changing their behaviours to adapt to mainstream society. On the issue of moderating behaviour, among the 30 responses, around two-thirds agreed that there was a need to change their behaviours and that there was scope for cultural adjustment such as making local friends, not listening to music loudly, and not going to certain places at night time as strategies to avoid conflict. The following is a typical example of the responses by this group of participants:

It's still changing and we have to change ourselves as well. You have to not be timid, not talk about being timid all the time. You can face things in a very diplomatic manner and solve things as well. (Respondent 6, Focus Group 3)

While another participant stated:

As Indians, we ask for trouble at times. I was in a bus the other day, coming to work. This Indian guy with his mobile phone was playing Hindi music loud, you know? And I was like, hello, excuse me. And I went up and I said, 'Do you mind reducing your volume?' he said, 'I like to listen to my music loud'. It's not about annoying them or giving them a chance, we don't want to adjust. (Respondent 6, Focus Group, 2)

These students were assertive. They also saw a role for the education provider in making their international study an opportunity for developing intercultural awareness, understanding Australian culture and making local friends, as a means for improved security and safety. This can be seen in the following comment:

Educate the international students. Probably have some kind of session in the orientation programs which actually encourages internationals to make some Aussie friends as well. (Respondent 4, Focus Group 4)

However, not all students were supportive of the idea of changing their behaviour in order to be accepted by society. Around one quarter of participants who responded to this issue did not agree as they thought changing their behaviour would prevent them from leading a normal life. As one student questioned:

Yeah, but don't you think that's stopping us from having a social life? (Respondent 5, Focus Group 2)

Another key finding that emerged from the interviews was students' perceptions that violence within the Australian community towards Indian males came largely from the younger generation aged between 15 and 30 years. When asked to elaborate, almost all students mentioned underage drinking and drug use among Australian youth, perceiving the problem to be at the core of the violence. In particular the students were critical of drinking and drug use among school-aged children, which they felt led to violence. They expressed frustration about such young people getting away without being penalised for their underage drinking: one participant's view that 'underage people are privileged in Australia' expressed a common perception among the students. In addition, assertions about drinking and drug use overrode concerns about attacks being discriminatory:

I think this is just violence. This is alcohol-fuelled violence in Melbourne. I go to the city a lot, usually every Friday and Saturday night, and I see a lot of violence. (Respondent 3, Focus Group 1)

One student further questioned:

Where are the underage kids getting the alcohol from? If I go to a bar, they'll ask me for ID, and they'll check me three times, if I go to 7-Eleven. So where the hell does a 15 year old get booze? Somebody's obviously buying it for them. They should be pulled up. (Respondent 4, Focus Group 4)

Almost all the participants perceived that drug and alcohol consumption among the younger generation was a result of lack of discipline and parental control, referring to a perceived need for greater societal discipline.

The majority of participants stated that lack of parental control of Australian youths provided opportunities for some attacks. They felt that the perpetrators of the attacks lacked the necessary parental role models and relationships that would deter them from inappropriate behaviour. The majority of the participants further related this to the lack of discipline at school, and argued that teachers at schools could play a greater role in disciplining the school children. The following comment represents a typical response:

I feel [Australia] has all the standards and everything but it lacks discipline. The teachers, the way they bring up the children, it lacks some kind of back bone. (Respondent S, Focus Group 3)

Referring to the role of the school teachers, one student argued that

They need to make it more disciplined and make parents take care of the children. (Respondent 2, Focus Group 3)

To sum up, almost all the participants perceived that the younger generation was the root cause of the attacks due to their drinking and drug use which was related to a broader lack of societal discipline, both at home and school. The above findings reveal that all the participants perceived cultural behaviours to be a potential reason underlying the attacks.

Systemic ineffectiveness

The perception that the liberal justice system hampered society's ability to respond appropriately to the violence was pronounced among the participants. All the participants we spoke to considered the legal system to be too liberal and ineffective for the under-aged as it did not allow people under the age of 18 to be tried as adults. This was repeatedly cited as evidence of a legal system ill-equipped to deal with transgressions and is confirmed in the following representative quotes:

Penalties are not strict and they can easily bypass these things. (Respondent 6, Focus Group 2)

That law that you cannot penalise a youngster till the age of 18 has to be amended. Something has to be worked into it so it can be made more worthwhile and more effective as a disciplined society. (Respondent 8, Focus Group 3)

Asked about their perceptions on how to address the violence, most of the participants advocated supervision, stricter discipline and enforced punishments, as seen in the following:

I don't think this is going to stop because the teenagers are going to behave the way they're brought up. So, unless something comes up in public, it's not going to change, it's going to increase more and more. Because once a teenager is stopped, you can't arrest him, and he is advised and he's sent out, he's released, he's going to tell his friends--there's not going to be anything. So this is going to encourage them more and more. Until there is some significant change in the law, I don't think anyone can help. (Respondent 3, Focus Group 4)

Findings also reveal clear differences between Indian students and the accepted practices in Australia in perceptions of what actions are in the best interests of children. For example, a representative quote from one of the participants suggested that a positive start to encouraging discipline amongst the perpetrators of the attacks would be:

The introduction of Indian police officers who would give them ten or twelve slaps first up. (Respondent 5, Focus Group 3)

The majority of the participants were critical of the role of the police force in dealing with the violence. A common narrative was that complaints to the police 'fell on deaf ears.' This view was based on their personal experiences with police. They thought police inaction was due to a lack of resources or possibly lack of will to enforce strict penalties:

I think it's not just a feeling, it's a very, very, very strong feeling that the cops are not doing enough. This does happen in India, corruption does happen in India but, if a teenager does something like that, they hit him so hard, they hit him so badly that other people are frightened to do that. (Respondent 4, Focus Group 4)

The cops should be more responsible and responsive, and if there is an international student filing a complaint, take it seriously, respond to it immediately and show some care, just present a more secure picture of Australia, saying that the cops are around, you know? (Respondent 9, Focus Group 1)

Some students further related the inadequate police response to a shortage of resources, while others questioned the role of the police force and their accountability in monitoring under-age drinking and drug use as reasons for the continued escalation of the attacks:

The police force, frankly, is under-resourced. (Respondent 3, Focus Group 1)

They find they do not have the resources to take them and put them in the jail. (Respondent 7, Focus Group 2)

Yeah, on a tram at the start of the evening, at like 8, 9 o'clock, if you're going in with 15 year olds drinking, where the hell are the cops? (Respondent 5, Focus Group 3)

The findings above reveal that there was a strong perception among the students that the justice system is too liberal and ineffective for under-age offenders. Further, students were critical of the role of the police, with some relating the inadequate police response to a lack of resources. Finally, there were cultural differences in how transgressions should be handled, with the Indian students of the view that the police should act swiftly with corporal punishment to forestall further violence.

The media

A majority of the participants in all the focus groups perceived the media to be playing a role in inciting the attacks. They opined that that the media exaggerated events. Some perceived that media reports had a negative influence on prospective and current students in India and their families. They asserted that the media had negatively influenced the situation and had, in fact, made the Indian international student cohort into a target by placing so much emphasis on the attacks. These views can be seen in these comments:

Media sensationalises this information [which] has a definite impact on the numbers [of attacks] (Respondent 7, Focus Group 5).

The media needs to report it, but they've blown it so much out of proportion that they've made it more unsafe for us. That's triggered more anger amongst the local community (Respondent 5, Focus Group 1).

Some participants were cynical about the role of the media and attributed their exaggeration of the attacks as a competitive strategy, as seen in this comment:

Bollywood, racism and sex sells in India. There is immense competition between papers ... You won't find a lot of that information going on during the Champions Trophy period (Respondent 1, Focus Group 2).

The media was seen overall as having played a role in bringing the issue to the attention of the general public, but was criticised for overplaying the events. In particular, the Indian media was cited as being inflammatory.


This qualitative empirical study of Indian postgraduate and undergraduate male students studying in different higher education institutes in Melbourne, Australia, has provided insight into how students perceive the attacks on Indian students in 2009 and 2010. Analysis revealed four broad themes as the perceived reasons for the attacks which include: racism versus opportunism, intercultural issues, systemic ineffectiveness and media reporting. Among the issues identified in the interviews, students were divided over whether they perceived the attacks as race hate crime or opportunistic and over intercultural issues, but their perceptions were aligned on issues of systemic ineffectiveness and media reporting in response to the attacks.

This study contributes to the literature in a number of ways. First, it uses the voice of the international students to explore how Indian students themselves understand and explain the violence, creating knowledge about a critical education issue that complements the ICEPA research (Babacan et al. 2010). The aim of our study was to create a posteriori knowledge about attacks on international Indian students by focusing on the perceptions of the Indian students of the attacks, and listening to their voices and their experiences from a personal perspective. In so doing we confirm many of the ICEPA report's findings, as well as provide novel contributions to knowledge of international students' perceptions. The ICEPA researchers gathered evidence on community safety experienced by international students, and contributed to understanding of international student safety and the development of effective policy responses. Despite the slightly different focus, the findings of our study are aligned with the findings of the ICEPA study in the following ways.

In our study cultural differences were a major theme in the students' perceived reasons for the attacks; similarly, the ICEPA report found 'that racism or cross-cultural misunderstanding is one pervasive element in a mix of interrelated factors' (Babacan et al. 2010: 4). Furthermore, both our study and the ICEPA report found that racism was perceived to be a factor in the attacks, but was not seen as the sole cause of them; rather both studies found that racism was a pervasive element in the cocktail of factors that produce risks to international student safety. In addition, we found that key threats to international Indian student safety were opportunistic due to late night travel on public transport, being in unsafe localities and the abuse of alcohol and drugs by locals. The ICEPA report (Babacan et al. 2010) supports these findings. The role of the police was not always found to be helpful or effective by participants in our study; the ICEPA report had similar findings reporting some international students' perceptions that 'police at times displayed ethnic or racial bias' (Babacan et al. 2010: 4). Finally our findings about the role of the media in inciting tension is also in line with the findings of the ICEPA report (Babacan et al. 2010) who report that media coverage, particularly in India, created awareness of the violence and contributed to concern about the safety of international students in Australia. The similarity in our findings and those of the ICEPA research team provide confirmation that these issues--cultural differences, racism, opportunism, inadequate police attention, and uneven media reporting--are at the heart of this problem.

The second contribution made by our study is that, in the current context of decreased international enrolments from Indian students, where we seek to better understand our international students, these findings have implications for international student policy and planning priorities. As India has a collectivist and close-knit society, the perceptions of international students are important in influencing prospective students' decisions to choose Australia as their destination for higher studies.

Third, the perceptions of the Indian students in our study are important as they provide insights into aspects of the situation with which to address issues to improve international student safety in Australia. Understanding the ways in which Indian students themselves perceive the issue provides additional, subtle layers of understanding to the situation with which to inform discussion of solutions.

Finally, our study makes an additional contribution to knowledge. We draw attention to student perceptions of the Australian justice system. International Indian students perceive the Australian justice system to be liberal, lenient and ineffective for people who are under 18 years of age. These views suggest that there may be greater cultural education and training required for international students in order to more fully understand different practices and institutions, such as the role of police and the justice system in Australia. Additionally, it may also indicate the need for increased attention to raising the intercultural awareness and understanding of the police regarding the needs of international Indian students.

Our study reinforces existing views in earlier studies (for example, Nyland et al. 2009; Spolc & Lee 2010; Larsen et al. 2011), which suggest that opportunistic behaviour cannot be ruled out as one of the major reasons for the attacks. It also supports findings from student-focussed research, which suggest that racism is a factor in attacks on international Indian students (for example, Babacan et al. 2010; Marginson et al. 2010; Mason 2010) as well as the findings of Dunn and Nelson (2011) who, in a study involving 12,512 Australians, found that most Australians (84 per cent) recognise that racism is a problem in society. In view of these findings, we support the Australian Human Rights Commission, the International Education Association Australia, and the Australian Institute of Criminology, in their call for further research into the question of racism as a motivating factor for the attacks.

The vulnerability of the Indian student cohort and the employment opportunities available to them are areas that need attention. Referring to the vulnerability of international students, Marginson and colleagues (2010) argue that they need protection with better support systems provided at government and university levels, and empowerment with skills tailored to their needs. Similarly, the ICEPA report (Babacan et al. 2010) also stresses the importance of improving employment conditions of international students to enhance community safety. In response to the issue of international student safety and student vulnerability, Universities Australia developed a ten-point plan to address student safety concerns in June 2009. Among the initiatives listed was the need to improve accommodation and employment services for international students (Universities Australia 2009). In October 2010 the Council of Australian Governments released their International Students Strategy for Australia, which outlines a number of initiatives involving four key areas, which include international student wellbeing, quality of international education, consumer protection and the availability of better information for international students (COAG 2010). The International Students Strategy for Australia is, no doubt, a welcome initiative that seeks to address student safety; however, whether or not it will facilitate students' access to decent work and pay conditions, as well as having their rights protected in the workplace, remains to be seen.

Intercultural knowledge, as pointed out by participants, is invaluable, and a lack of understanding of intercultural relations is seen as likely to cause intercultural disharmony. Unfamiliarity with host nation cultural norms and cultural difficulties lead to difficulties in adjustment (Heyward 2002; Rosenthal et al. 2007). The participants' attitudes towards familial relationships and the role of the parent in controlling the teenagers indicate divergences in cultural understandings of family, order, and discipline. Family values, parenting, and the role of discipline within the family are culturally informed (Radhakrishnan 2008); the family is the primary source of identity formation in India (Lakha 2005). Students' understanding of the role of family and 'proper' discipline were quite authoritarian. In an intercultural environment, such divergences are unavoidable; however, with improved cultural literacy comes improved intercultural understanding (Hammer 2005). Initiatives such as 'Vindaloo Against Violence' and improvement of student services, including workshops on cultural awareness, have been designed to encourage intercultural experiences and improve intercultural understanding. In our data, two thirds of the responses were in favour of changing behaviours in order to adapt to the mainstream cultural environment, while one third were not willing to do so.

Some perceive India as having an 'argumentative tradition' which plays a part in its development across different fields (Sen 2005). Evidence of this tradition was witnessed in Melbourne where large groups of Indian nationals took to the streets and blockaded a major intersection in protest against the attacks (Millar & Doherty 2009). Almost all the participants in our study perceived the attacks to be related to errant, drunk youth and undisciplined parenting. This relatively authoritarian attitude was also evident in students' perceptions of penalties for under-age drinking, drug use, and an appropriate police approach, further underlining the need for intercultural awareness and understanding. This is interesting in the light of students' self-reportage as being timid and not likely to speak up under duress, and points to divisions within the student cohort regarding their cultural status. Although some students felt a need to assimilate, others showed a preference for their cultural perceptions, finding comprehension and, therefore, acceptance of 'Australian' behaviours impossible. Espiritu (2001) suggests that racially subordinate groups use alternative frames of meaning to redefine their status in relation to the dominant group. In so doing, they shift attention from 'their otherness (as dictated by the 'mainstream' group) to the otherness of the mainstream (as constructed by the 'margins')' (Espiritu 2001: 421). This process would allow the students to construct Australians as morally flawed, perhaps thereby allowing them to regain some sense of social status.

Consistent with the students' perceptions in our study, alcohol-related crime, violence, and anti-social behaviour are recognised as significant problems with widespread negative ramifications for Australian and international communities and police (Livingston et al. 2008). The findings of the ICEPA report (Babacan et al. 2010) also highlights the use of drugs and alcohol as the key threats to safety experienced by both international and domestic students.

Students' perceptions of the role of the media, particularly the Indian media, are also in line with findings from previous research (Rentschler et al. 2010; Mason 2010). The media is a globalised industry and news circulates on the internet in seconds. In addition, in democracies, the media is outside the scope of government control. The convergence of ideas across nation states makes media regulation increasingly difficult, if not abhorrent, in democracies. However, as Rentschler and colleagues (2010) noted, the media is capable of adopting a responsible position on matters of international importance when there is a perceived need to do so, as organisational managers are capable of better managing media matters. However, such self regulation would take time.

There are some limitations to our study. First, our research focussed on male students studying across different institutions in Melbourne. This limits the generalisability of the findings to female Indian students as well as Indian international students in other cities, as there are likely to be differences in students' experiences as a result of variables originating in the local area. Research with female students is needed, since female and male students are employed in different kinds of jobs, and so perceptions of safety might differ between the gender groups. Second, our findings present a qualitative study of international Indian students only. We recognise that the findings may not be applicable to other international student groups. We are also aware that the findings are not representative of other stakeholder perceptions, such as those of government officials, university academics or administrators or law enforcement agencies. Finally, there are limits that derive from the focus group method used in the study which include individuals dominating within the groups, tendencies towards normative discourses, and conflicts and arguments within focus groups. However as discussed in the methodology, we adopted a mix of strategies to minimise these problems. Despite the limitations, the findings of the study help to identify the reasons for the attacks from the students' perspectives. In doing so, the emergent themes from their discussions have reinforced the strategic significance of key issues that have implications for future research on student safety, and international student policy and planning priorities.


Understanding how Indian international students themselves perceive the attacks is crucial in order to address the issues related with the decline in Indian student numbers in 2009-10. The full impact of decreased enrolments of international students in Australia is yet to be felt, however, the associated loss of revenue is already manifested through increased competition, decreased government funding, and staff cuts in some universities (Brown 2010). Realising the importance of the situation, the higher education sector and the government, as discussed earlier, have instigated a number of initiatives which include major policy changes to enhance student wellbeing and safety.

Despite the reputational damage done by the highly-publicised attacks on Indian students, a 2009 Indian survey showed that Australia was still considered the safest destination for Indian international students, ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom (The Hindu 2009). We contend that the perception of continued safety is largely a result of the steps taken by the Indian and Australian governments and the tertiary sector. Australian higher education is still highly valued; however, as the results of this study clearly indicate, there are outstanding issues--the vulnerability of the Indian student cohort, intercultural awareness, and police resources--that need attention if Australia is to restore its earlier reputation. Some of the issues, such as intercultural awareness, involve changing attitudes which will take time and are largely outside the scope of policy. However, the issue of the degree to which racism underpinned the attacks is important yet difficult to define. There is a need for further research into the sector that is able to capture to what extent racism is a problem for international students. Meanwhile, Australia still retains some of its previous reputation, which is encouraging in light of the severity of the attacks and the attention they received.


Access Economics (2009) The Australian education sector and the economic contribution of international students: Report by Access Economics Pty Limited for Australian Council for Private Education and Training.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2007) Perspectives on Migrants, 2007, Overseas Students, Cat no. 3416.0.

Australian Human Rights Commission (2011) 'More research needed for international student safety' News, 11 August about/media/news/2011/71_11.html.

Babacan, H., Pyke, J., Bhathal, A., Gill, G., Grossman, M. & Bertone, S. (2010) The Community Safety of International Students in Melbourne: A scoping study. Melbourne: Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives (ICEPA).

Brown, M. (2010) 'Foreign student drop leads to uni job cuts', News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), stories/2010/10/14/3037834.htm?site=melbourne, 15 February 2011.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) (2010) International Student Strategy for Australia, Canberra, Council of Australian Governments.

Davidson, M. & Wang, Y. (2008) 'Critical issues in the Australian Chinese student market', paper presented at the International Cultural and Event Tourism Conference, Alanya, Turkey, 5-9 November.

Debroy, B. (2008) 'Adjusting to a knowledge economy'. In P. Ira (ed.), Beyond Degree: Finding Success in Higher Education, New Delhi, Harper Collins.

Dhesi, S. A. (2001) 'Expectations and post-school choice: some data from India', Education and Training, 43 (1), 14-24.

Dunn, K.M. & Nelson, J.K. (2011) 'Challenging the public denial of racism: a deeper multiculturalism', Journal of Intercultural Studies, 32 (6), 587-602.

Espiritu, Y. L. (2001) 'We don't sleep around like white girls do: family, culture, and gender in Filipina American girls' lives', Journal of Women in Culture & Society, 26 (2), 413-439.

Feith, D. (2008) 'India's higher education sector in the twenty-first century--a growing market and the need for greater international engagement', paper presented to the 17th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Melbourne, 1-3 July.

Hammer, M. R. (2005) 'The intercultural conflict style: a conceptual framework and measure of intercultural conflict resolution approaches', International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29 (6), 675-695.

Heyward, M. (2002) 'From international to intercultural: redefining the international school for a globalized world', Journal of Research in International Education, 1 (1), 9-32.

Karvelas, P. & Rintoul, S. (2009) 'States were warned on Indian attacks', The Australian, 2 June, p. 6.

Lakha, S (2005)'Negotiating the transnational workplace: Indian computer professionals in Australia', Journal of Intercultural Studies, 26 (4), 337-359.

Larsen, J.J., Payne, J. & Tomison, A. (2011) Crimes Against International Students in Australia, 2005-09, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

Leung, K. & Stephan, W.G. (1998) 'Perceptions of injustice in intercultural relations', Applied and Preventive Psychology, 7 (3), 195-205.

Livingston, M., Laslett, A. & Dietze, P. (2008) 'Individual and community correlates of young people's high-risk drinking in Victoria, Australia', Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 98 (3), 241-248.

Marginson, S., Nyland, C., Sawir, E. & Forbes-Mewett, H. (2010) International Student Security, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.

Marsella, A. J. (2005) 'Culture and conflict: understanding, negotiating, and reconciling conflicting constructions of reality', International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29 (6), 651-673.

Mason, G. (2010) 'Violence against Indian students in Australia: a question of dignity', Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 21 (3), 461-466.

Mason, G. (2011) 'Naming the 'R' word in racial victimization: violence against Indian students in Australia', International Review of Victimology, 18 (1), 39-56.

Millar, P. & Doherty, B. (2009) 'Indian anger boils over', The Age, 1 June.

Miles, M. & Huberman, M. (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook, (2nd edn), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Noy, C. (2008) Sampling knowledge: the hermeneutics of snowball sampling in qualititative research', International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 11 (4), 327-344.

Nyland, C., Forbes-Mewett, H., Marginson, S., Ramia, G.E.S. & Smith, S. (2009) 'International student-workers in Australia: a new vulnerable workforce', Journal of Education and Work, 22 (1), 1-14.

Phillimore, J. & Koshy, P. (2010) The economic implications of fewer international higher education students in Australia, paper prepared for the Australian Technology Network of Universities, John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin University.

Radhakrishnan, S. (2008) 'Examining the "global" Indian middle class: gender and culture in the Silicon Valley/Bangalore Circuit', Journal of Intercultural Studies, 29 (1), 7-20.

Raggatt, M. (2011) 'International students face tough penalties for illegal work', Meld Magazine, 2 September ernational-students-tough-penalties-for-illegal-work/.

Rentschler, R., Jogulu, U., Osborne, A., Azmat, F. & Malathy, V. (2010) 'Violence against Indian students in Australia: a media analysis with policy and practice implications', paper presented to the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland, 14-16 April.

Robbins, W. M. (2010) 'Learning with hard labour: students as workers', Australian Bulletin of Labour, 36 (1), 103-120.

Rosenthal, D., Russell, J. & Thomson, G. (2007) 'Social connectedness among international students at an Australian university', Social Indicators Research, 84 (1), 71-82.

Sen, A. (2005) The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, London, Allen Lane.

Smithson, J. (2000) 'Using and analysing focus groups: limitations and possibilities', International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 3 (2):103-119

Spolc, P. & Lee, L. (2010) 'Indian students in Australia: victims of crime, racism or the media?', paper presented to the 20th ISANA International Education Conference, Canberra, 1-4 December.

Strategy Policy and Research in Education Limited (2009) The nature of international education in Australian universities and its benefits, paper prepared for Universities Australia, Canberra http://www.

Tyson, R. (2011) 'Three to stand trial over fruit picker's death', The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April pickers-death-20110417-1djuh.html.

The Hindu (2009) 'Australia favourite among Indian students: survey', The Hindu, 12 October ece.

Trounson, A. (2011) 'Governments "lethargic" on student safety', The Australian, 28 August.

Universities Australia (2009) 'Universities Australia action plan for student safety', Media release, Universities Australia, Canberra, 9 June releases/action-plan-for-student-safety/.

Volet, S. E. & Ang, G. (1998) 'Culturally mixed groups on international campuses: an opportunity for inter-cultural learning', Higher Education Research and Development, 17 (1), 5-23.
Table 1: Experiences of assaults on male international students,
by number, location, and time of crimes, 2005-2009, in
Victoria (per cent)

Experience of Assault--Males
                                       Location of crime

Place of     Estimated      Street    Hospitality   Retail    Public
Origin       number of                                        Transport
             per 1000

India        8-11           46        12            15        15
China        1-2            43        6             16        7
Korea        0-2            67        0             0         0
Malaysia     0.5-2          73        18            9         0
United       4-6            70        20            0         10
Victoria     8-13                                          Data not

            Location           Time of crime
            of crime

Place of     Other     8.Opm      4.Oam      12.0pm
Origin                 -4.0am     -12.0pm    8.0pm

India        15        66         13         22
China        28        56         18         27
Korea        33        100
(n=3)                             0          0
Malaysia     0         54         18         27
United       0         90         0          0
Victoria    Data not

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Source: Larsen
et al. (2011)

Table 2: Experiences of robbery of male international students, by
number, location, and time of crimes, 2005-2009, in Victoria (per cent)

Experience of Robbery--Males
                                            Location of crime

Place of     Estimated           Street     Hospitality   Retail
Origin       number of
             per 1000

India        8-12                62         1             18
China        1-3                 65         0             17
Korea        0-3                 80         0             0
Malaysia     0.3-2               86         0             0
United       2-4                 100        0             0
Victoria     1-2                 70         2             11

             Location of crime               Time of crime

Place of     Public      Other      8.0pm            4.0am     12.0pm
Origin       Transport              4.0am           12.0pm      8.0pm

India        15          6          74              12         15
China        7           6          83              8          8
Korea        10          10         60              10         30
Malaysia     14          0          64              7          28
United       0           0          67              33         0
Victoria     11          8          Data not provided

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Source: Larsen
et al. (2011)

Table 3: Experiences of other theft by male international students,
by number, location  and time of crimes

Experiences of Other Theft

Place of Origin    Estimated number of crimes per 1000 (lowest-highest)

India                                     11-21
China                                      8-10
Korea                                      7-18
Malaysia                                   4-9
United States                              2-14
Victoria                                  22-24

Source: Larsen et al. (2011)
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.