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Travel row simmers in Australia; authorities defiant

India has joined the row about international student travel concessions in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia, calling for those from overseas to receive the same discounts as their domestic peers in a bid to improve safety. An e-petition has also been set up by two international students in Australia and Universities Australia is also backing the campaign.

"We are taking up the matter of transport concession with state government at the highest and all required levels"

However, state government representatives argue their policy is fair, comparing restrictions to the government not extending free healthcare to international students. They add that to obtain a visa, an overseas student must show they have sufficient funds to cover their living expenses for the duration of their stay, including travel costs.

“It is important that the benefit of concession fares be given to those who are most in need”

Transport for New South Wales spokesperson told The PIE News: “The NSW Government spends approximately $900 million each year to support concession. It is important that the benefit of concession fares be given to those who are most in need. This involves making very difficult decisions about the circumstances of different groups in the community.”

NSW and Victoria are the only states in Australia not to offer transport concessions to international students, which critics argue ramps up costs and leads to students walking on the streets at night to save money where they are more vulnerable to crime. India has lobbied both state governments to extend the 50% discount enjoyed by home students since the spate of street attacks on Indians across Australia in 2009.

“We are taking up the matter of transport concession with state government at the highest and all required levels,” S K Behera, consul general of India in Melbourne told Indian news sources this week.

Australian association ACPET also called for the same universal application of travel discounts earlier in the year.

Pressure has been growing on NSW and Victoria to change their policy, given they collectively cater to two-thirds of Australia’s international students and want to boost enrolments after a three-year slump.

“They deserve to be extended the same rights that we would expect when studying overseas”

Overseas students Jay Ng and Catherine Nguyen, whose e-petition over the issue has received 6,500 signatures, said the issue was “having a real impact on where international students choose to study”.

“Spending almost $4 for a 10-minute bus ride does not seem worth it, so we take risks that we know we should not,” they explained. “In comparison, if we had transport concession, most of us would happily spend $2 to take the bus home from the train station instead of walking 20-30 mins in the dark.”

Ng and Nguyen said that many students travelled long distances from where they studied, due to high city centre accommodation prices, causing travel costs to spiral. “It affects the sort of work, study and socialising we can do,” they said.

Universities Australia told The PIE News it wanted nationally consistent travel concessions for all students not just on grounds of safety and fairness, but also for a better student experience. “International students are taxpayers, contributing hugely to goods and service tax and income taxes… They deserve to be extended the same rights that we would expect when studying overseas,” said a spokesperson.

Concessions are currently reserved for home students, veterans, the disabled and elderly.

India’s intervention comes at a delicate time for the industry. Official figures show Australia lost AUS$2.6 billion in its education export sector between 2009 and 2011 due to a persistently high dollar, and enrolments from India have nosedived. However, in the nine months to March there was a 43% rise in approved student visa applications from India suggesting a revival in interest.

Ironically, Behera said attitudes among students were changing thanks to state efforts to improve safety. “There is no negative feeling now among Indian students and so much so those who were victims of such reported attacks today do not want to go back to India. They want to have a new life here,” he said.

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