The PIE: You are currently president of AAERI. Tell me about the organisation and its origins.
RLS: Around 1995/1996 there was a time when Australia was beginning to have increasing numbers of Indian students and the Australian government took an initiative and said ‘ how about we bring all the agents together and form a body called AAERI, which is kind of a self-regulating association on its own.
But the interesting part is while it is registered as a society in India and it is autonomous, it was actually initiated by the Australian government Department of Education. So that’s really how AAERI was born in 1996.
“95% of all students who go out of India would be using the services of an AAERI member”
It has its own constitution, and initially every year there would be a set of office bearers elected and they would choose their own president, etc. Over a period of time, of course, there’ve been some changes in the constitution, but it still remains broadly democratic and autonomous.
Today what happens is almost all education agencies who represent Australia are members of AAERI in the Indian space, and that includes IDP as well as small boutique operators. I would say 95% of all students who go out of India would be using the services of an AAERI member.
The PIE: What work does AAERI do?
RLS: The work as an agent in India is very similar to the work as an agent anywhere else. However, the big difference is that India is actually fairly spread out and there are lots of different cities across the place. In AAERI there are 100 odd members. If you look at the branch offices, there would be 500 plus locations across the country.
Now the basic model in India is around being paid by the university and not being paid by the student because AAERI has set a schedule of fees, which sets a maximum limit that a student can be charged. So the question of students being fleeced doesn’t arise really with an AAERI member.
The PIE: How does AAERI compare to other agency associations?
RLS: AAERI has been a model for most other countries. I have worked very closely with the British, with the Americans and the New Zealanders and I can tell you most of them have actually been in awe with the way AAERI functions. I was instrumental in setting up the AIRC for Americans. I was in the initial group which brainstormed the idea and my company was also a pilot agency on which the formation started.
Similarly, AAERI was used by New Zealand formations. However, none of them has been able to achieve a role like AAERI because AAERI is on the ground and not really operating from overseas. And secondly, it is very much self-regulating. There is nobody else doing it and it’s a body of competitors who come together, set up their own codes, and in the end, that’s what’s been appreciated.
The PIE: What challenges has AAERI faced?
RLS: So there have been challenges from time to time. For example, in 2009 there were lots of newspaper articles and information which tried to portray certain opportunistic attacks on Indian students in Australia as racist attacks. AAERI was very instrumental at that time. We were seen as neutral.
We put out the right picture, and facilitated travel and reporting by journalists, so we could give a clearer and better presentation of the facts. And by 2011 the industry had started to take a different shape. The numbers started to grow.
“I would say watch out for India – it’s going to be the main source of students for most of the countries around the world”
Similarly, within India, when the Indian government decided to put out a kind of regulation for education agents again AAERI made a submission, gave its presentation of facts, put out of what can be done. While things are still being decided, AAERI will probably be amongst the very few which did give its input.
The PIE: Tell me about some of AAERI’s successes.
RLS: The Indian government initiated something called the GST a couple of years ago. Now the GST is an 18% tax on anything that an agency receives, which is a lot of money and could have led to some agencies being pushed out of the market.
This is very significant because for an Australian university, this GST didn’t really mean anything and we were able to present the facts to our universities. And today, I can proudly say that almost all Australian universities have agreed to pay the GST component on the agent commissions.
The PIE: How important are Indian students for the Australian HE sector?
RLS: If we talk about Australian universities, their international numbers come either from China or from South Asia. Of course, there are students from other parts of the world. But if you really look at the largest chunks, one is the Chinese students coming in to study in Australia and the other is students coming in from the subcontinent of South Asia. If you look at the total numbers last year, the numbers are more or less similar.
I’m not talking only for India, but I’m talking about India and Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, because generally in Australia the regulations are similar for all the South Asian countries, and AAERI tends to end up representing the entire region sometimes.
This is one of the reasons why AAERI now has a chapter in Nepal. So what happens is the total numbers are pretty significant and most of them are at universities now.
Australian universities have in recent times been looking at India and South Asia very closely because there’s a little bit of apprehension that the student numbers from China would drop or would be affected. And if that is so, then Australian universities would need the Indian students even more.
The PIE: What will this increased interest mean for students?
We are very concerned that if there are larger numbers, the universities also need to do their part of the job. They need to take care of the students coming in and also at the same time in their haste for the commercial gain, they should not lower their standards too much.
A couple of years ago you might have read that Australian universities started to accept students, waiving their English requirements. These students had a very low probability of even completing one semester of study in Australia. AAERI issued a timely advisory and several universities did bring in their own corrections.
The PIE: What are AAERI’s plans for the future and how have they been affected by coronavirus?
RLS: What we planned a few months ago will not hold good this year. Each year we run our own conventions, one in Delhi and one in Australia. Both were planned this year; one in August and the other in October, which would have been on the sideline of the AIEC conference. What has happened is the AIEC conference has been cancelled for the year and we are not likely to be holding the August event.
AAERI has been working with the Australian government departments and has also issued 10 recommendations. We are seeing several of the recommendations being considered and there is now a real possibility of the travel of international students being permitted soon.
“Australia has done a great job in containing the virus”
I must add that Australia has done a great job in containing the virus and we appreciate that the country will ensure adequate health safeguards to ensure that the incoming travellers don’t bring the virus back. AAERI had recommended that the government may not wait for the vaccine and instead test the students prior and post the travel and if required, introduce a period of quarantine.
Meanwhile, what we are doing is that we will continue to wait and watch for the next few months. And once we’ve got a little bit of a semblance of normalcy, we will certainly go out and make sure that the Indians can get to universities.
There is a pipeline of Indian students and students do want to travel. They just want clarity on how and what can happen. And I would say just watch out for India. Really, it’s going to be the main source of students for most of the countries around the world, even in the coming year or two.