'EVEN if I wanted to go to Australia, and I got the course I wanted, there is no way I could convince my mum and dad,'' a young Indian student told British Council researchers in Delhi last month.
The student's parents are not alone in worrying about sending their offspring to Australia. The number of Indian students enrolled in our colleges and universities has collapsed over the past three years - from 121,000 in 2009 down to 48,000 by August this year - at an estimated cost to the national economy of more than $2 billion.
Figures compiled by the government's Australian international education agency reveal higher education enrolments of Indian students fell from 27,500 three years ago to fewer than 12,000 by August. Yet the number from China has continued its rapid rise - up from 64,400 in 2009 to 92,000.
Savage attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney three years ago created a media storm across India and that, coupled with the rising value of the Australian dollar and tighter immigration restrictions, has had an overwhelming impact on Indian attitudes on Australia as a study destination.
''All the students we spoke to in Delhi and Mumbai were aware of incidents of violence towards international students around the world and the high-profile incidents involving the safety of Indian students that occurred in Australia,'' say the British Council researchers in a report published in London last week.
The report on rising safety concerns among international students was prepared by the council's Education Intelligence division and used data from online surveys completed by more than 160,000 international students between 2007 and 2012, as well as a poll of student safety concerns. The researchers also interviewed students, school teachers, parents and education agents in Delhi and Mumbai.
While the number of violent incidents involving foreign students has been increasing globally, the report says Australian institutions have experienced ''an acute number of crimes'', with the causes and their handling scrutinised by the international media. The perception of Australia as a safe destination appears to have changed: the British research shows Canada, Germany and New Zealand are now perceived as ''safer'' study destinations.
Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Helen Szoke, was with the Victorian Human Rights Commission when the attacks on Indian students occurred in Melbourne. ''I was acutely aware of the damage being done by not acknowledging and recognising that an element of racism was the basis of the attacks,'' she told Higher Age.
Dr Szoke has just launched a ''bill of rights'' for international students - a set of principles to promote and protect their rights that, she said, had too often been ignored by individuals and organisations. Outlining the principles at an international education conference in Melbourne, she said the aim was to create discussion and awareness of student rights ''where sometimes it does not exist''.
''This awareness is essential, whether in terms of the obligations of organisations working with international students, or of the support students should expect during their time here,'' Dr Szoke said. ''As we discovered during our consultations, many students do not know where to seek help or what their entitlements might be.''
Social isolation, poverty, exclusion from health services or affordable housing, sexual harassment and exploitation, excessive transport costs and prohibitive fees to access government schools for their children were some of the disadvantages confronting students who rightly came to Australia expecting more, she said.
''This is in addition to the occasional physical violence experienced by some in recent years, as well as the discrimination and hostility that many report. All this means some international students experience life in Australia as second-class members of the community, despite their hopes of a first-class education.''
Another international student study, to be released this month by the Melbourne-based global student recruitment agency IDP Education, will reinforce how wary Indians are of studying in Australia while also demonstrating how widely perceptions can vary. As part of the study, a survey of 463 students in a dozen overseas countries who had used IDP to select courses in universities across America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand was conducted by independent research agency, Forethought Research.
IDP's head of research, Lyndell Jacka, told Higher Age the study found that international recognition of a university's qualification and the quality of its education were the top two factors influencing student choice. The next most important were home country qualification recognition and affordability.
''Safety was ranked between fifth and eighth on a list of 14 factors in choosing which main English destination to study [in],'' Ms Jack said. ''The one exception was students from the Middle East where safety ranked fourth, although Canada was clearly the leader in terms of perceptions of safety no matter which country the students came from or the destination chosen.''
But she said the figures were quite variable. Canada was perceived as the safest among all those surveyed while Australia and Britain ranked in the middle, followed by the US. Indian students perceived Canada as the safest and Australia the least safe whereas Malaysian students saw Australia to be the safest and the US the least.
The British Council researchers say international students are increasingly concerned about personal safety. They warn this trend is beginning to influence student choices of study destinations and, as the number of students moving around the globe rises, so does the potential risk.
''The overseas institutions that welcome these students have a duty of care towards them, which on the most fundamental level suggests taking care of their safety and wellbeing. This helps explain why it is more likely to be seized on by the media when an international student is put in danger than when a domestic student is endangered at home.''