Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Selling Armidale to international students

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 22 July 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

One disadvantage of living in Sydney as I now do is travel time. I spend almost three hours in every twenty four, sometimes more, sitting in a bus, train or car.

I try to make the best use I can of this otherwise dead time. This is what I have come to call my train reading time. I sit, read and try to write.

Five mornings a week the train passes through Harris Park, one of the epicenters for recent attacks on Indian students studying in Australia.

A lot of the reporting on these troubles focused on perceived racism in the broader Australia community or, alternatively, suggested that Indian students had simply been victims of ordinary opportunistic crime.

I have no doubt that there have been cases of what is called curry bashing, as well as opportunistic crime. But, as always, the position is a little more complicated than this.

At the last census Harris Park had a population of 6,854.

Of this, just 29.2% spoke only English at home. The most common languages other than English were Arabic 10.4%, Gujarati 6.8%, Hindi 5.8%, Mandarin 4.6% and Cantonese 3.7%. Indian born made up 19.5% of the population of Harris Park. Those between 15 and 25, the main student groups, totalled 68.7% of the population.

The central problem in Harris Park has been the replacement of the previously dominant Lebanese population by new Indian students. This lies at the core of the troubles.

Whatever the reasons for the difficulties faced by Indian students, the whole affair has done great damage to Australia’s reputation as a safe and friendly place for international students to study.

This damage has been compounded by problems within the vocational education system. The combination of a proportion of unscrupulous “colleges” with bad official policies has created a growing scandal.

Granny Herald has been campaigning hard on this issue. The campaign may be required, but crikey that paper does damage to the city it claims to serve. Its constant stream of negative stories adds to Sydney’s growing tarnish.

These various difficulties lie at the core of my argument that Armidale has a real opportunity to attract more international students at all levels.

The current troubles will almost certainly lead to a drop in the total number of international students coming to Australia, but Armidale can increase its share of those that do come.

Armidale does not need an additional 10,000 international students, but 1,000 more spread across various educational institutions would be of considerable benefit to the local economy.

I mentioned in my last column that Armidale had a remarkable record of welcoming international students. I do not think that Armidale people properly realise what a great base this provides.

The story starts with the civic welcome that the city offers students each year. It continues through the thousands of interactions between the city, its people and its educational institutions and the international student and educational communities.

I read the UNE news blog. I have lost count of the stories that Jim Scanlan and his colleagues have posted on UNE’s international activities and interactions, many with a people focus.

Dropping down, I read the individual stories in the Express or in some of the school publications. This is good stuff, but few outside Armidale know anything about it.

Part of the problem is that Armidale’s good news stories are simply not news in the conventional sense. Nobody runs them as stories outside Armidale because they are seen as local. They won’t attract readers or viewers.

This won’t change. However, the way we approach the communications task can change.

Take a simple example.

Check out the various Armidale web sites connected in some way with education. How many mention the civic welcome, or indeed say much at all about international students and the local community?

If you do this check, you will see that the question exactly illustrates my point. Forget straight sales, we just don’t communicate.

Assume that you are parents in India making decisions about your kids’ education.

Where would you want them to go: to the new “university cities” of Sydney or Melbourne, or to a place that presents the whole community as welcoming?

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