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Indian students - how Australia's education industry failed the PR test

By Malcolm King - posted Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Australia’s excellent international education brand has been sullied but not destroyed by hysterical claims of racism and fraud in the private education market.

There has been a singular failure to communicate to the Indian media that the assaults were exceptions and not the rule.

The inaction by the Federal Government, the state governments of Victoria and New South Wales and the entire post secondary education industry (let’s call it an industry because that’s what it is), created a “PR vacuum” where anything could happen.

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And it did. So when the next stage of the drama unfolded and Indian students cried foul when two private registered training authorities went broke, the flood gates opened. One indiscretion may seem innocent. Two indiscretions back-to-back is a PR nightmare.

Universities and TAFE’s must understand that once the media in both India and Australia get their teeth in to an issue, then it’s not the Federal Government’s problem - it’s everyone’s problem.

Inaction in public relations is death. I wish I had a dollar every time a business CEO said to me in a media crisis meeting, “If we do nothing, the media will go away won’t they?” No, they won’t.

Failing to respond leaves the media with a blank page to write anything they want. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of news. Journalists have to fill news bulletins and page space and conflict and impact stories make great content.

For more than 20 years Australian universities have been marketing against each other for a share of the international student market. It is a tough market and the global financial crisis, the swine flu and increased competition made it harder.

Since the mid 1990s Federal Government funding per domestic university student has fallen by between 20 and 30 per cent. So universities (and TAFE’s) have to make up the short fall by hunting for international full fee paying students.

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This is the market at work, yet the allegations of assault against a handful of Indian students - and I notice some Chinese students too - has completely blind-sided the post-secondary education system.

Australian universities rarely act in concert, unless they’re trying to get money out of Canberra. They are not PR experts. They are not structurally geared to handle crises of this magnitude.

Almost three weeks elapsed from the time the assaults were reported in May in Melbourne to when the Prime Minister Rudd issued a statement. In that time we had demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne. It was national news in both India and Australia.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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