A NEW interactive documentary hopes to expose a flawed system that’s lured thousands of international students to Australia with the shaky promise of a future here. Gayertree Subramaniam speaks to the co-director of Convenient Education, David Elliot-Jones.
For many fresh graduates the prospects of travel is an enticing one. When most would choose to go down well-trekked tourist paths, three Melbourne University graduates hopped on a plane to India instead.
Armed with nothing more than a Ebay bought HD camcorder and the high hopes of first time filmmakers, they embarked on a three-month steep learning curve that saw them document the exploitative marketing of the international student industry.
Convenient Education is the result of joint efforts by David Elliot-Jones, Louis Dai, and Lachlan McLeod. Investigating the underlying issues that perpetuate the multi-million dollar education sector in Australia, it was also launched by SBS to coincide with International Student Day.
Co-director David says the idea for the documentary came about after meeting many international students while working in hospitality part-time during their university studies. .
“We were exposed to issues such as the poor quality of the colleges, exploitation, housing and their motivations to study in Australia which was to get PR here, among many others,” he recalls.
“A curiosity about how Australia was being marketed to Indian students sparked our investigation and we wanted to explore this further.”
The story begins in Jalandhar, a major regional centre in a district renowned for its emigration. Bright posters scream out to passers-by advertising services of English language schools and migration agencies. The false promises of a better life hang heavy in the air. Corruption is rife, and misinformation aplenty. The film then follows the journey of three international students in Australia, each enduring a facet of the multi-dimensional problem.
Elliot-Jones says as much as there are agents who wrongly promote Australia as an education destination with the guarantee of permanent residency, there are also people within the education industry in India who are “passionate about the topic and concerned about the way countries like Australia were marketing education”.
But an Australian Council for Educational Research study has found higher education visas for Indian students fell from 34,200 in 2007-08 to 9750 in 2011-12. It attributed this decline to safety concerns, the closure of some training providers and tough conditions for permanent residency.
With international students contributing more than $5 billion to the Victorian economy in 2009-10 (which then fell to just $4.4 billion in 2011-12) , there is a case for concern.
In an Australian first, the documentary has adopted an interactive online format of storytelling. This decision was reached after a meeting with an SBS representative who felt the documentary would receive greater reception online.
At that time we didn’t know much about interactive documentaries, but it was pretty exciting as it was a fairly latent field and is definitely quite new to Australia,” says David.
“We considered it as a democratic platform presented an opportunity for us to tell the story but also viewers to participate in it. International student audiences could inject their own thoughts and opinions into it as they watched, and that that would make it a better story.”
Given the variety of perspectives being offered by the documentary, David believes the interactive format caters further to those interested in some other aspects of the story.
“By having an interactive approach we were able at certain points of the documentary to prompt and peak viewer interest,”" he explains.
“Some people may want the human emotion bit, and some may want the politics side of it.
“We wanted a story that was both emotionally powerful as well as informative.”
As with all maiden projects, the creators discovered making Convenient Education was no easy task.
Technical inexperience, as well as trying to incorporate all forms of input constructively to ensure the final product was wholesome, caused hiccups initially. But David believes the experience only served to be a great learning curve for all.
“Working with students as well as those who were not familiar with the western concept of a documentary and convincing them that we were working together to get an important story told was a challenge in itself.”
Since the making of the documentary, “the situation has gotten better by default” says David, namely because of the decline in international student numbers currently, compared to 2009.
“Immediately you are having less problems with workplace exploitation, housing, and corrupted colleges taking advantage of students,” he says.
Although David acknowledges that the government has instated many reforms and has begun holding colleges to account for their actions, he says there is still more they can do. He provides the example of an absence of transport concessions for international students in Victoria, which is not only “unfair but also very unwelcoming”, he says.
Transport concessions are currently available to international students in every state and territory apart fromVictoria.
Following the release of the documentary, David reveals the plight of some of the students featured, have not changed for the better.
They are hopeful of getting Permanent Residency, but ultimately will not achieve it or will only be here temporary or on a bridging visa,” he says.
“They are still in a state of limbo.”
He says hurdles such as passing IELTS tests which are a requirement for securing Temporary Residency are issues that the documentary didn’t cover, but are another issue of profound significance to international students.
Now, what began as a project borne out of curiosity, has developed into a full-fledge tool for change and action.
“I can only hope that our documentary launches the platform for students to engage with the topic and vent their concerns through meaningful debate,” he says.
“However, that will only be the case if it is widely spread.
I am hoping that the international student community can spread the word about Convenient Education and we can continue building the story.”
Visit the Convenient Education website here, to begin your interactive experience.