Come to Australia, it’s safe: Australian deputy PM

New Delhi, Aug 31 ( Allaying fears that Australia is a racist country, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard Monday reassured the Indian student community of her country’s safety record and appealed to them to come and study there.

Beginning her five-day visit to India Monday in a bid to boost bilateral ties in fields ranging from business to education, she met with Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal and addressed students of the prestigious Lady Sri Ram College earlier in the day.

“We welcome Indian students to Australia. We have zero tolerance towards violence. We are more or less a much accepting and safe society,” the deputy prime minister told reporters after her two engagements.

“Australia has zero tolerance towards violence against Indian students… (we want) they should be safe, get quality education and enjoy their stay.”

Her comments come in the backdrop of many alleged racial attacks on Indian students in Australia that forced New Delhi to take note of the situation. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna made a five-day trip to Australia last month to interact with top government officials there about the security and safety of students.

Gillard said the Australian police have arrested a “number of people” and they would be brought to justice. The arrests were made in Victoria and New South Wales, the provinces where the majority of the attacks were reported.

In her meeting with Sibal, the minister briefed him about the steps initiated by the Australian government to provide safety to Indian students, which was reportedly appreciated.

Gillard said her country was bringing in legislation that would spell out stricter safety procedures for international students.

Gillard, who heads diverse ministries including education, employment and social inclusion, will Wednesday go to Chennai, from where many students go to Australia every year.

Around 100,000 Indians study in Australia, contributing nearly $2 billion to the host country.

The principal aim of her visit, Gillard stressed, was to reinforce Australia’s image as “a culturally diverse, welcoming and safe country for Indian students, business people and other visitors”.

“After the legislation comes to effect, (we will ensure that) any institution providing education will be offering only quality education. The information provided by educational agencies should also be accurate,” she said, adding a hotline had already been set up for aggrieved students.

The Australian government is presently conducting an audit of its rapidly burgeoning vocational sector, one of the biggest education providers for Indian students but which is also widely believed to be misused for gaining permanent residency status.

Policymakers and educationists believe that the over 1,000 vocational institutes in the country, of which 400 alone are in Victoria state, have become moneymaking machines, and many of them compromise on the quality of education by hiring agents who are given hefty commissions.

Also in place, Gillard insisted, was a “visible police patrol”, especially in places from where racial attacks have been reported in the remote suburbs of major cities like Melbourne and Sydney. She maintained her government would ensure that victims of racist attacks either get a seat in a different college or are refunded the entire college fee.

“As a national government we are working with state governments to provide quality education to all Indian students. After my visit here, there will be a roundtable with foreign students on difficulties faced by them,” she added.

The highlight of her trip will be the launch of the Australia-India Institute, an initiative expected to build better understanding between people of the two countries.

Australia’s education industry has boomed in recent years to become the country’s third largest export earner after coal and iron ore, generating about $12 billion in revenue in 2008.