International students and the mirage created by “College will find jobs for you” kind of consultation

Dr Anupam Pokharel is a Consultant Psychiatrist from Melbourne, Victoria and the president of Nepalese Association of Victoria (NAV).

An Australian of Nepalese origin, Dr Pokharel is also a regular contributor to media outlets both in Australia and Nepal.

His columns aren’t penned to please. He writes to make his point known no matter how sour the subject. Among many things he writes about, the welfare of international students in Australia is a subject close to his heart. As a practicing psychiatrist, he regularly helps young people left heart-broken by dire circumstances that do not match the dreams that were sold to them back in Nepal.

Dr Pokharel strongly believes that international students coming to Australia, especially from poor countries like Nepal, where parents take backbreaking loans or sell their family assets to fund their children’s education in Australia, must be made aware of the challenges they are most likely to face in the initial stages of settling down. Because this is not happening at the moment, a considerable number of students are becoming casualties of broken Australian dreams, Dr Pokharel believes.

Ram Khatry from southasia.com.au caught up with the busy writer, psychiatrist and community leader:

Dr Anupam Pokharel, your social media posts and many well-received articles indicate that there is a serious gap between the expectations of international students and the real deal in Australia. How serious a problem is this problem of misrepresentation?  

I do not know how serious this problem is in general. However, I know that some students find themselves struggling miserably because of few responsible factors. Life in a completely new environment and the fact that they suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are on their own (away from their parents’ support) contribute to this struggle, among others. Some of these struggling students have come in touch with me because they have been referred to my clinic,then there are those who contact me because they need assistance with job searching. When I probed a bit more into their circumstances, I came across multiple instances of the “gap” you have raised. And then when I began asking both current and ex-students in my contact about the adequacy of the information they were provided, I came to a conclusion that there existed a big gap between the real life scenario here in Australia and what they were told back in Nepal. There have been some outrageous (alleged) statements e.g. “college will find jobs for you”. However it would be wrong to generalize it. How I see this is that even if 10% of students are misinformed, then numerically speaking, such students could be in the hundreds, if not thousands. That’s an awful lot of young people suffering in a foreign land just because some unethical consultants provided them inadequate and doctored information

Some say that it is the students’ responsibility to decide whether or not Australia is good for them because they come here as adults that can read and research?

I come across this argument a lot. I agree that as competent adults, students should be able to gather the right information and make prudent decisions. I however can only partly agree with this theory. This argument does not hold people, people who claim they know the business and that they are a reliable source of information, responsible. Just imagine you are a well-educated patient who has access to a world of information in this digital age. Nevertheless, you still expect your doctor to give you the right information so that you can choose the best path of treatment for yourself. You, as well as society, will hold that doctor responsible should any adverse outcome arises if information on that complication was not provided to you, and you had not obtained full information prior to choosing that treatment.

Both as a leader of the Nepalese diaspora in Victoria and as a professional psychiatrist who is often approached by wronged students who have developed mental health issues, do you feel students are often willingly misled by educational consultants?

I really can’t tell you that is the case. It very well could be. It also could be that such agents are a minority. There are a few examples though which can be used to draw some conclusions. I personally know some educational consultants in Melbourne who say that they won’t do offshore consultancy, that means they would not open office in Nepal due to the situation out there. Again, it doesn’t necessarily imply that those who provide offshore services are all bad. I am sure there are many good ones.

I also have been told by numerous students that they are given only the best possible picture of Australia, and are rarely warned about job situations for new students. Also, accommodation for female students is another area I have doubt is well clarified before they come to Australia.

Taking it further, I do not think this is an issue only related to Australia. I ask you to read an article published in Setopati, where the scenario in Japan is no different. The writer has come to a similar conclusion as mine.  It appears that when students or migrant workers become a number for someone, and that number translates to monetary value, the competition that develops among consultancies probably leads to a variety of practices, which, in the absence of a robust controlling mechanism, transforms to unhealthy competition. At the same time, I would not say that all the consultancies do the same things.

It would be good if there was a mechanism where students can anonymously report misleading or inadequate information providers. While some complaints gathered in this manner could be malicious, this still would capture the current trend in some way.

Educational consultants surely have played a positive and constructive role in pushing the Nepalese diaspora to “the fastest growing migrant community of Australia” status? Are the good guys in minority here?

I have no doubt that without educational consultants we would not have seen such a significant growth of the Nepali diaspora in Australia. Whether this is a matter to be proud of is arguable and that is not the matter of discussion here. And as a matter of fact, I see parallels between the migrants in Australia/US and migrant workers who go to the middle east. This could be a separate discussion. To answer your question, I do not know if good guys are in the minority.  I hope not.

There must be equal number of truthful and professional consultants in the industry who have been a great help both to the Australian economy and to the needy students. Dr. Pokharel, do you think the practice of educational consultancy needs to be regulated more closely the way migration services are?

Absolutely. When someone is being paid for a service they are providing, governments monitor them, and the public have the right to demand for them to be monitored.

In a recent opinion piece published on a popular Nepali-language website called “Setopati”, you indicated that the rising number of stories about broken Australian dreams is the result of “incomplete” or “wrong” information that unscrupulous educational consultants provide to would-be international students. There surely has to be some form of legal remedy for students that are willfully misled by crooked operators? Does your organisation, NAV, have anything in the pipeline to address this nasty aspect of the education industry?

Well, I wrote that article because I thought I should bring the information I had out to the public. I spoke to some consultants about the adequacy (or inadequacy) of information being provided to prospective international students back in Nepal. They agree that youths in Nepal should be made aware of the real situation here in Australia. And, it is not only limited to Nepali students. The exposure of what was happening in Seven Eleven has opened a Pandora’s Box and it us up to the Australian Government to take the lead on it.

(http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/international-students-exploited/7472384)

What organizations like NAV and NRNA (I believe more so NRNA) can do is to help increase awareness in Nepal, among parents and students alike, about the real situation, and urge them to be mentally and financially prepared while coming to Australia as international students. NAV has done some basic capacity-building activities for students and new migrants in Victoria and we will continue to do so in the days to come. To properly address this issue, however, there needs to be a wider involvement of organizations and educational consultancies.

Based on your practice, would you agree that a growing number of international students are now in danger of developing serious mental health issues as a result of chronic financial hardship? If so, what sort of consequences do you think it will create on the diaspora in particular and the country’s workforce in general?

It is hard to generalize some examples I have encountered. However, it is also true that many are suffering in silence. It is possible that some of the bad news we have heard every now and then, has links with the students finding themselves stuck helplessly as a result of the decision they made to come to Australia. On the other hand, there are far too many things at stake for them to return to Nepal. This group feels vulnerable and finds itself at the bottom end of the power differential.

Students are often reported to be working under appalling un-Australian work conditions, illegal pay rates most importantly (some reportedly under $10 an hour). Why do you think Nepalese and Indian students do not report their exploitation to the right authorities such as Fair Work Ombudsman? Do organisations like NAV, NRNA and Nepalese/Indian students associations need to do more to encourage exploited students to come out and name and shame the businesses that exploit them?

Again, as I said before, it is not only Nepali and Indian students. The issue comes down to how desperate someone is. There are employers who do the right things. And there are some who exploit the vulnerable students. Some educational consultants have advised me that students should bring money for at least a year so that they can survive and explore and adapt with the new environment, build contacts and at the same time keep looking for the right work that suits them. Of course some students find work sooner than the others. If you are under a lot of pressure and too desperate, you become vulnerable or exploitable. Preparedness should commence from within Nepal itself.

The issue of reporting underpayment and exploitation is a big issue which should be discussed separately.

I do not think NAV or NRNA can “name and shame” businesses that underpay. That is beyond our role and we will land up in complex legal situation if we go outside what we legally can do. However, community organisations should discuss within themselves about  liaising with associations of educational consultants and government authorities in Nepal as well in Australia to discuss these issues.

As my article on Setopati was about ensuring proper information is provided to students (in order to help them make informed choice), I propose the following:

  1. Students, their guardians (when applicable) and educational consultants to sign a document detailing situations and challenges in Australia, as part of initial signing up and before they pay any consultation fee. Such document needs to be updated as necessary. This document should state, at least, the average cost of living, insurance matters – that it is the responsibility of the student, that it is their role to find accommodation, that it is totally up to them to find a job, and that they will be competing with students like them and that it may take several months. Such document should be country-specific and developed in consultation with the relevant stakeholders. There should be a bigger role of embassies, as, after all, they are there to safeguard the interest of Nepal and Nepalis abroad.
  2. Ensuring pre-departure counseling is practiced universally. This should involve the health system, taxation and work-cover, in addition to the above and further detailed discussion on the matters that were part of the initial contract as above.
  3. Regulatory authority or a big organisation like NRNA to develop an internet-based anonymous reporting system to capture current trend of misleading or inadequate information. While some complaints gathered in this manner could be malicious, this still would capture the current trend on the quality of information students receive. This may not have any legal value to persecute the wrongdoers, however an analysis of the current trend of complaints will assist planning further.

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